Over the past decade, use of mobile phones has increased beyond imagination. It doesn’t seem so long ago that phones were for making calls and sending texts. These days they have become tools for running our lives – diaries, health apps, taking notes, making videos, taking pictures, even making payments and storing travel cards – wherever we are and whenever we want. In short, for many of us, mobile phones have become central to how we manage our lives.
I’m not here to say that mobile phones are evil and we shouldn’t be using them. Far from it! Personally I rely on my phone for all of the things mentioned above, and I frequently recommend phone apps that people can use to help to bring mindfulness into their everyday lives. You’re probably even reading this article on your mobile phone – the irony isn’t lost on me. No, I’m not here to condemn phones, but I’m here to ask you to check in with yourself and see how purposeful your use of your phone is.
Mobile phones are designed to notify us of everything – our appointments, things we need to remember, who wants to contact us and who has posted on their social media. This can be enormously helpful, as it means that we don’t need to use valuable brain space to remember these things, we can trust that our phone will tell us what we need to know, when we need to know it. However, this handing over of responsibility for ‘paying attention’ to life, can leave us open to our attention – and therefore our energy – being taken over by other people, at their convenience. At the very least, it can mean that we unintentionally give attention to things simply because they pop up on our phone, not because we mean to.
Consider these examples:
- It’s Sunday evening and you’re sitting on the sofa. Your mobile phone, which receives your work emails, goes ping. You notice an email from your boss, who is doing a bit of work at home to catch up before their week starts. Suddenly you feel that you should read the email. Perhaps it’s important? If they are working at the weekend, should you be working too and answer their message? Maybe the email is about a current stressful project, and even just knowing it is going to be there waiting for you in your Inbox is enough to trigger those panicky feelings.
- You wake up in the morning when the alarm on your phone goes off. Opening your phone to switch off the alarm, you quickly click on the email app. Then onto your social media app. Then a quick check of the news. Before you know it, you’re sleepy brain has gone from just waking up only moments ago, to being in full-on information-receive mode, probably with a few adverts thrown in for good measure. You feel alert but on edge already and your mind is whirring.
- You are just about to go out and you can’t find your phone. It’s only a quick trip to the local shop, so you’re unlikely to need directions, or to call anyone, but the thought of leaving the house without the phone makes you feel anxious. What if something happens whilst I’m out? What if I need to contact someone?
If these or similar situations sound familiar to you, then perhaps you could consider changing your relationship with your phone. Putting boundaries in place around your phone use can help to keep the phone in its rightful place as a useful tool, rather than allowing it to take over your brain, and your associated stress responses.
Putting boundaries in place around your phone use can help to keep the phone in its rightful place as a useful tool, rather than allowing it to take over your brain, and your associated stress responses.
If you feel as if your brain is often hijacked by your phone, why not try some of these ideas to challenge your habitual phone interactions:
1) Rearrange your Home Screen apps
This may sound odd, but our brain creates habits of the usual apps we click on. This can mean we get sucked into mindless information seeking, even when we have just picked up the phone to turn off the alarm (for example). Try changing around where your apps are located on the screen, perhaps even adding in another screen or folder to click on. This disruption of habit will force your brain out of autopilot and give you the opportunity to notice before you engage in the mindless slide into your newsfeed.
2) Be intentional about your phone use
When you pick up your phone today, can you take a few moments to tell yourself what you intend to do on the phone. Why did you pick it up? What do you need to do? Be clear which app you need to access and try to keep your attention on that purpose. Your mind will be distracted by other notifications or images appearing, but see if you can stay true to the reason why you picked up the phone to use it, and only that. If your intention was to check your social media, that’s fine, but give yourself a time limit so that you don’t get sucked into an endless scroll.
3) Notice when you are distracting yourself
Our minds are like toddlers, demanding entertainment in every waking moment, and oblivious to the negative impact that constant stimulation can have. Our phones are the perfect answer for this need. You only need to look around you in a Waiting Room or at a bus stop to know that most of us dive into our phones during moments of boredom or discomfort. Pay attention to when you are using your phone to distract yourself, rather than for a specific purpose. Instead notice how that boredom or discomfort feels. See if you can do something that you would normally do accompanied by something on your phone, and do without – even for a few minutes. Learning not to seek distraction from difficulty is a valuable skill for dealing with life’s challenges. Believe it or not, the training to develop this skill may start with sitting in a quiet waiting room without using your phone.
4) Make use of the built-in tools
Most phones come with restrictions that you can set yourself. You can limit the overall amount of screen-time; restrict the times of day that certain apps can be used, and even set time limits on specific apps. Get to know what your phone can do and try making a few changes. Simply creating boundaries that restrict app use until a certain time in the morning or after a certain time at night could help you to make a calmer start or finish to the day. If you want to limit the time you spend on social media each day, set usage limits.
I’m not suggesting that you have to do all these things at once, or even that these are the only way to change your relationship with your phone. I offer these suggestions as ways to help you to bring your full attention to how you use your phone and to become aware that you have the choice about how you use it and how it makes you feel as a result.
Our mobile phones can be vital, helpful, fun and supportive, but they are tools and, like all tools, they need to be used with caution. By all means click, scroll, read, type and create to your heart’s content – just do it because you’ve chosen to, not because an app or another person simply wants your attention.