Notes from a Floating Life Thoughts about productivity, digital living, and leading a simpler life

Escaping the Tyranny of Your Phone

A phone

Ever since the mobile phone became a must-have item for just about everyone, people have had a hard time separating themselves from their phones. In the early days, phones would be clipped to belts, inside purses and clutches, and even hanging by straps from wrists.

People would wait for an annoying ringtone or a buzz that indicated a text message has arrived. Or, they’d be hunched over their phones, typing away with their thumbs. Those phones would be on at all hours of the day or night.

Things have become worse thanks to the rise and ubiquity of the smartphone. We’ve seem to come under the thrall of the four-, five-, or six-inch screens we carry with us constantly. They’re always on, never too far out of reach. We attend them as if we’re going to let the secrets of the universe slip through our fingers if we don’t have our devices nearby.

OK, I exaggerate. There is some truth to all that. We’ve become addicted to our phones. They’ve become tyrants, despots demanding our constant attention. They’re a distraction, a time sink, and a tool for sapping your productivity.

It doesn’t need to be that way. Here are some tips for escaping the tyranny of your phone.

Set Times During the Day to Check Your Phone

You hear a buzz or a ping, like a plaintive cry from your phone. Your reaction? You probably grab your phone and check the incoming text, update, or instant message. Don’t be ashamed. You’re not alone in doing that. It’s easy to get into the habit of jumping the moment your phone tells you to jump.

Why not set specific times of the day when you can check your phone? Start off with one- or two-hour intervals. Then, expand that to three or four hour intervals (if you can get away with it).

Sure, updates and messages will pile up. I doubt that many, if any, of them will be urgent or life changing. A lot of it will be trivia and ephemera. You should be able to quickly skim through the messages that have accumulated and then get back to doing what you should be doing.

Turn Off Notifications

There’s nothing worse than the buzz of an incoming instant message, a new tweet or Facebook status update, or posting to Google+. I’ve been involved in conversations that have been constantly interrupted by that buzz, and by the person I was talking to checking that notification.

So why not get rid of the buzz altogether? Go into the settings for whatever apps you’re using and turn off the notifications. I’d suggest keeping calendar notifications on. But shut them off for Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Instagram, and even your email.

The Power Button Is Your Friend

A few years ago, I was sitting at the lunch table with a group of attendees at a conference I was speaking at. Every couple of minutes, someone at the table was checking their phone, interrupting the flow of the conversations at the table. Someone jokingly said that there’s probably a market for a software solution to this problem. I chimed in, saying There’s a hardware solution: the power button.

Don’t be afraid to turn your phone off. Not just at the end of the day, but at selected intervals during the day.

Turning off your phone not only takes away stress, it also takes away the urge to pick up your phone and fiddle with it.

Turn Off Data and Wifi

What if you can’t turn off your phone or are just having a hard time ignoring notifications? I’ve found an effective way to deal with that problem: turn off your data and wifi. You can still receive phone calls and text messages, but everything else will go silent. Then, at specified intervals during the day, turn one or both back on to check whatever messages and updates have come in.

You don’t need to go into your phone’s settings to turn off data and wifi. Check the app store for your phone. There’s probably an app or a widget that you can put on a home screen to make things easier. For Android-powered phones, for example, you can use Data OnOff and Wifi OnOff. I know people who swear by these widgets.

Trade Down to a Feature Phone

That’s a bit extreme, I know. It’s also a good way to escape that worst aspects of your smartphone.

Trading down to a feature phone isn’t for everyone. You need to ask yourself do I really need a smartphone? Be honest. Be brutal. If the answer is Yes, then give it a try for two weeks. You never know what might happen.

Remember that you control your phone. It doesn’t control you. At least, it shouldn’t. It’ll take time for you to wrest that control back from your phone. The time and effort spent doing that will be worth it.

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