Our thumbs are having all the fun these days. Those first digits let us cradle our smartphones and interact with them at the same time, and they’re seeing lots of action! According to a recent study, Americans check their smartphones once every 12 minutes, about 80 times a day. Depending on age, the actual number may vary, but on average, that’s 2-4 waking hours a day for adults 18 and up. It’s usually the first thing people turn to when they wake up in the morning and the last thing they touch on the way to bed. And when their phone is off or not close, 31% of users feel regular anxiety, while 60% report experiencing occasional stress. As Bettie Colombo, a spokesperson for the company that sponsored the study, puts it, we have allowed our smartphones to become “the remote control to our lives.”
One of the problems with all this smartphone usage is that it severely limits the amount of time we can think. Humans are experiencing more information each day today than at any other point in the history of civilization, and yet, we also have less and less time to process it all. It’s akin to walking through a Times Square that never ends, with no chance to flop into a chair at the end of it and start the essential process of reflection. Reflection is defined as “careful or long consideration or thought.” The Latin origin literally means a bending or turning back to something. Without reflection, we cannot effectively learn, and without learning, we cannot effectively grow as human beings.
Thought as Escape from Impulse
“Thinking is a process of inquiry, of looking into things, of investigating,” said American philosopher and education pioneer John Dewey in his 1916 book Democracy & Education. “It is seeking, a quest, for something that is not at hand.” Dewey believed that we do not learn from experience, but rather we learn from reflecting on the experience. In his book How We Think, he goes deeper: “Thought affords the sole method of escape from purely impulsive or purely routine action. A being without capacity for thought is moved only by instincts and appetites.” If we cannot get past the experiences our smartphone is giving us to the point where we can reflect on those experiences, we can’t learn from them. These experiences will become an endless stream of stimuli from which we will fail to extract meaning, understanding, or wisdom.
In his recent book World Without Mind, Franklin Foer brings these truths about thinking into sharp focus for those of us living in the Age of the Smartphone: “The tech companies are destroying something precious,” he writes, “which is the possibility of contemplation. They have created a world in which we’re constantly watched and always distracted…[t]heir most precious asset is our most precious asset, our attention, and they have abused it.”
How to Thumb Less and Think More
Put in their place, smartphones are amazing tools! So how do we enjoy them and at the same time limit our over-dependence on them? It’s not easy, but with some practice and resolve, you can free up some time to reflect, both alone and with friends or loved ones. Here are four tips:
1. Track and adjust: You can track how much time you’re spending on your phone using a handy free app called Moment. It tells you exactly how long you are on your smartphone each day and lets you look back at the last week to see trends in screen time, percentage of waking life, and number of pickups. The premium version ($3.99) lets you see trends over a whole quarter and allows you to set up gentle reminders about your usage. Once you get a feel for how much time you are spending, set some goals, such as two hours or less for three days in a row or going a whole week without hitting the four-hour mark.
1. Reduce the need to use: The more you depend on your phone for day to day living, the more you’ll use it. Look for ways to reduce that dependence. Consider wearing a watch. A low-tech one. Forget about a smart watch – it will only make the problem worse. I enjoy sporting my grandfather’s old Seiko watch. All it tells me is the time. And if I don’t manually wind it in the morning, it won’t tell me anything! Phone checking is often driven by impulse and curiosity. Maybe there’s a new email waiting to read. Perhaps someone commented on your social post. To reduce impulsive checking, put email and social media in their place. Choose one or two set times of the day when you allow yourself to check them. Outside that, resist the temptation.
Another key way to reduce the need to check your phone is to shut off most notifications. When we download an app, we’re excited to try it out and we end up rushing past that window asking for permission to send us notifications. Harmless as it may sound, notifications pile up and cause that impulsiveness to kick into high gear. Say no to most notifications. You don’t need an alert every time someone hits the like button. You don’t need that game to tell you it has been a while since you last played. And you really don’t need Starbucks to tell you it’s double stamp day. A few select apps should get permission to notify you – a weather app, your favorite news app, a daily journal you write. Other than that – just say no and enjoy the peace!
3. Practice purposeful liberation: Develop a habit of feeling ok about physically separating yourself from your smartphone. If you’re a heavy user, start off by leaving your phone in another room and going the lunch hour without using it. Put it on the charger after work and don’t touch it until after dinner. Hide it in your car during an appointment. The more opportunities you have to separate yourself from your phone, the easier it will become. And when you separate, don’t just put it in your pocket or in a bag in the same room. Try to be in a physically different space from it. A recent study showed that even having your smartphone in the same room as you can decrease focus and performance!
4. Designate a reflection time and place: Although reflection can happen anywhere and anytime, it will happen more consistently if you have a designated space and time for it. That could be first thing in the morning over coffee before the kids are up. It could be alone in your car or the bus as you commute. It could be a 15-minute break you take at school or work. It could even be some time in your favorite chair before you hit the sack at night. Choose a place that can allow you the joy of personal contemplation to help you solidify knowledge, review options, remind yourself of goals, make decisions, and better understand your feelings.
These four strategies should help you free up some time to reflect on and learn from your daily experiences. In turn, your mental health will improve, and you’ll find more peace, something we could all do with more of in this fast-paced, sometimes strange, and often wonderful world.
This article first appeared online at The Stream.