Compared to the average person, I used to be a slightly-below-average phone user. According to comScore, the average American spends just under three-hours a day on their phone. Anecdotally, to think the numbers in Asia are any lower would be wilful denial.

I performed a phone-test and found I usually spent between two-and-a-half and three hours a day on my phone. It was a shocking realisation for a kid who grew up with four television channels, had video games banned from the house and lived in a rural area with poor internet infrastructure. I was, frankly, a bit ashamed of myself.

Yet, after I got over my pride and ego, I realised the numbers made sense and that it contributed a decrease in my overall quality of life. When I was tired, stressed or sad and I felt that little bzzzz in my pocket, it would feel like another boulder on top of the mountain of pressure already on my shoulders.

In hindsight, the worst part about it was I convinced myself I needed my phone in order to do my job. A reporter needs to be accessible, so I had to have my emails, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and WeChat open all the time so I could respond to requests in the moment.

I also used my phone to read the newspaper, check-in on social media and keep up with my sports. That very quickly adds up to three hours of phone time.

I remember moments when my brain was moving so fast it felt unsustainable. Then, thankfully, I stumbled upon boredom.

Unlocking boredom

The shift towards realising my phone usage was a problem was sort of random.

I was listening to a podcast (a use of my phone I will never sacrifice) and a social scientist was talking about the value of boredom, and that because we use our phones to instantaneously escape boredom, we are actually harming our creativity.

The theory goes like this: Our brain hates being bored almost more than anything. Anger, grief or envy are negative feelings, but at least they are interesting. Boredom is such a terrible experience that the brain begins to think of escape plans, it does anything it can to liberate itself from the chains of tedium.

This process creates profoundly creative moments. Think about kids, a lot of their most interesting moments start with 30 minutes of intense boredom before they eventually find an epic adventure to distract themselves.

Our phones provide an instant escape from this boredom. Any twinge of monotony ends with our fingers liking a Facebook friend’s picture. Our unwillingness to confront boredom results in a less creative brain, which hurts our ability create interesting work.

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At the end of the podcast, the guest advertised a programme she was running in conjunction with an app named Moment. I was intrigued, so I decided to give it a shot.

How Moment helped break my phone-use habits

Moment is an app that tracks a person’s screen time, the number of times they pick-up the phone and how long they ‘sleep’ (AKA not checking the phone for a significant time before bed). The app adds a lot of features to make the tracking process fun and challenging.

It implements a “no phone hour”, which can be kind of annoying if something important comes up and the app starts belting an alarm. But, overall, it is a nice reminder to avoid the phone for a chunk of time.

Moment also sends gentle reminders for every 15 minutes of phone-time. This helps provide a mental check and make phone usage more conscious. It also tracks numbers over the day, week and quarter so users can see their trends.

Most importantly is the two coaching classes. One is called ‘Bored and Brilliant’, the class the radio guest was referencing. The other is called ‘Phone bootcamp’ and it comes with the premium account that costs US$3.99.

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The surprise for myself was learning that breaking a phone habit requires a different mindset than, say, losing weight.

The most successful strategy for long-term weight loss is to start eating healthier, exercise more and sleep better. Its better to lose 5kg over one year than 5kg in a month. Crash diets work, but usually after the diet the person binges and gains back all the weight they lost. If someone loses 5kg due to a habit shift, that new weight just becomes their normal.

Breaking a phone habit is different. It is binge dieting, except (at least in my personal experience), I found the adjustments I made were permanent. The process is more akin to quitting cigarettes cold turkey, without the addictive chemicals so it is easier.

One of the tricks I learned during the bootcamp was to reorganise my phone so that only 12 apps are on the home screen, then the second screen has one folder called ‘time wasters’ that hosts all the other apps.

It dramatically decreases the phenomenon of picking up the phone only to forget the reason. If it’s important, it will be right there on the home screen; if not, no big deal, but because the app is in the ‘time-wasters’ folder it feels more like recreation.

Other bootcamp days include leaving the phone in the kitchen overnight, setting a firm cut-off hour at night and not taking a photo for a day.

The first week or two are tough, but also sort of fun. After about two weeks, it becomes a permanent habit shift and I began to realise my phone was spending a lot more time in my pocket than in my hand.

Then the cool stuff started to happen. I started to realise I wasn’t actually missing out on anything. I would go three, four, five hours without touching my phone, pick it up and if I did miss a message or two they were never overly urgent.

I took the next step (prompted by Moment) of deleting my Facebook, Messenger, WeChat and Twitter apps. I also turned off notifications for Snapchat, Instagram and most of my news apps. The only notifications I get are from the New York Times, emails and WhatsApp.

Deleting Facebook was the big deal. I now only access the site on my desktop. When I leave my home or office, that means no more Facebook.  Usually, the next time I login I realise I have missed absolutely nothing important and that if I stopped checking for weeks I would equally miss nothing important.

After about a month, I have dropped my phone usage from about 3 hours to around 1 hour per day. My average phone pickups is now about 27 times per day and my phone ‘sleeps’ for over 11 hours per day.

Those numbers are just betraying a shift in how I use my phone. I don’t really plan on lowering my screen time below one hour — I need WhatsApp, I enjoy reading the newspaper during my commute and I am a fan on Instagram and Snapchat.

But instead of becoming an attachment to my life, my phone has (Finally!) become a tool I use and now it stays silent for the vast majority of the day.

This has lead to real results in my personal life.

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Over the past few months, I have noticed my overall mood is fairly content. Any problems in my life are just that, problems, and not existential threats to my existence.

The interesting part is nothing overly important has changed over the past 6-9 months. The only change I have made is my relationship with my phone.

Maybe it isn’t a silver bullet for solving the ups and downs of life, but I genuinely think Moment has helped turn peaks and valleys into hills and plains.

For myself, Moment helped me push back against my smartphone, and now I believe I have found a healthy relationship with the little bugger.

Obviously, I highly recommend the Moment app.


Copyright: TEA / 123RF Stock Photo