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I went through a week-long ‘phone cleanse.’ It was harder than I thought.

Trying to cut back on your phone use can be really, really hard. (iStock)
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My crash diet of the sum­mer had noth­ing to do with get­ting a beach body. It was a­bout trim­ming away one of my guil­ti­est pleas­ures: time with my phone.

There has been a lot of talk, in the form of protests to tech companies, television specials and articles, about how we all need to put our phones down more often. Americans check their phones an average once every 12 minutes, according to phone insurer Asurion, and researchers are starting to raise questions about whether that is good for our necks, our attention spans and our minds.

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Under pressure from their customers and shareholders, Apple and Google are working on tools that let us monitor how we use our phones. Other tech companies and nonprofits have also proposed programs to wean you off your electronic habits. One of those comes from Xfinity Mo­bile, which has a week-long phone “cleanse” craft­ed in the mod­el of a crash diet. You can start at any time and tack­le one tough chal­lenge per day.

I decided to try it myself, to see if I could curb my worst habits. Two of the challenges deal with time man­age­ment: a 24-hour no­ti­fi­ca­tion fast and a day when you only check your phone once per hour. Three deal with clut­ter: prun­ing back apps, clear­ing out old photos and videos and mak­ing a min­i­mal­ist home screen. Two deal with dis­en­gag­ing your­self from your screen: turning your phone to black-and-white for the day, and another where you sleep out of arm’s reach from the phone.

Hav­ing gone through the cleanse, I then start­ed to mon­i­tor how well the les­sons stuck. Here is what I found.

Strict time lim­its did not work: On a diet, you are es­sen­tial­ly in charge of your­self — you police what you eat, you block out the time to ex­er­cise for your­self. But a phone is a com­mu­ni­ca­tions de­vice, which means you also have the hard­er task of polic­ing the ac­tions of oth­ers.

That made the time-based chal­len­ges very dif­fi­cult for me. On Day 5 I had to com­mit to check­ing my phone only once per hour, to keep me fo­cused and dis­cour­age idle scroll­ing. In fact, it was al­most com­plete­ly in­ef­fec­tive and made my work­day al­most im­pos­si­ble. I was eith­er on egg­shells a­bout miss­ing some­thing all day or curs­ing my­self for not hav­ing the will­pow­er. I failed spec­tac­u­lar­ly.

The truth is I cannot ig­nore a mes­sage from my boss for 50 min­utes just be­cause I talked to her at the top of the hour. And there are al­ways some texts you need to an­swer right away — e.g., “What’s the plumb­er’s num­ber!?”

While my screen time is still un­dis­ci­plined post-cleanse, it did make me re­al­ize many noti­fi­ca­tions and mes­sages I get are not as ur­gent as I think. After all, one phone buzz I thought might be the vet’s di­ag­no­sis for our cat turned out, in­stead, to be an MLB no­ti­fi­ca­tion that some­one was tagged out at third base. The cleanse may not have helped me totally unplug, but did help me realize I should chill out.

NBA players know they’re addicted to their phones. Good luck getting them to unplug.

Cut­ting clut­ter is life-chan­ging: I do not want to go full Ma­rie Kon­do (the famous decluttering consultant) on you, but the most ef­fec­tive thing I picked up from my cleanse was the need to cut the unnecessary stuff. The last day of the cleanse tells you to try clear­ing your home screen ex­cept for a few es­sen­tial apps — texts, calls and mail. The clear screen was so odd­ly calm­ing for me, that I have kept it that way ever since.

Culling and or­gan­iz­ing my apps made it easi­er than ever to get into what I need on my phone and then back out into the world. That efficiency, more than any­thing, has helped me mess around with my phone less through the day. I am going to try to do this every month going forward.

Dif­fer­ent meth­ods help dif­fer­ent people dis­en­gage: In ad­di­tion to time spent on your phone, this cleanse tried to make you a little less en­gaged with it. But that is a tricky goal, be­cause people use their phones in vast­ly dif­fer­ent ways.

For ex­am­ple: on Day 2, you are told to set your phone to only dis­play shades of gray. For oth­ers I talked to while doing the cleanse, that seemed to be the hard­est chal­lenge to them, be­cause they use their phones in which color matters — taking or looking at pic­tures. For them, the idea of going gray would make their phones lose a lot of appeal.

For me, it did almost nothing. Most of what I do on my phone is read an unhealthy amount of text, where going black-and-white is not a big problem. That drove home that “phone addiction" is actually a number of very different smartphone activities being rolled into one pop-culture diagnosis.

Treating phone 'addiction' is far from an exact science.

It also made me won­der a­bout some of the moni­tor­ing tools com­ing from phone mak­ers, which are es­sen­tial­ly one-size-fits-all data dumps, with charts that tell you how you are using your phone. You can set lim­its app-by-app, but that seems to treat the symp­toms rath­er than the cause of prob­lem­at­ic use.

For me, know­ing I was check­ing on my phone more than once an hour did not help me change my habits. Think­ing a­bout why things were hard for me did. That is the kind of con­text offered by trying the activity of something like a cleanse (as hokey as it is) that you will not get from charts.

Experts grade Apple’s and Google’s new tools to fight smartphone addiction

I still check my phone con­stant­ly; once every eight min­utes, ac­cord­ing to Apple’s early track­ing tools. Some of the screen time I pruned from my phone went to other screens — the living room television, my desktop. If the goal is less screen time over­all, I am not sure I ac­com­plished that with this quick-hit at­tempt to curb my ad­dic­tions.

But I am at least think­ing a­bout it now. And I have picked up a couple of good habits. Now, if I think I am get­ting too dis­tract­ed, I will try to put the phone down for a long­er pe­riod of time or at least will my­self to look at my phone only af­ter every three buzz­es.

Baby steps.