My first mobile phone was a Nokia 2110, which I purchased in 1994. Before that, my dad had the predecessor to GSM phones in his car, an integrated NMT phone (NMT stands for Nordic Mobile Telephone, and we were immensely proud of that back in the day). With the Nokia, one would type text messages using the number pad. This was also around the time that sending a text message would cost you a little bit of money – I vaguely remember it was around 10 cents per message. Each time you needed to send a message, you would reflect – albeit briefly – if it was worth it, and you made each character count. Messages had a character limit of 160, I recall. I think my phone could store up to 99 received messages before running out of memory.
Today, having used a mobile phone for the past 26 years, I’ve grown to understand that it’s chipped away at my focus and productivity ever so slightly, each passing month and year. My phone keeps track of the average screen-on-time, and the number of unlocks I do. It isn’t uncommon for me to see a screen-on-time average of about 2 hours, and more than 50 unlocks each day.
I go to the grocery store, and while waiting for the elevator to take me to street level at home, I fish my phone from my pocket and check something. While at the store, I need to check what I went there to buy. And when queuing up to pay, I might check some news. Heading home, I send a few chat messages while again waiting for the elevator to take me home. I’ve started to hate – or actively dislike – my phone, or perhaps the behavior it brings out in me.
Earlier this month, I conducted a short poll on Twitter. I asked what is the average screen time for people on their primary mobile device. I chose this wording on purpose, as otherwise, you can sort-of game it – “well, my phone gets 9 hours per day but in reality, I just use my iPad for 20 minutes each day!”
It got 71 votes in 24 hours, so while not statistically relevant, it’s still somewhat confirmatory to my worries: we use our phones too damn much. Half of the people who responded to my poll stated they use their phones 2-3,5 hours a day. On average. Assuming you sleep about 30% of the day, that’s up to 20% of your waking time staring at the phone. The Little Internet.
But I’m not here to condemn anyone on this. I went back to checking the average screen-on-time with my phone, and I became worried. Why, exactly, do I want to spend two hours staring at a small screen?
Admittedly, some of that time counts for leaving the phone idling on the table, chatting with friends, selecting the perfect playlist on Spotify, and so on. But I’d wager at least 60% or more is just casual browsing, endless scrolling of news feeds and social media. Killing time, or perhaps killing boredom.
So! I set out to do what I am good at – challenging myself.
I set my phone to notify me if I go over an hour of screen time any given day. I failed on the first day. I then spent a few days focusing deeply on my behavior – how and when am I using the phone? I crafted a few simple ideas that I try to follow the best I can:
- Don’t use the phone – ever – when spending time with someone else
- Disable all notifications on the phone
- Only use the phone when really necessary – such as when not at home, and needing to call someone
Obviously, there are exception. If I see someone get run over by a car, and I’m out walking with a friend, I will take out my phone. I try to use common sense here, after all – but also challenging my behavior.
In the next few days, I got my daily screen time down to 25 minutes. And it wasn’t even challenging; it just took a conscious effort to not reach for the phone whenever my brain would go “ding! check the phone, I bet there is something fun waiting for you!”. Once I started liking the idea of resisting the sweet siren calls from my phone, I started to feel better.
It’s still early days. The alternate thought-process here, however, is that we get these amazing devices so that we’d use them less. Inevitably, there will be days when I have to use the phone – and that’s perfectly fine. I feel it’s crucial to internalize here why specifically you’re using your phone, and if it’s really needed.
Most of the times, it isn’t. Today, I’ve used my phone for 4 minutes, and I intend to keep it like that.
I work with Azure and frequently write about my experiences. I’m a Microsoft Most Valuable Professional, ex-MSFT. Based in Helsinki, Finland.