Reaching for your phone in moments of silence, or because you simply struggle to disconnect, can be socially rude and emotionally tiring (especially if you’re a news fan). University of Washington researchers believe they have identified four common triggers that prompt us to take our phones out, and they’re the same across all ages. So below we outlined what they are, how to anticipate them, and what you can do to change your habits and spend less time staring at a screen.
1) During unoccupied moments
Have you ever stood waiting for a train, or sat waiting for a friend, or watched the end credits roll on a movie, and not immediately pulled out your phone to see what’s happening in the rest of the world? One of the ways smartphones have changed our lives is that we don’t have to be bored and unoccupied ever again.
The problem is that a little bit of boredom might be good for us: There’s evidence that it aids creative thought (something to do with the way that minds can wander when they’re idle). The next time your mind is blank, remember that’s probably not a bad thing.
There’s no magic trick for weaning yourself off the impulse to reach for your phone every single time you’ve got nothing else to do—except for just being aware of the impulse and trying not to give into it. The next time you arrive back from lunch early, try staring into space for five minutes rather than staring at your phone screen.
Putting your phone into Do Not Disturb mode or even switching it off for parts of the day might help. If you know there’s nothing to look at and no notifications to check then chances are you’ll be less tempted to pick up your phone.
Another trick to try is leaving your phone in your desk drawer when you go out for your lunch break, or something similar—see if you’re hit by a sudden burst of creativity.
2) Before or during tedious and repetitive tasks
The psychological desire for distraction during dull tasks is a well-established one—it’s why in our student days many of us will clean the house from top to bottom, rewatch middling TV shows from start to finish, and organise bookshelves in colour and alphabetical order before even thinking about tackling revisions. When the mind gets trapped in something tedious and repetitive, it wants to escape.
And that’s what our phones provide—access to a never-ending stream of tweets, Instagram posts, Snapchat Stories and Facebook updates that we’re never going to get to the end of. Even if your friends aren’t all that entertaining, there’s always Netflix or the entirety of the World Wide Web to fall back on.
We can’t pretend that tedious and repetitive tasks are more interesting than what’s on your phone, but presumably these tasks are important, otherwise you wouldn’t be doing them at all.
What we can tell you is that constantly switching back and forth from your phone is going to make those dull tasks your duty-bound to do take much, much longer.
If you want to maximise your time catching up with your favourite Hulu shows and the trending hashtags on Tumblr, your best bet is to stick with the chores that fate has dealt you until they’re finished—you might even want to set a timer on your phone, or use an app like Forest to remind you to resist the temptation of your phone.
3) When in socially awkward situations
Most of us will be familiar with the soothing psychological security blanket of being able to pull out our phones when the small talk dries up, or when you’re finding no way into a group conversation, or when you’re alone waiting for your Tinder date. It’s very hard not to automatically reach into your pocket or bag at times like these.
And... that’s ok. We’re not trying to tell you that all phone use is terribly bad and to be avoided, or that it’s wrong to want to dive into a few apps when the social awkwardness has become unbearable. We’re just suggesting that you might want to think about not checking your phone every single time your brain prompts you to.
In this case it’s a question of willpower—recognising that pull towards your phone, ignoring it, and doing something else instead. Exactly what will depend on your situation and what you’re doing, but you could gleefully embrace the social awkwardness and even ramp it up a notch. A sense of humour is especially useful here.
So why bother resisting the temptation to check Twitter for the hundredth time that night? Well, you just might be missing out on a friendship or a conversation that ends up meaning a lot. And perhaps you’ll find clambering out of the social awkwardness is easier than you thought. At the very least, if you can’t resist and find a funny Instagram post, share it with the group.
4) When anticipating a message or notification
Finally, another situation we’ll all be very familiar with: Checking a phone every few minutes (or every few seconds) because we’re expecting an incoming text, or call, or email, or whatever it is. And in some ways that’s fine, because you don’t want to miss that taxi cab call or directions from a friend to wherever it is you’re meeting them.
On the other hand, if that alert doesn’t come through as fast as you’d like, you’re taking yourself out of the moment—drinks with friends or time with your kids—for a big chunk of time. It might be an opportunity to reassess your priorities.
All we can suggest here is making notification alerts clear and loud, so there’s no doubt whether you’ve missed that all-important message or not. From Notifications in iOS Settings and Apps & notifications in Android Settings you can change the type of alert associated with each app so you know exactly what’s coming through without checking your phone.
Tap through to your contacts in the native apps for iOS or Android and you can even set custom ringtones for every person you know (and on iOS, custom text tones too)—that should help give you a heads up whether that important call has arrived or not.