If communication is a concept, then a smartphone is a detail to that concept. I wouldn’t usually write about details because they come and go. You can replace a detail with something else to achieve the same purpose. That’s why talking about details doesn’t provide a good kind of sustainability—you can get rid of it one day, and your accumulated knowledge on it stops being useful.
However, smartphones became so much more than a simple detail: They became our lives. They’re unfortunately not easily replaceable. After the first iPhone was released 14 years ago in 2007, there is still no downwards trend. People still use it daily while spending even more time on it. A survey on time spent on smartphones worldwide in 20171 shows that only 4% of the users put in less than an hour on their smartphones. While a staggering 76% spend three or more hours daily, some 26%’s usage exceeds seven hours every day which is equal to CDC’s recommendation for sleep time per night2.
Still, why am I writing about smartphones? They have been around since the 90s3, although the wider usage came with more innovative models like Blackberry and iPhone. The founder of the IxDF, Mads Soegaard, once told me that if something has been around for X years, you can expect it to be there for another X years4. This adage is double-fold helpful with products or concepts that are still on the rise. I don’t expect the smartphones to go away for at least the next 14 years if we take the first iPhone release as the starting point, and that’s a good enough time to make this writing sustainable.
Artist: Gülfemin Buğu Tekcan — cosmodotart
There is a problem with smartphone usage—at least for anyone who’s not deliberately putting so much time using it every day. If you spend more time on your phone than you want to invest, you steal time from your other priorities. On top of that, the nature of smartphone usage does not fit into an extended period. Instead, the use is scattered between many smaller blocks of time. Having tiny but many usage blocks creates another problem called distraction which destroys your focus on whatever else you were doing and forces you to spend more time to regain that focus after you put the phone away.
If you want to change your behavior, though, there is one good news: A study on smartphone usage made in 2018 investigated the question of whether we can talk about an addiction5 here. Results say that there is no sufficient support for addiction-level severity but only for problematic usage. Yet again, established habits might be leveraging this maladaptive usage. I see too many people grabbing their phones as soon as they have nothing to do at a specific moment. I even experience this in a social setup like in a friendly gathering, for example. Instead of having quality conversations, we glue our faces to screens in search of instant gratification. I complained about this in an article6 I published three years ago, although my personal experience predates to at least ten years:
[…] when socializing with friends, I go mad when someone picks up their phone from their pocket and start swiping through Instagram while I’m talking. Even if we’re not talking at the moment, I just stare at my friends if they are responding someone on WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger. I’m a bit too fed up on this. I know the conversation is not boring — it just became a habit for everyone. They don’t want to spend time doing nothing and as soon as they start doing nothing (e.g., my sentence is just finished), they turn to their phones.
There are several ways to manage this maladaptive smartphone use. As perhaps with everything, the first step is to be aware of the problem. Notifications like Screen Time showing how much you have used your iPhone in the past week are indeed helpful, but they don’t provide you a call-to-action. If you want to control it, you need to take action:
Work on breaking the habit. That won’t eliminate all of the problematic usages, but you can shift your behavior so that you don’t grab your phone whenever you don’t have anything else to do. If you need some help to break your habit, you can read my post on Habits.
Put some physical distance between you and your phone. Leaving it somewhere far from your arm’s reach would create additional steps for you to get it. Sometimes this little friction can create wonders because even though you want to open that social media application, you don’t want it enough to take it from the other room. Besides, according to a study published in the University of Chicago Press Journals7, being in the same room with your smartphone decreases your cognitive ability when performing a task. Even if you don’t see your phone, knowing that it’s in your pocket reduces your ability to focus.
Don’t get notified. Notifications are major distractors. Even if you succeed in not checking your phone out of habit, a notification can still trigger you to grab your phone. You may want to check your notification if it interests you, or you may want to clear it as if it was a to-do item. Either way, the notification will pull you out of what you’re doing at that moment.
Bonus: Organize your screen. After all, I’m not suggesting that you should not use a smartphone. They’re great enablers in so many good areas. The problem comes with the extended and possible unnecessary usage. I only have a couple of app icons on my main screen: Audible to listen to books when I’m out walking my dog or Babbel to learn German. These apps generally need you to invest at least 10 minutes to get meaningful output. That’s why you don’t easily open them when looking to get some instant gratification. I put all other apps like Twitter or Instagram out of my main screen into App Library8—thus limiting my chance to open them unintentionally.
Do you have problems with your smartphone usage? If so, what are you doing to reduce its harmful effect? Let me know in the comments.
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Mads Soegaard is my former boss. I value the conversations I had with him. Although you could always expect a generic theory or thinking available for the things he said, I couldn’t pinpoint his adage mentioned above to specific terminology. Yet.
Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity by Adrian F. Ward, Kristen Duke, Ayelet Gneezy, and Maarten W. Bos
App Library is an iOS feature listing all applications you have on your phone. If an app icon is not present on your main screen, you can still find it in the library. The benefit here is that it stays away from your eyes, so you don’t accidentally open the app.