Are you hooked to your phone? On a bad day, I check my phone more than I need to. I’ve learnt some great tips which I’ll share with you today - without them, I'd certainly be way more addicted.
Phone overuse is an issue. A recent national US survey found adults are spending an average of over 9 hours of time infront of various screens everyday - and 8 hours of that turns out to be for personal use!
With the average amount of time awake everyday being around 15 hours, that means we’re in front of screens for around 60% of our waking lives. That sounds excessive to me.
With a 2017 study showing the average American checks their phone 80 times a day (that’s every 12 minutes), I think we can safely say, we’re hooked.
So, why are phones so addictive? I attended a talk by Nir Eyal to find out, and see if mindfulness could help.
Why are you so hooked?
Nir Eyal is author of the bestseller Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products. Eyal said he didn’t research the subject just to help companies make their technology more compelling - he researched it because he himself was so addicted to technology and couldn’t find any one book or paper to explain why.
Companies build apps for everything from social media to search to games. And the more we use the app, the more money the companies make. Infact, if they’re not engaging and addictive enough, the company would probably go out of business. So the tech giants are keen to make their phones or apps as habit-forming as possible.
Nir states that habits give companies the edge:
“User habits are a competitive advantage. Products that change customer routines are less susceptible to attacks from other companies.”
So, how exactly do tech companies make their products so addictive?
Accord to Nir, this is a 4-step process he discovered called the Hook Cycle. He spent years of research in academia, consumer psychology, human computer interaction and behavioural economics combined with real-world experience to find this cycle present again and again in the ‘successful’ products.
Nir’s 4-Step Hook Cycle
1. Trigger - this is what starts off the behaviour. You can have an external trigger, like the sound of a text message, or the photo of someone’s baby on a Facebook stream. And an internal trigger, like the thought ‘I wonder what my friends are up to?’ and then you check social media, or just the feeling of boredom - that can be a trigger.
Getting you to link your usage to your internal trigger is the key to the level of addiction to the product. As Nir explains:
“Companies that form strong user habits enjoy several benefits to their bottom line. These companies attach their product to internal triggers. As a result, users show up without any external prompting.”
In other words, everytime you feel bored, that could be a trigger for you to use Instagram. As there may be 50 moments in your day when you unconsciously feel a bit bored, you end up being triggered to open the app and check it 50 times.
2. Action - This is the behaviour you do, in anticipation of a reward. For example, you may reach out to your phone to check social media. The companies know you’re more likely to do this if they make it easy for you to do the action (one click of an app), and you’re motivated to do it (I wonder how many ‘likes’ or ‘retweets’ my last post had?). Notice how easy it is to check your email on your phone - just one tap on a screen.
3. Variable Reward - Now the companies are getting really clever. Read this bit carefully. They know if you are rewarded in a predictable way, you’ll get bored. So they keep your reward unpredictable. Who knows what your search result will give you? Do you know who will Whatsapp you next? What will you see next on your favourite social media stream next? Who’s emailed you? You have no idea. This lack of clarity about your reward increases your desire to check. This is powerful and highly compelling.
4. Investment - When you put time, money, data, effort, social capital into a product like an app, you’re making an investment. And that investment makes you more likely to go back to the app. So you’re more likely to go through this ‘Hook’ cycle again. And then you make more and more investments, which feeds back into your habit and strengthens it.
Your investment makes you think: ‘I’ve already spent so much time on this app, it would be crazy to leave it now.’ But if that’s true, and then you add another app and another app, soon you end up spending all your free time on the apps! Hence over half our day is on the phone. And each investment strengthens the ‘Hook cycle’.
There’s evidence to suggest the more you invest in anything, the more you grow to love it. So, the more time and effort you put into that app, the more you’re gonna love it. Have you noticed that in your usage?
Why even try to unhook yourself?
Time is precious. We only have so much. If you want to spend over half your day on a phone by choice - of course, that’s up to you. And it may feel good for you.
I just know for myself, if I’m constantly being distracted and compelled to use my phone all day and everyday, I feel more drained, unfocused and unproductive. My work spills over into my free time, and I don’t sleep as well either.
There’s also evidence to suggest mobile phone overuse is associated with:
Poor mental health
Living in a state of ‘continuous partial attention’
A link in depressive symptoms for adolescents in particular
Obvious dangers when driving
Research links to these can be found in this Wikipedia article.
How To Unhook Yourself Mindfully
Mindfulness comes to the rescue! Nir defines a habit as ‘a behaviour done with little or no conscious thought’. So... as your mindfulness increases, you can be more aware of your triggers and actions as well as the strategies the tech companies may be using to get you hooked.
Unhook Tip 1 - Switch off External Triggers
If the trigger is the first place your habit starts, begin there. Start by turning off notifications on your phone. Here’s how to do it on iPhone and Android. Can’t bear to turn off all notifications? Turn off the ones for the apps that are most addictive for you. A strategy used by Nir is to connect his home wifi to a plug that switches off automatically every evening and comes on again every morning. That massively reduced his habit of using tech at night time, and rekindled his love life!
Bonus tip: Download ‘Moment’ App and track your device usage and set daily limits.
Unhook Tip 2 - Be mindful of Internal Triggers
This is where the mindfulness really comes in most powerfully. Some companies may try and link the use of their app with your internal thoughts and feelings. For example, you feel anxious and automatically reach for Twitter. Or keep surfing the web when you feel bored, tired, lonely or depressed. Without mindfulness, you’re totally hooked. The very fact that you’re now aware of this ‘Hook Cycle’ will help. Next, see if you can manage 3 mindful breaths during your urge, before you take any more action. And 3 more...and 3 more. Eventually the urge will pass. For more on this, check out urge surfing.
When I do this, I find the feeling of breathing far more soothing and relaxing than checking the app. And find my body relaxes and mind calms.
Unhook Tip 3 - Make Phone Use More Difficult
If the trigger gets the better of you, the next thing you do is take action and open the computer or app or email or whatever. Some companies know the easier they make this for you, the more likely it becomes a habit. So make it difficult for yourself to open apps that you no longer want to use. Log out each time you finish using it. Or even delete the app if it just makes you feel worse - remember you can always redownload it.
Bonus Tip: Leave your phone at home when you go out if you can. It’s then impossible for you to use while you’re out. (This strategy is one of my favourites!). If that sounds too difficult, just try for half an hour while you go for a short walk and see how it makes you feel.
Unhook Tip 4 - Notice The ‘Variable Reward’ Trick Being Used On You
If the app is designed with a variable reward, you can’t stop that. But you can be mindful of the fact that you’re being rewarded in a different way each time you open something like Twitter or Whatsapp or a text message. Being mindful of the strategy that’s being used on me, helps me to step back from it.
Unhook Tip 5 - Be Friendly to Yourself Each Time You’re Hooked
I’d also recommend if you’re acting out your habit, not to berate yourself. That just deepens any negative emotion and makes any bad habit more likely to repeat itself. Instead, be kind and understanding to yourself. Say words like ‘I know I’m using my phone too much, but it’s because I feel so xxxxx (fill in the blank). I’m not the only one overusing phones - millions of people are doing it. I’ll try some of those tips from the lovely Shamash later on. He even recommended that I’m friendly to myself.’ This self-compassion approach is a far more powerful way of overcoming habit than self-criticism.
Unhook Tip 6 - Be Mindful You’re Investing Your Time and Money in the App
Know that each time you put more data or time or effort or money into an app, you’re making an investment. Be aware of that. Make it a conscious choice rather than an automatic reaction. Each time an app asks you for more information, ask yourself ‘Do I want to spend more time here, or not?’. If it’s a yes, go ahead. But if it’s a no, then it’s time to switch off.
The Hook Cycle is used by tech companies to make you use their apps and other products more often. The four stages are trigger, action, variable reward and investment. The more often you go around the Hook Cycle, the more you’re hooked. But luckily, mindfulness can help.
Some ways of using mindfulness to reduce your excessive phone use are to:
Become aware of the Hook Cycle being ‘used’ on you - transformation always starts with awareness.
Take time to notice the feeling of your urges to check. Take three mindful breaths and become more familiar with this feeling that controls so many of your habit. Notice how quickly the urge subsides once you become more mindful.
Consciously choose to take a break from your phone from time to time, and make that a habit instead. E.g. Automatically switch off your wifi at night, go for a walk without your phone, get an alarm clock and don’t leave your phone next to your bed at night.