How behavioural economics helped me kick my smartphone addiction

“The occasional convenience [of your phone] comes at the cost of developing a compulsive urge to monitor your messages constantly.”

Cal Newport’s new book Digital Minimalism has been making the rounds recently, and I very much look forward to reading it. A key theme is something Cal talks about a lot, and I’ve mentioned a number of times in this newsletter: our collective inability to focus for sustained periods is a big problem, and whilst it primarily prevents us from doing good creative work, it feeds into anxiety, mental health, and general stress.

For me in particular – and like many millenials, I’m sure – I use my phone way too much. I’m pretty good at “Deep Working”, avoiding Slack, and avoiding emails when I need to get things done; and I do have no social media, email, or notifications on my phone. But – I still use it a lot. Got a minute to spare? I’ll check my messages. And so on: I’ve done the usual tricks but keep coming back to it.

It was thus particularly interesting to read Tim Harford’s FT column, reposted to his blog, about his similar struggle and how he applied a mix of Cal’s new book, and all sorts of citations on behavioural economics, to solve a similar problem.

The article is very well written and worth a read. A couple of points stuck out: a “detox” provides radical change to get started, but must be accompanied with a replacement. Tim went for: exercise, games, and making deeper connections with friends.

It’s what happens next which is interesting: a 30-day detox “sprint” is a fun adventure, but making long-term change is harder. In the end, Tim went for moderation rather than completely abandoning the tools. There’s probably a balance for everyone, and it’s probably not where we are now.

This post first appeared in MasterWP, a weekly newsletter for WordPress professionals.

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