How to get off your phone and into your life

Posted March 18, 2022

Asking if it’s time to get off your phone

Are you concerned about how much time you spend on your phone?

How much time do you think you currently spend on it each day?

How often do you think you check it?

Just spend a few moments considering those questions before reading on.

In a report by Ofcom last year (A decade of Digital Dependency), it was found that the average British adult checks their phone every 12 minutes, and spends 2 hours 38 minutes on the shiny little metal box each day. It was also revealed that we spend on average 24 hours a week on the internet.

That is one whole day, every week spent on the internet. Wow.

There is no doubt that smartphone technology has revolutionised modern-day life and has brought a number of benefits. Just this weekend I enjoyed a variety of these benefits on a little trip to Brisbane – Google maps allowed me to effortlessly explore the city; I was able to order a driver on a rideshare app, and I was able to locate some delicious vegan food from a handy little app.

Despite such benefits of smartphone technology, there are some extreme costs: We are often disconnected from the real world around us; we live in constant comparison to idealised human beings on social media, making us feel inadequate and unable to attain the Westernised notion of “success”; we are bombarded with biased or even fake news; comprehensive data about our lives is constantly being collected by the likes of Google and Facebook, and we are constantly being marketed to in increasingly sneaky ways.

Recently, I reminded myself of what life was like before smartphones existed.

Deciding to get off your phone

I remembered the times at school, college and even undergraduate life at university, shortly before they took off in 2008. Life was spent connecting with people; it was spent connecting with actual people in real life. We would do things together as friends and be present with each other without checking our phones every 12 minutes.

I noticed how much time I was spending checking my phone in the present day. I noticed how I would find myself in the middle of an activity and then all of a sudden, with little awareness of the movements of my hand and arm, I was unlocking my phone and transfixed by the inane and redundant emails in my inbox.

Mindless checking of my phone would interfere with conversations or quality time with people I care about.

“How did I get here? How did things come to this?”, I thought to myself.

And I bet some of you have thought that too.

I decided that something needed to change.

Disconnecting from your phone and noticing the world

These realisations coincided with a conscious effort to spend more of my day being mindful, and simply noticing and being curious about the world around me.

Eyes closed meditation is a great way to reap a multitude of benefits for the body and the mind, but it is also important to practice paying attention to your day-to-day experience throughout the day as well. Mindfulness is not just a formal practice, it is the quality of paying attention and being in the present moment, regardless of where you are or what you are doing.

If you are able to practice disengaging from your mind and engaging with your experience (i.e. your five senses), you will experience far less suffering, and develop a better ability to do what is important to you:

Imagine a life where you can do that work presentation and not be stuck or paralysed in your mind’s attempts to tell you how badly it is going to go.

Imagine if you were able to bypass your mind’s reasons for not doing things like going to the gym, or going on that date, and actually go and do those things that will make your life better in the long term.

Like any skill, this takes practice. Here’s a little secret…A lot of that time we spend on our phones is time we could be practising this skill.

If you are able to practice disengaging from your mind and engaging with your experience (i.e. your five senses), you will experience far less suffering, and develop a better ability to do what is important to you.

Where to begin

I decided that I would make a conscious effort to eliminate mindless checking of my phone at points in which I had to wait briefly for something during my day.

Many of the opportunities for this, it turns out, were with my wife. For example, I’d have a minute spare whilst waiting for her to go to the toilet, or a few minutes until a meal was being served (she doesn’t do all the cooking, you know).

Once you bring your attention to such moments, it makes you realise how instinctual and habitual our behaviour can become. I began finding that my hand would shoot into my pocket of its own volition. I would find my body set into autopilot to seek out my phone if it wasn’t nearby.

Having had some practice with this now, it’s getting easier, although my mind still tries to convince me to look at my phone sometimes.

Everyone will have multiple points in their day where they are waiting – waiting for your McDonalds, waiting for your coffee, waiting for the bus, waiting for your kid to put their shoes on. These points are perfect for substituting phone check-ins with mindfulness.

Okay, you’ve got off my phone. Now what?

Once you’ve got your hands under control and your phone is tucked away somewhere, try this: simply take a deep breath in through your nose and pay close attention to all the sensations you can feel in your body, including the sensations of sitting or standing.

Notice the sense of your body in space. Notice points of contact where your skin touches your clothing, or your body touches the ground or chair.

Imagine that this is the first breath you have ever paid attention to and notice all of the sensations in the body as you inhale, and exhale.

Allow your breathing to settle back to normal.

Now, look around you.

There is a world out there that you haven’t been paying attention to – tilt your head up and notice the things that are normally out of your eye line; pay attention to the vast palette of colours in front of you; notice the infinite number of shapes and textures of objects around you.

Notice the sounds around you. Notice how you can’t control which sounds arrive in your ears and simply acknowledge the different tones, volumes and pitches you encounter regardless of what their source is.

Pay attention to what you can smell. We often neglect our sense of smell, yet there are often things around us that have an odour. Regardless of what you can smell – fresh cut grass or stale farts on a bus – simply notice these.

Run your tongue around your mouth and then notice any tastes. Maybe there is a lingering of the mayonnaise from your chicken salad sandwich or the bitterness from the coffee you recently drank.

This process of going through your five senses needn’t take longer than 30 seconds or so. You could even count on your fingers as you go through each one, spending 5-10 seconds on each.

Simply tune into your five senses and see what information they are giving you about the world. Start small, and build up.

Turning the lights up on the stage show

My experience of doing this is that it feels like the lights are being turned up in the world. Our phones constantly try to drag our attention into a small screen, narrowing our focus. Paying attention to your senses casts your mind wide open.

Once you are able to override the habit of checking your phone, and then notice all of these wonderful things our brain allows us to, it generates a deep sense of satisfaction.

So try it for yourself – put your phone down and see what you notice.

Article written by Nathan Illman. Nathan is a Clinical Psychologist. His mission is to give nurses access to high-quality psychological education and training to help them prepare for and heal from emotionally challenging work.

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