How to Use Your Phone with Intention


Chances are you’ve been on a run or ride or hike recently, come across a beautiful scene—perhaps clouds parting, like curtains, to reveal a mountaintop, or an open vista of endless desert—and felt the instinctual, compulsory urge to grab your phone. “This will make a great Instagram,” you’ve thought.

This is a problem, because what ends up happening, says Nancy Colier, a New York–based psychotherapist and author of The Power of Off: The Mindful Way to Stay Sane in a Virtual World, “is that we stop living life directly and instead start to look at it as something that we can use to build our brand.”

A growing body of evidence suggests that the quality of our experience suffers when we think this way. One study by psychologists at the University of Southern Maine, published in Social Psychology in 2014, showed that even if participants weren’t actively using their smartphones, just having it in the room significantly decreased their ability to pay attention to what was in front of them. In another study, published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships in 2012, researchers from the University of Essex found that individuals who had intimate conversations while a smartphone was in sight reported lower levels of connection than those who had a notebook nearby instead. This effect held true even when the phone wasn’t theirs.

“When we have a phone with us, it takes our minds out of the present moment and throws it somewhere else,” says Colier. “Our direct experience, our actual being in reality, suffers.”

Jeff Johnson, an award-winning nature photographer who currently shoots for Patagonia, says it has taken decades to realize that some shots shouldn’t be taken. “I still have a camera on me most of the time, but if I’m going to do something really special, I leave the camera and smartphone at home,” he says. “Some of my greatest adventures are stored in my memory—not in pictures.”

Johnson is adamant that chronicling your experience is not inherently a bad thing, as long as you are intentional about it. “You have to be honest with yourself about what your goal really is,” he says. “Is it to be fully immersed in the moment, something that will have a profound effect on the rest of your life? Or is it to sell some photos or get as many likes as possible on Instagram—which isn’t a bad thing; it just serves a different purpose.” The key, Johnson explains, is to be conscious of the choice you’re making. Unfortunately, this isn’t easy to do.

If attention is the most precious resource there is—the conduit to a full and rich experience—then our smartphones and their built-in cameras are designed to constantly encroach upon it. “Digital devices are constructed—often by PhDs in behavioral science—to completely consume us,” says Adam Alter, a marketing and psychology professor at New York University and author of the forthcoming book Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked. “They draw upon proven methods of addiction, like the pursuit of goals with mixed and variable feedback (e.g., not knowing if a social media post will be popular or if you’ll advance to the next level of a game) along with the opportunity to see progress (e.g., gaining more followers or likes over time) to continuously reel us in.”

Of course, technology isn’t always a bad thing. And for some (like me, as a writer), it’s an inherent part of our jobs. Alter uses social media to engage with colleagues, discover interesting ideas, and share his work (the irony of which is not lost on him). He also relies on video chat to connect his young son to family members who live overseas and admits that he’s even played games on his phone. “I actually think technology is quite wonderful,” Alter says. “It’s just that if we don’t use our digital devices intentionally and with deliberateness, they can easily infringe on more and more of our lives, becoming more destructive than they are productive.” Like so many other things in life, when it comes to our devices, it seems the dose makes the poison.

How to Establish a Healthy Relationship with Your Device

According to Alter and Colier, if you’re regularly experiencing any of the following symptoms—all of which suggest that your device is occupying an unhealthy amount your psychological space—you may be spending too much time, attention, and energy on it.

  • Phantom Vibrations: Feeling your phone buzzing in your pocket when it’s not actually buzzing.
  • Tetris Effect:Falling asleep and instead of having an idle mind visualizing elements of a game or social/news feed.
  • Late-Night Checking:Waking up to go to the bathroom at 2 a.m. and being unable to resist checking your phone.
  • Stillness Anxiety:Waiting in a store checkout line without glancing at your phone feels uncomfortable.

The good news is that there are a few simple practices everyone can use to prevent and reverse chronic digital distraction.

  • Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Remove your phone from your visual field (for example, out of the room where you’re trying to work or out of your bedroom at night). Doing so immediately dampens its pull on you.
  • Schedule Device-Free Time: Make hard rules for certain activities during which you’ll absolutely keep your phone out of sight. Examples: at the gym, on a hike, during deep-focus work, watching television with your significant other, and perhaps most important, when you’re sleeping.
  • Monitor Your Usage: Apps like Moment, which tracks how much time you spend on your device, surface trouble spots and bring greater overall awareness to how (and when) you use your devices.
  • Tech-Free Mornings: For the first 30 minutes after waking, don’t interact with technology. Instead, use this time to set an intention for the day; fully immerse yourself in a ritual like coffee, meditation, or yoga; or do a chunk of deep-focus work.

This post first appeared in Brad’s “Do It Better” column at Outside Magazine. 

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