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5 Ways to Break Up With Your Phone

How disconnecting from your device can reconnect you with your life.

Key points

  • Distraction due to devices can be a source of serious relationship conflict.
  • We often lose track of the amount of time spent on social media and other apps which are designed to captivate your attention.
  • The dopamine release due to the discovery of new information keeps one constantly connected to a device.
  • Intentional boundaries need to be set in order to minimize the impact of devices on time, productivity, and relationships.

I remember the moment my husband, Ed, told me he was jealous of my phone. I thought he was joking and casually brushed it off until looking in his clear, blue eyes, I realized he was completely serious—and very resentful. My phone seemed to have become the third person in the relationship.

Ed was right that my device got some of my best hours of the day that could have been spent connecting with both him and my children. Why does this happen when most of us know that we would rather build and strengthen relationships rather than waste time on meaningless cat videos, recipe time lapses, and Amazon carts?

At that same moment, I also began to recall my kids saying to me several times that week “Get off your phone!” Apparently, my four kids are not the only ones who feel the frustration of a distracted parent on a device. According to some recent studies, parents’ smartphone use during family time can be attributed to kids misbehaving, whining, sulking and tantrum-throwing, due to feeling invalidated.

Of course, when they feel like a device is more important than they are—how else would they react? Not only that, but I often think about how many moments of my kids’ fleeting childhood I may be missing simply because I am not paying attention to them.

The truth is that adults and kids alike struggle with setting boundaries around device time every single day. The apps that we find ourselves mesmerized by are designed to create this very struggle and consume our most valuable commodities: our time and our focus. When popular phone apps manipulate our deepest desires in addition to our neurochemistry, the issue of setting boundaries becomes far more complex than simply discipline and willpower.

A few reasons why we spend too much time on devices:

  1. Dopamine: I write about dopamine, often called the molecule of more, frequently because it’s a powerful factor in why we keep returning to a behavior that is less than satisfying. Our devices provide a plethora of new information that when discovered, release dopamine which solidifies a pleasure-and-reward feedback loop reinforcing whatever behavior triggered it in the first place. New likes, new comments, or new articles on subjects of interest all trigger this desirable response. Our basic human needs for belonging and validation are often met superficially by the perceived connection we experience on social media through likes and comments. In addition, our most visited areas on the internet are tracked and recorded by many of these apps, so you will repeatedly see articles and photos of things that interest you which continually keep you returning to your device for more.
  2. Exhaustion: I don’t have to tell you that life is busy. We are scheduled down to the minute for months on end. Because devices are so accessible and a world of distraction is literally at your fingertips, they provide a mindless escape for tired minds. When we are mentally or physically tired, we also tend to let down boundaries and give ourselves permission to do things that we know may not be in our best interest. Interestingly enough, permission-giving is a factor when relapsing into problematic or even addictive behaviors.

From the day my husband brought up the issue, I knew that my phone and I needed to break up before this seemingly unimportant device caused more hurt in my most important relationships. Here are a few tips that I have found helpful when starting to break up with a device and reconnect with the people and experiences in your life:

1. Decide on time limits.

Research says if we set specific goals, we are more likely to achieve them. Use the time limit settings on your apps to determine how much time you would like to spend in each area per day. Often we lose track of time when our interest is peaked.

2. Find a go-to replacement activity once you hit your device limit.

We often say we “don’t have time” to do things we know will benefit us. With less time on a device, you have more time for activities that are more fulfilling. Make a list of things you might like to spend that time on: reading a chapter of a book, having a conversation with someone you live with, doing a few minutes of relaxation breathing or meditation, take a walk on a beautiful day. Having a go-to list will make it easier when the need for dopamine sets in without an instant need to gratify it.

3. Create “no-device” zones and times.

In order to strengthen relationships and make those around you feel seen and heard, it is important to create spaces that do not include devices Around the dinner table and in the bedroom are two areas where connection can naturally flourish if we eliminate distraction.

4. Delete time-sucking apps.

I have found that if I truly want to get time back, deleting apps when I do not want to use them and reinstalling them when I do helps tremendously. Again, if they are easy to access, you will, especially when stressed or tired. Deleting apps is a firm boundary you can set around managing your time.

5. Tell others you care about.

Let those people around you know you want to spend more of your time doing things that are meaningful to you which include paying attention to the people you love. Research shows us that accountability helps us to achieve goals quicker.

For more on living a life with less stress and distraction and more purpose, see my new book This Book Won’t Make You Happy.

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