I spend most days staring at a medium-sized rectangle—this is called “working.” The problem: another, smaller rectangle keeps taking up more and more of my attention.
I’m talking about my phone, of course, and it’s regularly the thing that stops me from doing deep work. But this goes beyond my job: My phone also distracts me from my family and the rest of my life. The amount of time I spend looking at the small rectangle has gone up every year, as has the number of times I feel compelled to pick it up every day.
I wanted to change my relationship with my phone—to look at it less and live life more. It wasn’t easy. I’ve tried all sorts of tricks over the years. Here’s what didn’t work—and what ultimately did.
Willpower doesn’t work
The first thing I tried was good old-fashioned willpower. This . . . doesn’t work. At all.
Maybe it will be different for you. Maybe you’ve got nerves of steel and an infinite supply of moral fiber. I do not. For me, anything that starts with “I’ll just try harder to . . .” just ultimately doesn’t happen.
I’ve felt bad about this over the years, but I don’t think I should. Some of the smartest people on earth are working, full time, to make the applications and websites on my phone as habit-forming as possible. Trying to use my willpower to fight against that is like bringing a Celine Dion album to a breakdancing competition. It just isn’t up for the task.
Literally bricking my phone didn’t work
A few years ago, I tried “bricking my phone” by attaching it to a brick-sized block of wood. I will admit: this was effective at reducing my usage, especially during the workday. I’m less likely to pick up my phone if doing so constitutes a full-body workout.
It’s really inconvenient, which made it effective. The problem: It’s really inconvenient.
Sometimes, when I’m not working, I like to go somewhere called “outside,” and it’s useful to have access to my phone then. This means I would inevitably take my phone off the brick, which means I would have an unbricked phone when I got back, which means I was looking at it again.
A few other things that helped but didn’t solve it
A few things I tried over the years helped, but they didn’t solve the problem. They are:
Switching my phone to grayscale. This made my phone less appealing to look at, which helped me do so less often. App designers know how powerful color can be to get you to tap something, and this takes away that ability entirely. It doesn’t stop me from picking up my phone, though.
Turning off Wi-Fi at night. I plugged my router into a physical timer that turned off every night, from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. It certainly stopped me from slipping into gaming or streaming at night, but the cellular data was always there as a workaround.
Deleting distracting apps. I don’t need to look at Twitter or Facebook on my phone, so I deleted Twitter and Facebook from my phone. The problem: I could still open them with my browser.
What finally solved the problem: Blocking my browser
Like I said: deleting distracting apps only went so far because I could always use my web browser to access them. And actually, my web browser was the most compelling app on my phone. So I blocked it.
That’s right: I can’t use a browser on my phone anymore. It’s wonderful.
I did this using the parental controls on my iPhone. I blocked the browser entirely and only my wife knows the password to open it. The social aspect is key here: The hassle and embarrassment of asking her for that password are enough to keep me off my browser, and as such, off my phone.
Do I think everyone should do this? No. But it’s ultimately what worked for me, and I feel a lot freer to focus now. It’s made my work life, and my family life, better. I encourage you to also think about your relationship with technology—and where you judge it worthwhile, take back control.