How mindfulness helped me outsmart my smartphone and regain quality time with my family

family time

As published on ThriveGlobal.

I often felt like my iPhone owned me, instead of the other way around. Whether I was eating, reading, riding the bus, you name it, I often had this strong URGE to pick up the phone and do something with it, anything with it. It was usually the first thing I touched in the morning and the last thing I touched at night. My phone had no separation anxiety, but I sure did. I absolutely NEVER left the house without it. It OWNED me and I knew it.

Most everyone I've talked to is aware that they are too attached to the phone, but is either not motivated to do anything about it or feel like there's nothing specific they can do other than to "try" and use it less. I was in that boat until recently. What motivated me to change my relationship with my smartphone was the deteriorating relationship with my husband.

It started innocuously enough. One of us would pick up a phone mid-conversation to check a message. Then one of us would have to just do "one" thing on our phone real quickly. Then mid-conversation as we're talking about how bad traffic has been lately, we just had to know what the current population is in the San Francisco bay area. Next thing I knew, we were spending most of our evenings sitting on the couch glued to our phones, just clicking and swiping away, barely talking and connecting. We were settled into this rhythm for months until I started to have this uneasy feeling that we were growing apart.

Family time and phone, it shouldn't be a zero sum game. But it is! We only have a limited amount of time in a given day. The majority of these hours are dedicated to sleep, work, food, errands, etc. That leaves us with few precious hours with our loved ones. And my phone was really getting in the way.

One, each time I picked up my phone to check a message or look up something, I was taking a moment away from our relationship. While each small interruption on its own was no big deal,multiple interruptions added up.

Two, quality time isn't defined by the total quantity of time, but rather the continuous amount of time spent together. The quality of a continuous hour of conversation is better than 10 minutes here or there adding up to a full hour. The smartphone interruptions broke our quality time into small intervals and left us feeling less connected. 

Three, when I picked up the phone at dinner, I was implicitly giving permission for my husband to do so as well. We were reinforcing each other's behaviors and along the way erasing our boundaries of phone usage without even realizing it. Eventually we just got to the point where we were spending more time on our phones than with each other. And that was just sad.

Over the last several months, I've used my mindfulness practice to deal with this issue and it has made a big difference on the quality of our family time. Here are some things I did.

Set an intention to check in each time I pick up my phone.  Any mindfulness practice begins with awareness. So I set an intention to check in with myself whenever I picked up my phone and just notice how I was feeling in that moment. Sometimes I felt anxious, other times excited, and sometimes just bored. The check-in gave me the opportunity to hit the pause button on this automatic reaction of pick up phone, open app, swipe, type, swipe. And during the short pause, I became aware of why I was picking up the phone, what I was feeling, and how picking up the phone affects those feelings.

A mindfulness practice also teaches us that when we became aware of our habitual tendencies, we can choose to respond differently. So sometimes, I would choose to put the phone down because I noticed I was picking it up out of boredom and not need. This has given me freedom. I own my phone, it doesn't own me. 

Track my usage. To further supplement my awareness, I downloaded an app called Moment to track how much time I was actually spending on my phone. Ironic I know. But holy moly was it a lot! ~2 hours a day on average. According to Kevin Holesh, the creator of the Moment app, the average daily screen time of users is 3 hours and 57 minutes, consistent with other studies. And the average daily number of pickups is 52. That is a lot! Simply knowing my usage has motivated me to use my phone less over time.

Create boundaries. Boundaries can be a great tool to break the otherwise automatic habits that most of us have created on phone usage. My husband and I instituted a no-phone policy on Tuesdays and Fridays, except in cases of emergency or Facetime with the grandparents. In the beginning, we'd pick up our phones without realizing it and one of us would have to remind the other. But over time, the habit started to fade. Moreover, having this policy on only two days also influenced positive behavior on other days.

 

It's hard to believe the iPhone was only introduced ten short years ago because most of us can't imagine life without one. But I know so many people that also have this nagging feeling we ought to be using our phones less. I would argue its not just about using our phones less, its about having a more mindful relationship with our phones. That starts with simply increasing our awareness of our relationship with the smartphone. Only through awareness can we then choose to behave differently.