Combatting Smartphone Addiction
📱

Combatting Smartphone Addiction

Category
Productivity
Publish Date
Sep 18, 2021
Status
Published
Tags
Also known as: "How to get yourself 50 extra hours of time each month!"
Note: this is an amalgamation of a three-part story I wrote back in 2019. While WeAchieve no longer exists to set goals and track your progress in reducing screentime, plenty of other tools are out there!
With the release of iOS 12 a couple years ago, Apple now shares the time spent on your phone daily. For anyone who worries a bit about their phone usage and wants to reduce it, this is a huge boon. Saying, “yeah, I’m addicted to my phone” and saying “yeah, I picked up my phone 114 times and used it for a total of 3 hours and 27 minutes.” And yes, those numbers are real — that was my day upon seeing the screen time feature debut a week ago.
Having easy access to this data is great, and Apple also provides some tools for managing that, letting you browse the data and set limits by app. But for most people, setting limits is a non-starter. Perhaps it is human psychology, but creating artificial limits on oneself feels unnatural. And even if you do set one up, it’s often just an annoyance you remove the first time it comes into play.
We are only beginning to understand the impact of smartphones on our psychology.
We are only beginning to understand the impact of smartphones on our psychology.
Indeed, though Apple is making this data available to you and though they give you ways to control it, many early reviewers note that this changes nothing as the limits become annoying and eventually are turned off. It will be interesting to see if Apple shares any details on how overall usage changes, but we’d expect it to drive very little long-term change in user behavior.
But the problem is that a lot of us should change our behaviors! The average smartphone user picks up their phone 47 times per day, uses it for almost 3 hours per day, and spends an 75 minutes per day on social media (source). Merge that with recent studies linking phone usage to depression and suicide attempts in teens (source), and we can say that it’s pretty likely that your phone usage is negatively impacting your life.
The reality is that reducing screen time (or any habit) takes willpower and self-control, and that these are skills that are developed over time and ones that technology can, if used correctly, help develop. As a creator of a platform designed to build that, I am quite excited to use WeAchieve to start to reduce my phone usage. I am using it fairly uninhibited for the first week in order to get a baseline of behavior.
My phone usage in hours over the first week of tracking, with the 3h 6m average noted in black
My phone usage in hours over the first week of tracking, with the 3h 6m average noted in black
 
So what does that look like? It isn’t pretty. For the first week, I averaged 3 hours and 5 minutes per day and 99 times picking up my phone (this would be about once every 10 minutes). Particularly distressing was the 66 minutes per day that I spent on Twitter. Yes, I am embarrassed by that. And no, no one is happy after spending time on Twitter.
How many times did I pick up my phone each day? Saturday topped out at 136, but was mostly due to excessive camera usage.
How many times did I pick up my phone each day? Saturday topped out at 136, but was mostly due to excessive camera usage.
 
So again, this data is great, and now we can at least say “well, I should probably spend less time on my phone, and less time on Twitter.” But goal-setting theory and common sense tells us that this isn’t going to change anyone’s behavior. Saying “well, I should do this addicting habit less,” has no way to define success and no real way to keep yourself accountable. Without a system in place that does both of these, the addicting system will win out and you will return to your past behaviors.
For the week, Twitter was a much bigger use/waste of time compared to other social media: Facebook and LinkedIn (graph shows total hours over past 7 days)
For the week, Twitter was a much bigger use/waste of time compared to other social media: Facebook and LinkedIn (graph shows total hours over past 7 days)
But we can use WeAchieve to create that counteracting force. While willpower will still be necessary, we can make sure that we’re properly incentivized and supported in exercising that. So I’m setting up four goals and each will run for the rest of the month. As you can see in the image below, they focus on each of the metrics that I am most embarrassed by: averaging less than 2.5 hours per day and less than 70 pickups, and also spending less than 30 mins on Twitter every day, as well as having one “No Twitter” day each week.
WeAchieve can be used to track many different kinds of goals so that the goals can be tailored specifically to what you want to do.
WeAchieve can be used to track many different kinds of goals so that the goals can be tailored specifically to what you want to do.
So that’s my plan to start! Note, these goals are fairly relaxed, and represent a ~20% reduction in phone use, which should be quite manageable. But like other bad habits, going easy at the start can “put one in the win column” and set yourself up for bigger gains later on, rather than setting an aggressive first step and failing miserably. Should this work, I can tweak the setup and/or make more aggressive goals in November and beyond.
Want to hear how it’s going? Subscribe and stay tuned for updates! Want to try it yourself? Apple has not yet made this data available in an API, but you can use WeAchieve’s iOS app or use us on the web, easily enter your data, and follow along!

Part 2

Last week, I quantified just how bad my phone addiction was: 3 hours and 5 minutes a day. One week later, here’s how that is changing…
If you didn’t take a look at last week’s update, it is up above. But the gist of the story is this: Apple released an update that reports daily screen time, I see that I use my phone 3 hours and 5 minutes per day and particularly Twitter for 1 hour and 6 minutes a day, and I decide that neither one of those is acceptable and set targets to reduce them!
We’ll start with the headline: daily screen time has dropped from 3 hours and 5 minutes down to 1 hour and 52 mins, a 40% reduction, and well under my goal of 2 hours and 30 mins per day:
Total phone screen time (in hours) by day over the past two weeks.
notion image
I’m even happier though with my Twitter reduction. I’ll let you figure out where the goals were put into place based on this chart:
notion image
In fact, my Twitter reduction was so successful that I decided to adjust my daily target from 30 mins to 20, with a plan to drop it to 15 minutes next week. This type of adjusted target is really helpful both to build in a gradual (and thus more feasible) plan for improvement, as well as to keep the difficulty level at a threshold where the goal is always relevant.
notion image
Lastly, total phone pickups. Before setting goals, I averaged 99 pickups per day. This translates to about once every 10 minutes, which is quite honestly appalling. This has been a tougher one to reduce, but I am currently averaging 65 pickups since the start (a 34% reduction, and now once every 15 mins) and am on track to reach my goal of keeping that under 70 per day for the rest of October.
My average daily phone pickups since setting the goals.
My average daily phone pickups since setting the goals.
This approach of tracking a target and quantifying progress is valuable because it is the only way to know whether or not you improve. Without that, we all run the risk of delusion: selling ourselves a story of improvement when none actually exists.
Stepping back from the numbers, I’ve found a lot of value so far in reducing my screen time. If nothing else, I at least ask myself “what am I using my phone for” before mindlessly swiping it open. I’m leaving it at my desk rather than at my bedside at night, and keep it out of sight during the workday. I can’t say for sure whether this all has made me “happier,” but the effects seem positive so far!
Where does this all end? I’m not sure. Obviously I don’t want to take my screen time to zero, but I’d like to reach a steady-state of phone usage that is probably still below where I am today. I think it’d be great to get that down to just one hour a day. I’ll also refine what measurements I care about: there are valuable things I do on the phone, and it seems silly to count time spent learning chess or learning a second language against my screen time totals. Also, given my minimal use of Facebook and LinkedIn, I probably don’t need to track those on their own and may use an aggregate “social networking” time instead.
Have you taken a look at your screen time with the new iOS update? Have a desire to reduce it? We’d love to hear from you! Let us know in the comments below.

Part 3: The Conclusion

How does using goals work as a tool to reduce over-reliance on smart phones? Pretty darn well based on my experiment. Here’s what happened:
Twitter: an interesting and addicting place.
Twitter: an interesting and addicting place.
As I had noted in the first part of this series, Apple’s iOS update at the beginning of the month began to reveal just how much time we all spend on our phones. After a week of using my phone as usual with this feature, the picture was not pretty:
  • Daily screen time: 3 hours and 6 minutes (this is actually very close to the national average)
  • Daily # of Pickups: 98 (~1 every 9 minutes)
  • Daily Twitter Time: 1 hour and 6 minutes
I set out to reduce those with four goals running through the end of October. Now that we’re there, what’s the result? Here’s what those same #’s looked like once the goals were put in place:

The Results

  • Daily screen time: 1 hour and 41 minutes (down 46% or 1 hour and 25 mins less per day!)
  • Daily # of Pickups: 67.7 (down 31% to ~1 every 14 minutes)
  • Daily Twitter Time: 8 mins per day(down 88% and almost an hour per day!)
I did this by being achieving each of the four goals that I set. Here’s each of those now that they’ve completed!
Of course, the social pressure that comes with writing about it also helped reach 5 stars across the board!
Of course, the social pressure that comes with writing about it also helped reach 5 stars across the board!
 

Takeaways

I was pretty happy overall with how each goal set the incentives for me. Twitter limits helped me be mindful of scrolling through there without a point, and total time limits helped me stay focused on actually doing things on my phone, rather than mindlessly wandering around looking for apps to entertain me.
Lastly, the pickup count goal helped me resist that initial temptation to pull up the phone. That was the toughest to meet, as it is such a quick reflex to grab the phone and swipe it open. Although it was the closest goal, having a 31% reduction was pretty good. Grabbing the phone once every 14 minutes still seems like a lot, but it’s something to build on.
Overall, the numbers suggest that I got 32 hours back over the 3.5 weeks using this goal. That seems substantial, but I can’t say that my life feels that much different as a result.
It has felt a bit easier recently to reduce my screen time a bit further; each day in the last week was under two hours.
It has felt a bit easier recently to reduce my screen time a bit further; each day in the last week was under two hours.
 
What does it feel like? I do feel like I’ve been a bit more productive, but it isn’t a dramatic shift. I feel a bit more inoculated to the outrage mobs of Twitter and the general mess of our current political environment. And I have certainly been a bit more aware of my surroundings and “present” to borrow a term from meditation terminology.
That all being said, I absolutely don’t feel any worse or feel like I’m missing out on anything. The hours cut out largely didn’t add anything to my life, and I still feel connected to everything that’s going on.

What’s Next:

Based on what I’ve learned, I’ve setup some long-term goals to help me continue to be aware and wary of screen time. Here they are:
notion image
One thing I did was to translate each goal into a weekly target. This allows more flexibility — I don’t have to worry about going over, say 15 mins of Twitter each day, but can adjust and compensate based on the needs of a day.
Each target is also a slight decline from where I am today. I do still feel like I can improve my life with further reductions in phone use, and so it’ll be a fun challenge to cut Twitter time slightly, reduce pickups by another 30%, and reduce total screen time by another ~15%.
Once I reach these targets, I’ll be saving myself almost 50 hours per month over the baseline that likely represents my past few years. Who knows what else all that time will bring with it, but I’m very glad to have it back!

An Epilogue - 3 years later

It is both fun and sad looking back through this now, as WeAchieve is no longer publicly available, and personally my phone usage has definitely slipped back to worse than initial levels! My past four weeks averaged 3 hours and 50 minutes of phone screentime per day!
Phones are simply too addictive, such that if you let your will lapse, it'll find a way to eat up more time. For better or worse, reducing screentime requires conscious willpower.
Seeing these numbers has inspired me to try again, and I'll likely make a quick Notion template to record my screentime and track progress in reducing it. For the sake of simplicity I will probably only track total screentime, but this story may get an update soon!