Four years ago, around this time of the year, I decided to get rid of my smartphone.
I wanted to feel less stressed, and more in touch with myself. It took me five painful months to fully detach myself from life with my phone, and if I had known then what I am about to share with you now, it would have been faster and less annoying.
Here's my top tips for a more minimalist smartphone usage:
Don't see it as a loss
Whether you are going to cut down your usage, or ditch your smartphone completely, start with a clear vision of what you would rather be doing with your time instead.
When they're making resolutions, a lot people focus on what they don’t like, or what they want to give up, rather than focussing on what their ideal life may look like. So, once their phone has been removed, they may find themselves lost and frustrated.
Make a list all of the things that you would love to do if you had more time, and visualise your ‘perfect day’ with less (or no) smartphone usage. What would you do instead of checking emails in the morning, or on the bus?
How would you like to soothe yourself when you come home from work feeling tired at the end of the day, if looking at your phone isn't an option?
The more honest and detailed your vision is, the more likely you are to succeed.
Change your environment to remove triggers
When the US military fought in Vietnam, 20 per cent of them got addicted to heroin, which was cheap and accessible.
However, when veterans returned home and went through a rehabilitation program, 9 out of 10 overcame the addiction, which at the time was considered irreversible. As a result, the head of the rehabilitation program discovered that habits could be changed fast if there is a radical change in the addict's environment.
For this reason, the easiest way to change your digital habits is to ditch your phone completely for at least a month, try and make other changes in your environment. For example, get a ‘sleeping box’ for it, and don’t keep it in the bedroom, don’t check it in the same places, don’t take it with you all the time in the evening, and only check your social media from a computer. The mere presence of our devices is already a trigger.
Perhaps the thought of ditching your phone for a minimum of a month brings you out in a cold sweat. It might be that you need a phone for your work, or you need to be contactable in case of emergencies. There is no need to stay without any connection though, and a 'dumb phone' (a phone that has no internet) is a perfect alternative solution.
Another option is to keep your smartphone, but have the sim-card only in the dumb one, so you have smartphone as a spare device. Test it for a few weeks and see how it goes.
Create a set of rules for yourself (but not too many)
Your pre-frontal cortex, where your willpower and self-control live, are constantly challenged by more ancient parts of the brain responsible for your survival.
Because 'smart' devices often appeal to these ancient regions of the brain, your brain may subconsciously perceive your attempt to remove your phone as a survival threat, and so might actually try to sabotage you.
So, rather than relying solely on your willpower, create rules for yourself and decide on when, where and how you’ll use your technology.
For example, perhaps you can only use the phone in one part of the flat, where it’s attached to the charger. Or maybe you have to put the phone out of sight while you're trying to focus on reading.
It will take your brain on average 45 days to build this new habit, so stick with these rules at least for that time period to make it easier.
Be disciplined, but gentle with yourself
You’ll have to plan more, and be better organised once you change your digital habits, as information won’t be there every time you need it. Make sure you look up your itinerary, plan your route, and write down phone numbers of people you will be meeting before you leave the house.
In spite of your best efforts, you may fail sometimes. Treat failure as a learning opportunity, and keep building your new habits. Have some sympathy for yourself.
After all, if you overdo it on hot chocolate one day, that's no reason to abandon healthy eating habits altogether. It’s not about how perfect you can be, but rather how fast you can go back to eating healthily again.
Every day that you win your mind over your smartphone, will help you build better digital habits and ultimately a happier life.
Dr Anastasia Dedyukhina is a keynote speaker, author of Homo Distractus, professional coach and a pioneer of the Consciously Digital™ concept.