Who is in charge of your attention?

Have you checked your screen time lately? This dreaded number is always higher than we like to admit, and sometimes we even try to hide from ourselves. It can be a tool for achieving more self-awareness, but it’s also just a statistic we can easily ignore. It is rather the eroded quality of life that makes us truly aware of the toxic relationship with our smartphones. Bodily pain and tension, anxiety, depression, reduced attention span and memory, and phone dependency similar to drug addiction are just part of the price we pay to experience life through small screens. So, how can we reduce the amount of attention and time we spend on our phones?

Studies show that the average screen time of smartphone users in the UK and the US is 3 to 4 hours. In one year, this number can add up to about 50 days. What would you rather do with this amount of time? It might be useless to ponder on it for those who use smartphones as an essential working tool and cannot replace screen time with a healthier alternative. But even during work, we so often use our smartphones mindlessly and don’t realize how much of our attention dissipates on meaningless scrolling. It has been proven that, once you pick up your smartphone, even if it is just to get a quick glance at the phone clock, you will likely spiral into checking a lot more than you intended to.

It is because smartphones are highly addictive by design. Social media companies use casino gambling methods to activate the brain mechanisms that create psychological cravings. If you think of the pull-to-refresh and infinite scroll features, you can recognize how uncannily they resemble slot machines. This kind of distraction is sometimes fun and welcome, and other times makes us believe that it is precisely what we need when, in fact, this couldn't be further from the truth.

A psychological study proved that simply having a smartphone within our sight affects our attention. Even if it is not ringing or signaling other activity, it pulls us in subconsciously. In other words — we don’t always choose to use it; it ‘chooses’ us through what is known as classical conditioning. We’re profoundly hooked on this thing that is somehow almost always at the tip of our fingers and at the back of our minds. Simply putting the phone away — the further, the better — was proven to help ignore this constant seductive pull and shift our focus to other things.

So how are we supposed to go about regaining control of our attention, other than physically distancing ourselves from our smartphones? We asked our community  about their strategies and got some great advice:

  • Switch off all notifications, try to put it away. Still struggling. Maybe get a dumb phone as the second phone.
  • Have specific time for the use of the smartphone.
  • Use black and white screen, airplane mode, phone out of sight.
  • Keep it mostly on silent.
  • Never bring the phone to the bedroom.
  • Set specific slots in the day to answer messages and calls.
  • Remove social media and notifications.
  • Use the No Signal Sleeve when I want to focus or sleep.

There are many other things we can do to limit the controlling grip of our smartphones. Adjusting or completely turning off notifications is the easy first step in removing distracting triggers and reclaiming the power to choose when we want to engage. It quickly demonstrates how much more clarity we can achieve when we’re not constantly interrupted. The next upgrade is deleting the triggering apps and only keeping the essential ones. If that’s not quite possible, using the addictive apps only at scheduled times can help curb the cravings. Saving the first hours after waking up and the last before going to bed for offline activities proved to be especially helpful as it affects our hormone levels and the quality of our mood, brainpower, and sleep. To aid the transition to offline mornings, the alarm function can be easily replaced with an old-fashioned alarm clock.

Looking at the similar ways smartphones hijacked our functioning and finding non-invasive replacements that work for us is a generally helpful tactic in keeping our fingers off the screens. It can feel liberating to just take one hour each day aside for feel-good offline activities. But as with any addiction recovery, it’s easier said than done. New habits can be extremely hard to make and maintain even without the pain of giving up on something that is designed to profit off of our attention and keep us forever hooked. Many tech companies are now offering apps that help control the use of our phones and interact with them more responsibly. With apps such as AppDetox, Digital Wellbeing, Flipd, OFFTIME, and many others, it is possible to choose settings such as when, how often, and for how long you can access any app on your phone. In this pandemic of robbed attention and smartphone zombification, such an app that promises to save us from all other apps might be well worth a try.

 

Written by Adela Lovrić

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