Declutter your digital world: Smartphone screen time

May 25, 2017

Over the last fortnight, I have taken control of two of my digital headaches: my heaving smartphone, and my similarly bulging inbox.

I used Marie Kondo’s teachings on tidiness to reclaim 20GB of storage on my smartphone, and Merlin Mann’s Inbox Zero principles to keep my emails in check for the first time in years. Since, I’ve been amazed by how easily the new regimes have bedded down; like all truly good life hacks, I’m frustrated I took so long to try them.

Deal with each email once, and only once

One of my colleagues noted that the principles behind Inbox Zero – that you open an email and immediately delete, delegate, respond, defer or do – is a concept she’s encountered before under a different guise: ‘Handle each piece of paper only once’. This time management mantra harks back to real in-trays, secretaries and fax machines, but its key teaching applies to digital missives too. I learned last week that by processing each email right away, not only was I dealing with my incoming mail more thoroughly, I was overall spending less time in my email.

I began to think about where else I could apply these life-changing revelations; where else might I benefit from being more decisive and lingering less? It didn’t take terribly long to identify what most distracts me from deep thinking and working efficiently: my newly streamlined but long-time time hog, my smartphone.

It’s a truth I can readily admit: I spend too much time on my phone. My definition of ‘too much’ is qualitative, but will ring true for many: I’ve missed countless bus stops and chunks of conversation because I’ve been absent-mindedly scanning Twitter. It’s an awful habit - one I’m sure Kondo and Mann would both roll their eyes at - and in my new role I need all the time I can find to think strategically as well as transactionally. So this week, I decided to tackle it.

How addicted to my smartphone was I really?

First things first, I was curious to get a measure on my smartphone addiction. Studies undertaken at Nottingham Trent University show that young adults dramatically underestimate their screen time, using their phones roughly twice as much as they think they have. Dr Sally Andrews, the psychologist leading the study, notes:

“The fact that we use our phones twice as many times as we think we do indicates that a lot of smartphone use seems to be habitual, automatic behaviours that we have no awareness of.”

And the mindless scrolling, waiting for trains and for the kettle to boil, surely adds up to a whole lot of mostly wasted time.

I downloaded an app called Moment, which tracks how much time you spend on your iPhone and iPad per day, and my results were truly terrifying. On some days I’d spent close to four hours on my iPhone, and whilst I use some functionality for work - dealing with email, using LinkedIn and a number of project management apps - the vast majority of time was spent on social media and news apps.

Having defined how many hours I was spending on my iPhone, I couldn’t help but think about how much I could accomplish if I clawed back some of that time; I could spend an hour a day learning piano! I could read all of the novels I’ve eschewed in favour of HR manuals! I could finally write that surrealist courtroom-based sitcom, Judge Mental! It was a seductive proposition, and called for desperate measures.

So how can I escape the lure of my smartphone?

I did some research on how to make your smartphone into a ‘dumbphone’, by turning off your notifications, wifi and data, although this felt labour intensive to me. I have experimented with turning my notifications off in the past, and often the result was checking my phone more, just in case the world had quietly ended. This wasn’t for me.

Instead, a friend of mine recommended an app called Flipd, which helps you spend less time on your phone by removing distractions. When activated, the app streamlines your phone so that the social media apps, games and features you don’t need are locked. You are still contactable by telephone, removing for me some of the anxiety of disconnecting myself entirely from my loved ones, but Instagram and WhatsApp are strictly blacklisted. I took a deep breath, and activated Flipd for an hour whilst I worked on a proposal for a client.

It was hard. I felt twitchy. Through sheer habit I kept my phone in my line of sight, in spite of its hibernation. I worried about the impression it would give my clients, colleagues and friends if I didn't immediately reply to their messages. I worried about what I’d do whilst waiting for the kettle to boil. I worried that my phone might never return to normal. I didn’t write a great deal of my proposal, in between all that worry.

Then, my hour was up. My phone returned to normal, and I rushed to check what I’d missed. And? Three emails, none of which required an urgent reply. Several WhatsApp messages about an event in August. Notifications on news feeds that were still news. The world hadn’t ended, quietly or otherwise. I’d not missed anything crucial, I hadn’t been fired, and I’d spared myself 17 disruptions over the course of an hour. Buoyed, I tried again, activating Flipd for another hour.

This time, I felt different. I put my phone in my pocket, and left it there. I made a cup of tea and enjoyed people-watching out of the window, instead of through Instagram. The knowledge that I couldn’t be disrupted made a big difference on my concentration; I could focus on my proposal without feeling responsible for anything else. It actually felt great.

The luxury of focusing on just one task

The experiment made me realise that uninterrupted time to focus on just one task - be it in the workplace, or in our personal lives - is a commodity we have almost full control over, but often don't allow ourselves. In the past I have stopped reading books I’ve been engrossed in, or slowed down to a walk when jogging, so I could respond to messages that didn’t require an immediate reaction. My own perception of how responsive I needed to be was just that: my own. Not only was no one upset that I hadn’t been on WhatsApp for two hours, I suspect no one had noticed.

Since, I’ve tried to use Flipd for two hours a day, and each day it’s become easier. In some ways, it’s become a retreat; giving myself permission to not worry about my inbox has felt wonderfully freeing. I’ve begun using Flipd when I start reading a book before bed, or when I’m walking home from the tube, and I’ve enjoyed those experiences more, too. The next step for me is learning to develop this focus without the help of an app, and I’m determined to. I have so much more time for hobbies - and for strategic thinking - when I stop treating my smartphone as master.

If you’d like help focusing your (screen) time more effectively, I’d love to hear from you. Just don’t expect an immediate response; I have that sitcom to write and my strategy to refine. 

Get in touch with Integrated Resources today to discover how else our coaching can help you perform better in the work place.

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