Stop Smartphone Addiction WITHOUT Using Willpower

To avoid getting distracted by your phone, step 1: “Be Disciplined.”

Nope. Not a chance.

There’s too much willpower involved.

As a lazy person myself, I strongly believe that your willpower is best spent on maintaining relationships and mental toughness.

NOT on constantly avoiding temptations.

That’s why, in this guide, you’ll learn the best effortless strategies to spend less time on your smartphone and social media apps.

There are a lot of strategies out there, but I hand-picked the most EFFORTLESS ones that bring MAXIMUM results, and lasting changes.

This means you’ll be able to easily find out the easiest ways that work for your own situation and preference.

You’ll even be able to use them even if you’re a lazy, easily distractible guy.

Because everything is based on principles of behavior change.

Let’s get started.

Why you’re getting distracted

Let me guess, you think the next sentence is where I tell you “you have no discipline, you gotta force yourself to be disciplined enough.”

No. Hell no.

I want to educate you into wanting these changes yourself—to make it as effortless as possible for you.

That said, there are THREE major reasons why we’re constantly getting distracted by smartphones.

Problem #1. Products are habit-forming

For hundreds of thousands of years, we mostly relied on our feelings to survive.

When we’re feeling hungry, we’re better off eating anything edible.

These feelings, or rather, survival instincts, served us well…until now.

What do you think happens when people ‘channel’ our survival instincts (especially the need to belong) into a piece of software?

We get HOOKED.

Our brain will recognize the behavior as “necessary for survival” because it relied on rewards to survive for 99% of the time the human race walked on Earth.

Back in the day, if a 500-pound aggressive giant pussycat appeared in front of you, roaring in anger while you were mating with your paleolithic crush, you’d never think “I have to push myself to not get scared”.

Instead, you’ll just get that immediate “fight-or-flight” emotional response.

On a smaller scale, smartphones and applications alike use the same type of emotional response.

We’re not trying to survive anymore—there’s a total abundance of needs that it’s doing more harm than good. 

What ‘survival’ meant for our emotional brains back then now means obsessions and addictions.

For this reason, any attempts to use sheer willpower against the behavior will NOT work.

Or at least, will not produce lasting changes.

Problem #2. Utility Fallacy

Think about your real reason for using social media.

You use Facebook to talk to friends who aren’t within reach.

You use Twitter to learn more about the thoughts of your friends or idols.

You use Instagram to discover a piece of someone’s life or a glimpse of their work.

Likewise, we use them to share a bit of our own lives and thoughts with other people.

But does it really have to take 2 or more hours1 EVERY day?

Or are we doing something aside from what we originally intended?

Cal Newport, professor at Georgetown University, calls this phenomenon the Utility Fallacy. 2

Cal says that people tend to focus more on the good features of new technology (over the old ones) when evaluating their impact.

The truth, however, is that features are NOT the whole story.

We tell ourselves we’re using these applications for something good like “connecting with people”, when in reality, despite our good intentions, we seldom use them for our intended purpose.

A lot of people tell me they use Facebook to get updates about their friends and relatives.

But they just scroll down through the memes their friends were sharing—NOT their friends themselves.

Had they started a conversation instead, it wouldn’t have taken HOURS to “get updates.”

Anyway, if that doesn’t apply to you, great!

You’re already a hundred steps ahead of everyone.

Problem #3. FOMO

Take 78 thousand people, aged 16-64 and ask them why they use social media.

You’ll get answers3 like:

  1. To stay in touch with what my friends are doing (42 out of 100)
  2. To stay up-to-date with new and current events (41 out of 100)
  3. To fill up spare time (39 out of 100)
  4. To find funny or entertaining content (37 out of 100)
  5. General networking with other people (34 out of 100)

As expected, the top reasons were either to avoid missing out or eliminate boredom.

One recent study even proves FOMO is the STRONGEST contributor to problematic social media use, especially in more private ones like Facebook or Snapchat (compared to Twitter or YouTube). 4

Here’s the real deal.

You’re NOT actually missing out; technologically-induced FOMO is an illusion.

If anything, you’re missing out EVEN MORE on something more important—your relationships, when you use social media as an alternative to face-to-face communication.

You’re actually disconnecting yourself even more by preferring to use news feeds as a way to get in touch with your friends; especially if they’re just within your reach.

(It doesn’t really make any sense to use news feeds to connect with anyone…)

An exception, however, can be made for friends or relatives who live overseas.

But then again, starting a chat or a video call still proves more useful for the intended purpose of ‘connecting’.

Stop being Half-ON: Reasons to Stop Smartphone Addiction

When you’re using your smartphone, you might think that you’re resting your brain from work. But we’re not actually relaxing, but rather softly focusing.

In other words, we are “half on, half off.

Any act of focusing uses up mental energy that may otherwise be used for improving your life, getting better at skills, doing impactful tasks, and producing valuable work.

In fact, it might be the reason you’re always LOW on energy!

Thus, it’s imperative to stop or at least minimize our digital lives to “gain back” that lost energy.

That said, if we want to stop distractions, it’s important for us to make using social media less desirable.

It’s a vital element of lasting change.

Reason #1. Important matters are seldom urgent

If you’ve already started on your productivity journey, you’ll notice a basic pattern:

Important tasks are seldom urgent. Unless you’ve broken a leg—then you should see a doctor immediately. 

New technology, again, makes an illusion of urgency through the use of effective notifications, or more appropriately, triggers. 5

It also makes you feel curious—like there’s always something to be discovered behind that red notification.

The combination of these two is enough to make it feel like you “have to check your phone ASAP.”

It’s like when your friend tells you “There’s something we should talk about. But not here.”

And after you get to a private place…she tells you the breaking news: She has a crush on someone you know.

I know right — SO not urgent.

Reason #2. Social Media saps your motivation

Again, focusing requires mental energy. If you’re a knowledge worker like me who relies on heavy thinking and creativity to produce work, then mental energy sinks should be avoided like the plague.

And we know that producing work is like “practice” to get better.

Surely, if there’s any more reason to quit using social media (or at least minimize it), it’s because it not only drains your mental energy to produce valuable work, but it also DRAINS your motivation.

Psychologists discovered three primary drivers of self-motivation 6, as I’ve talked about in a previous article:

  1. Competence. The feeling of doing something well.
  2. Autonomy. The feeling of being in control.
  3. Relatedness. The feeling of belongingness.

Unsurprisingly, by using social media:

  • You’re NOT increasing your competence.
  • You’re NOT going to feel in control of your results and become a victim of your circumstances; and ironically,
  • You will NOT feel like you belong to a group.

If anything, seeing curated posts of “positive” lives only makes you feel even more incompetent and alienated.

Reason #3. Garbage in, garbage out

In the book, Steal Like an Artist, Austin Kleon gave me a rather sticky quote that I’ll remember for the rest of my life.

“Garbage in, garbage out.”

Your ideas are just as good as the previous ideas you have learned.

You can’t expect to come up with a mathematical formula that will cure cancer if you don’t even know what a square root is, what cancer is, or what a mathematical formula is.

And the information you consume day in, day out plays a critical role in this process.

When I started the blog, I thought it was easy to make a lot of articles. 

I didn’t have a reading habit back then, so my ideas were limited to what I’ve learned from my old readings and the book summaries I’ve watched on YouTube before.

And then I started getting what’s called writer’s block.

I kept on staring at a blinking cursor on a white, virtual paper. Every. Single. Day.

I eventually realized, after reading The ONE Thing, that the most important thing to do in my blog isn’t writing; it’s reading. A LOT.

As Stephen King says, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time to write.”

And the quote hits home for me—great output does NOT come from garbage input.

In my opinion, reading best-selling books allow you to somehow “download” the thoughts of a best-selling author and make them your own.

No, not through plagiarism, but through insight.

When you scroll mindlessly on a news feed, however, you’re just absorbing the thoughts of someone who just wants to get Likes, Comments, and Shares.

99% of the time, the knowledge you get isn’t even remotely life-changing.

Enough of this already! Let’s get started

Now, even if I tell you “101 Reasons to Stop Looking At Your Phone” without actual strategies like the ineffective stuff out there, it’s NOT going to work because this is NOT an understanding problem; it’s a behavioral problem.

And solving a behavioral problem requires that we use strategies that also appeal to BOTH the logical and emotional brain. More on this later.

What I wanted to accomplish in the previous sections, though, is to actually increase your awareness so you become more aware whenever you do it again. 

And by the way, that doesn’t happen when I tell you “Be more aware.”

Again, willpower alone does NOT work for quitting this behavioral addiction.

For this reason, we have to use more effective strategies for behavior change, as you’ll learn later in this guide.

Tactics won’t work unless you develop a technology use philosophy

Bestselling authors Chip and Dan Heath explains three things that must be met for lasting behavior change to occur 7:

  1. Change of mind through specific instruction
  2. Change in emotion toward the behavior
  3. Change in situation to make the behavior more likely to happen

Remember that time when people thought the world was flat? (Apparently, some still do.)

That was when people were afraid of going on explorations.

What was the reason? They were afraid of falling down off the edge of the Earth. 8

It proves that a simple change in belief results in a MASSIVE change in behavior.

In the previous sections, I expect that I’ve managed to change your mind about technology use already; especially with social media.

But I would like to take this a step further by introducing a much-needed philosophy for technology use—Digital Minimalism.

Before you think about going “full monk mode” and get skeptical about this, let me tell you that it’s NOT the case at all. 

It does NOT mean eliminating technology; it means just using the essentials. (Hey, it’s called “minimal”-ism for a reason.)

But first, we need a clear definition of what Digital Minimalism actually is.

In his book, Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport defines it:

“A philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.”

Again, because these products are habit-forming, even the most disciplined people you know will succumb to the brain rewards given off by smartphones and rewarding applications.

For this reason, we should realize that careful selection is key. 

Being okay with missing out on unimportant things is key.

Being intentional about when you use technology is key.

Joshua Becker, the owner of the awesome blog Becoming Minimalist, tells why we’ll actually live a better life adopting minimalist philosophies in his book, The More of Less:

“Our excessive possessions are not making us happy. Even worse, they are taking us away from the things that do. Once we let go of things that don’t matter, we are free to pursue all the things that really do matter.”

And by applying this philosophy to your digital life, you will:

  • Have more time to spend with your friends
  • Develop real and deep connections with other people
  • Do better quality of work that gets you acknowledged
  • Be able to pursue your passions
  • Stop getting stressed about random negative content

Obviously, the benefits aren’t limited to these five.

There are a plethora of benefits you’ll gain (or get back) once you start applying a minimalistic approach to your digital life.

In the next sections, I’ll share with you how to do it.

4 Effortless Ways to Become a Digital Minimalist Even If You’re a Tech Lover

Again, digital minimalism isn’t about eliminating your digital life altogether; it’s about only having and using the essentials.

But the using part is where the problem comes in. We know Gmail and other social media platforms are essential (depending on your needs), but we use them more often than we intend to.

Without a doubt, willpower alone will NOT work.

And that’s exactly why I consulted the field of behavior change and find ways to apply the principles the most effortless ways possible.

I’ll show you the top 3 most effortless methods I used along with one that came from Professor Cal Newport himself.

Let’s dive right in.

Use the Zen Phone Strategy

When you hear the word “Zen”, what comes to mind? Maybe it’s an image of a monastery, or a monk achieving enlightenment, or perhaps a picture of stones stacked on top of one another in a man-made pond with lotuses.

Whatever it is, it’s an image of solitude; one without hyper-stimulating triggers. (Imagine a monastery filled with ads)

Obviously, if our smartphones gave off this vibe, we wouldn’t have become so addicted.

For that to happen, I recommend doing these three steps:

Step 1. Use the grayscale feature if available.

Colors make apps more appealing to click on; that’s what the study of Color Psychology 9is for.

Developers intentionally use these to draw us into using their products. Think of it as a constant poke; except it’s done to your brain as if saying “Click me” a hundred times per second.

That being the case, we can easily counter this aggressive brain-hacking strategy by setting out phones on Grayscale mode.

Check out the links below if you want to learn how:

Step 2. Remove all notifications except calls.

As we’ve discussed earlier, everything important is seldom urgent and vice versa.

In my case, I’ve noticed that I mostly receive calls for urgent matters.

We’ve eliminated the visual triggers by setting up the grayscale feature, so now we’re going to eliminate the other two sensory triggers: vibration and sound.

The easiest way to do this is to enter the Settings of your phone and disallow notifications for ALL non-urgent applications.

Is receiving a “like” urgent? No.

Is it urgent to know if someone replied to your tweet? No.

If anything, they’re FALSE urgency.

If someone needs you immediately, don’t you think they’ll do all their might to reach you through your mobile number?

Alright, let’s move on to the last step.

Step 3. Uninstall Social Media Apps; Use Browser Instead

The last step to make this strategy foolproof is by totally eliminating social media applications from your smartphone.

Here’s the thing, most of them you can still access through the browser.

You DON’T NEED the apps to use them; just use your browser.

I don’t think you want that, do you?

By making social media apps permanently invisible on your phone, it’s now much harder to access them—exactly what the emotional brain hates.

You’ll instantly stop using your phone mindlessly by completing this step alone.

Charge your phone in another room while working

I learned this one from James Clear and is a complete game-changer. Ironically, I learned it from his Twitter:

By the way, my philosophy for using social media is to only consume information from influencers you follow.

That way, you get awesome advice like these, too.

Charging your phone in another room accomplishes three things:

  1. It eliminates the triggers even when you didn’t use the Zen Phone Strategy above
  2. It’s harder to reach your phone & it’s easier to start working instead
  3. You automatically use your phone only when you REALLY need it. No mindless phone-reaching occurs.

As a bonus, you’ll always leave the house with a fully-charged phone.

Become a home screen architect

Let’s say, for some reason, you don’t want to use the Zen Phone Strategy or leave your phone in another room.

This is the method for you. (I almost forgot about this one.)

In one article, I mentioned a “Path of Least Resistance” strategy to make building habits easier.

If your home screen contains social media apps or email and they’re one tap away from being accessed, isn’t it obvious you’re going to use them a lot?

You’d want to make productive apps like Audible, Ebook Readers, To-do Lists, Note-Taking apps as easy to access, and so they should be the ones on your home screen.

Unproductive apps (Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram) should be placed inside a folder if you’re an iPhone user.

Better yet, place them in a folder and then put them “one more swipe” away within that folder.

If you’re an Android user, you can just remove their shortcuts on your home screen and place productive widgets/apps instead.

The point is to make it difficult to access distracting apps and make it easy to access apps that make good use of your time.

What this does is minimize the likelihood of distraction.

It appeals to the emotional brain AND the logical brain to access the easier-to-reach apps rather than the difficult ones.

Downgrade to the most ancient phone possible

Twenty years ago, people weren’t distracted by smartphones; there weren’t any!

In short, you can adopt this as a “strategy” for eliminating distractions without effort.

This method is perfect for you if you just need your phone for SMS and calls, and have a computer/laptop at home.

No brain triggers.

No excessive stimuli.

No false sense of urgency.

The easiest way to eliminate smartphone distraction is by plucking the problem at its roots; eliminate the smartphone.

This method isn’t for everyone, but just in case you need someone to tell you what to do, then here it is.

People didn’t have smartphones back then, but their social lives and happiness were far better than now.

Let that sink in.

Cal Newport: Use the Phone Foyer Method

I actually have a separate email address for receiving newsletters from the people I follow, and it changes the game for me as I only receive incredibly valuable content (with minimal promotions).

When I was checking Gmail one day, I noticed Cal Newport had sent an email—a rare occurrence.

I immediately checked it out, knowing it’s valuable/thought-provoking. And then he said something that he should’ve included in his book, Digital Minimalism.

It’s the Phone Foyer Method.

Back then, when mobile phones weren’t a thing, all we had was good ol’ wired telephones. We actually had to go right next to the phone’s receptacle to use it.

Unsurprisingly, there weren’t any “phone distractions” back then until you receive calls—and you actually talked to the person instead of just checking a news feed.

You can’t “scroll down endlessly” on your telephone, either.

Not even a selfie.

So, Cal thought if we could incorporate this strategy, we would become more mindful of our phone usage.

Here’s how to do it, according to Cal:

“When you get home after work, you put your phone on a table in your foyer near your front door. Then — and this is the important part — you leave it there until you next leave the house.”

The point isn’t to use a foyer, but to use a “phone station”.

Cal continues to explain the Phone Foyer Method:

“If you need to look something up, you go to your foyer and look it up there.
If you need to send a text message, you go to the foyer.
If you’re holding a back-and-forth conversation, then you need to stand there while you do it.
If you’re expecting an important call, put on your ringer.
If you feel the urge to check in on social media, it’s waiting for you in the foyer.

And so on.

(The one allowable exception: listening to a podcast or audiobook during tedious household chores. Let’s be reasonable…)

This method, of course, doesn’t require that you have a foyer, I just liked the alliteration. The key is that your phone stays in a fixed location while you’re at home instead of traveling with you as a constant companion.”

Have you noticed a pattern here?

ALL of our methods eliminate the possibility of autopilot.

ALL of our methods suppress (or eliminate) triggers that activate the distraction habit.

We just boiled them down into the most actionable strategies so you can choose which of these work best for your own situation and preferences.

Closing Thoughts

Stop being half-on. If you want to take a break and relax, remember that it’s more relaxing to take a walk outside and take time off screens.

(It’s better for your body clock, too.)

By adopting a minimalistic mindset to our digital lives and performing these methods backed by behavioral science, we can easily get back HOURS of our lives and pursue the things that actually matter to us.

Footnotes

  1. Average daily hours spent on social media. Source: https://www.broadbandsearch.net/blog/average-daily-time-on-social-media
  2. On the Utility Fallacy article by Cal Newport.
  3. This is an actual survey by Global Web Index in 2017 Q3
  4. Franchina, V., Vanden Abeele, M., van Rooij, A. J., Lo Coco, G., & De Marez, L. (2018). Fear of Missing Out as a Predictor of Problematic Social Media Use and Phubbing Behavior among Flemish AdolescentsInternational journal of environmental research and public health15(10), 2319. doi:10.3390/ijerph15102319
  5. Notifications That Work article by Nir Eyal
  6. Self Determination Theory [PDF]
  7. Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard by Chip and Dan Heath
  8. Credits to Simon Sinek and his book, Start With Why for this idea.
  9. Color Psychology For Mobile Apps article by Growth Tower

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