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.
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.
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.
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.
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.