How to break the habit of checking your phone all the time


Smartphone dependency is everywhere. Take a glance at your day-to-day life and you'll notice your friends are a bit too preoccupied with their devices — and a little introspection can probably reveal the same about yourself. 

We've got some advice for those looking to become less hooked to their phones. Making a pact to look at your smartphone less often could be a good New Year's resolution. One part of the solution is simply breaking the habit; the other major component is understanding why you're dependent. 

How people use their smartphones

Smartphone ownership is growing rapidly in the U.S. According to a 2016 Nielsen audience report, 81% of Americans are smartphone owners. By comparison, the Pew Research Center found 64% of of Americans owned smartphones in 2015, and 35% owned smartphones in spring of 2011.

People use their smartphones for a variety of different functions outside of what one might consider basic "phone" purposes like calls and text communication. These functions include things like social media, banking, shopping, GPS and mapping services, browsing the internet, taking pictures and watching movies. 

In a survey, the Pew Research Center found 62% of smartphone owners have used their device to look up information about a health condition, 57% have used their smartphone for online banking, 43% have looked up job information, 40% have sought out government services or information relating to that, 30% have looked for educational content or information regarding taking a class and 18% used their device to apply for a job in the year prior to the survey. 

What's more, 67% of smartphone owners admit to "occasionally" using their handset for turn-by-turn directions with 31% saying they use their device "frequently" for directions.

Why is it so hard to resist looking at your phone?

The act of checking a smartphone for notifications or alerts can become an involuntary habit.

"Habits are a product of reinforcement learning, one of our brain's most ancient and reliable systems," Elliot Berkman, a psychology professor at the University of Oregon, said in a phone interview. "It is adaptive to repeat behaviors that have been rewarded in the past, so we evolved to be highly attuned to the contexts where rewards occur and which behaviors are paired with them."

According to Berkman, breaking a habit is difficult because it requires going against how your brain is wired to function: "Breaking a habit entails working against the powerful reward learning system."

In the specific case of smartphone habits, Berkman says various elements are at play. One factor is reward learning. "Reward learning is a big [reason]," Berkman said. "People have developed the habit of checking their phone often because it has been pleasurable in the past."

The feeling you get when finding a new text or push notification that you find exciting sends a "reward" impulse to your brain — which makes you to want to check your phone more often to recreate that positive feeling.

Other factors include social pressure, the fear of missing out and sheer boredom. "Smartphones can be an escape from boredom because they are a window into many worlds other than the one right in front of you," Berkman said.

Hau Dinh/AP

The effects of overusing smartphones

Being attached to a smartphone has many obvious impacts like serving as a source of procrastination, causing accidents for distracted drivers and damaging interpersonal relationships — but it has other negative effects, as well. Preliminary research suggests smartphone dependency can change the way we think, as a study from the University of Waterloo found an association with smartphone overuse and lowered intelligence. 

How to control your phone usage

Aside from making the conscious decision to keep your phone tucked away, users can monitor and manage their smartphone usage from the source of the problem: their smartphone. There are an array of apps available on the market that can help users manage their habits.

QualityTime, for example, is an app for iOS and Android devices that catalogs how you use your smartphone, as well as how often, and lets you place limitations on your handset. Offtime, on the other hand, lets users block distracting apps and also create customized "modes" for when they are at work, with family or simply want to be alone with their thoughts. Similar productivity apps include Moment, BreakFree, AppDetox and Stay on Task.

If going cold turkey is too difficult, Berkman advises trying to replace the habit of checking your phone with something new so as to "consistently reinforce an alternative behavior to the point that it becomes a habit." He also recommends uninstalling fun apps that take up too much time as a way to "reduce the reward value of the smartphone."

From his lab work, Berkman has found "some success" in being self-aware — being able to identify why checking the phone makes you feel better can help.

"A third approach we've had some success with in the lab is to identify the psychological need that phone checking fulfills for you — maybe it's social connection, boredom or escapism — and come up with alternative, non-phone ways of meeting that need," Berkman said.