Table of Contents
- Keep your Phone Far
- Track your Screen Time
- Disable Notifications
- Use a Worse Phone
- Delete your Apps
- Switch Browsers
- Delete Social Media Accounts
- Batch Consumption
Like many, I once used my phone quite often. Too often.
At some point, my usage started feeling out of control and impulsive. I’d pull out my phone in public, like waiting in line or walking past a stranger. I’d read through Hacker News and The New York Times both when waking up and before bed. When I felt bored, I’d find something to distract me. Sometimes, it would be Instagram Reels (Instagram’s version of TikTok), which would often absorb an hour of my day. At my worst, I would compulsively open up random apps and check if there was anything new. Slack, Discord, Email, whatever.
I view technology like phones and laptops as a tool — something to help me out. I don’t want them to rule my life, even if computing is a significant part of my day-to-day life. I wanted to make my interaction with my phone more intentional.
I don’t think getting the raw number of hours down is super important, as long as my interaction and relationship with my phone is intentional usage rather than compulsive. I want to be more thoughtful about how I use my time and interact with others. I want to replace shallow interaction on social media with more meaningful, intentional time spent with those I care about.
In 2020 and 2021, my screen time increased to around 3 hours daily. At some point, I decided that I wanted to use my phone less, so I started taking small steps towards that goal. I wrote this to share what worked for me so others could take away some ideas.
This post is centered around iPhones since that’s what I have. That’s important to note since both platforms have different features and capabilities. Android has similar features, so most steps should have loose equivalents.
Please also note that I took the below steps over about two years. It would be very hard to do everything all at once. I’ve organized the actions in order so that the most approachable steps are first and the more extreme ones last.
Keep your Phone Far
I used to keep my phone right at my bedside at night.
Since my phone was by my bed, I would use it every day in the morning and at night. This would easily eat up an hour of my day. During the day, I kept my phone on my desk or somewhere near me. This meant it was effortless to quickly check things or be sucked in because it was too easy to access.
At night, I moved my phone charger from my nightstand to another room in my house. This meant that using my phone at night and in the morning would require much more effort. And, as a bonus, it meant I had to get out of bed to turn off my phone alarm, making it much less likely that I snooze the alarm and fall back asleep.
This step represents a general concept that’ll be repeated, making using your phone harder and requiring more thought. The more effort it takes, the less you will use it. Ideally, at least for me, I’ll only be using my phone when it’s genuinely beneficial for me.
Track your Screen Time
If you don’t already have it enabled, you should turn on Screen Time. This will allow you to track your phone usage and determine what works for you. Additionally, you can set time limits for specific apps.
For example, if you use some apps more than you would like, you can give yourself a daily time limit. When you reach your time limit, iOS will notify you. You’ll be given the choice to exit the app or override the time limit.
I would always override the limit, so I configured iOS to require a PIN to override the time limit. I quickly adapted to just typing in the PIN from memory, so I eventually used a random PIN that I didn’t know and stored it somewhere. I kept my PIN in 1Password, although you could use Notes or scribble it on paper and put it in your phone case.
Notifications are the antithesis of what technology should be. Your phone should not be telling you when to look at it — looking at your phone should be your choice.
Sometimes, notifications are more helpful than harmful, like receiving phone calls or text messages. I recommend turning off all notifications on your phone, including text messages.
Use a Worse Phone
Phones are enticing, which makes you want to use them. By making your phone less pleasant to use, you’ll want to use it less. The easiest thing you can do is use an older phone. Don’t upgrade to the latest iPhone; keep the one you have now until it breaks or no longer receives software updates.
Aside from that, you can configure your iPhone to be in grayscale. I also enabled a shortcut to toggle between grayscale and color whenever I triple-clicked the power button to properly view things like photos sent to me.
It was incredible how much this helped me. I’d open up Facebook or Instagram and wouldn’t end up scrolling for 20-30 minutes.
Lastly, I configured my iPhone to be less bright. You can reduce the white point so that your screen is less bright, independently of the brightness slider. This made the phone very hard to use outdoors, meaning I no longer would pull out my phone when walking past strangers or doing some outdoor social activity.
Delete your Apps
Having an app on your phone for every service you use is easy. Things like social media, email, finances. Many of these apps are pretty convenient to have. That convenience makes it very easy to get sucked into those apps. Ask yourself if you really need these apps on your phone or if you could rely on some other device like your laptop.
For instance, I had a bunch of apps that I didn’t need on my phone:
- Social Media (Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Discord)
- Finance (Budgeting, Bank apps, Robinhood)
- Messaging (Telegram, Facebook Messenger)
I deleted all of the above and now rely on the web equivalents. You don’t necessarily need to delete everything all at once. Start with just a few apps and slowly pare down what’s on your phone.
Deleting messaging apps is probably the most challenging part of this. You’ll have to let your friends know that you no longer have that app on your phone and that you should be reached through text (or your messaging app of choice) instead.
Eventually, I ended up without distracting apps on my phone, but unfortunately, I still had a web browser. After deleting Facebook and Instagram, I started using the web versions on my phone. I opened those sites way more often than I would’ve liked.
iOS doesn’t allow you to delete the Safari browser, meaning there’s no way to stop yourself from using the web on your iPhone. The next best thing is to use a web browser that’s harder to use. I switched my default browser from Safari to Firefox Focus. Firefox Focus doesn’t have the concept of tabs — you can only have one site open at a time. It also doesn’t store history, bookmarks, cookies, or anything else, meaning you must type in whatever site you want to go to and log in every time. This made it much harder to use Instagram and Facebook, so I went there less often.
Of course, I still had Safari installed, so I could always open that up, but I never found myself doing that, so I consider that a win.
Delete Social Media Accounts
This is hard, and I don’t expect most to do it. For me, it made a lot of sense. Even after deleting apps from my phone, I scrolled through Facebook, LinkedIn, Reddit, etc. on my laptop. I didn’t feel like I was getting much value from that behavior, so I deleted my accounts.
Facebook is nice for staying in touch with others, especially those who live further away or whom I don’t talk to often. I decided that, for me, these connections were not as meaningful. If I want to stay in contact with someone (or vice-versa), we will find a way. People communicated before Facebook and other social media, so if we care about each other, it will happen even if it does require more effort.
I’m still experimenting with what to do for news.
I didn’t want to be disconnected from the world, so I subscribed to the New York Times and read Hacker News frequently.
I generally read the New York Times website once or twice a day for the news. That was a big time sink without any clear value added to my life. I decided to try reading a physical newspaper by getting the Sunday edition delivered to my house. That reduced my screen time, but it still wasn’t adding value and was an even bigger time sink because of how big the paper was. I would spend hours on Sundays reading about things that didn’t impact me.
My latest attempt is a subscription to Delayed Gratification, a magazine published four times a year with news from the last quarter. Ideally, this means I read the news only a few days each year, and the stories I read are of higher quality and importance.
I’ve found a lot of value in Hacker News. I’ve learned so much from the site; I could not give it up without a negative impact. At first, I enabled the
noprocrast feature, which did help, but I felt I could do better. For a time, I used the hckr news site to view only the most important stories every day. I was still checking that site too much, so I moved over to Hacker Newsletter.
With the steps above, over two years, I’ve reduced my daily screen time from its peak of about 3 hours to about 15-20 minutes. This varies based on a few factors, like my mental health. Generally, the more I use my phone, the worse I am. It indicates that I’m bored or trying to fill time. There are some exceptions to this, like when I’m intentionally reading some long-form piece on my phone, which I do from time to time.
I hope these steps were helpful and can serve as a starting point for those looking to have a more intentional relationship with technology. Please reach out to me if you’d like to discuss anything!