Here’s how I solved my phone distraction problem

“Where’s your phone?”

I shrugged. It had been missing for over half a day. Some hours later, when I wanted to make a phone call, I used “Find my iPhone” from my laptop to locate it. It was under some bed covers.

Two weeks ago, I was practically tethered to my phone at every waking hour. It was making me feel awful. I would read any old guff while parenting. Being distracted from the screen for any reason would make me irritable. The guilt was always in the background, but never enough to stop me. I would have one eye on the kids and the other on… something. I can’t remember any of it. It can’t have been that important.

Some weeks ago I started making small changes. Delete Facebook here. Delete Instagram there. In moments of weakness, they would find themselves back on my home screen. I would justify their presence to myself, telling me I needed them for my marketing work.

I was lying to myself because I wanted to be lied to.

All this was before the lockdown closed my business and put me into full time contact with my family. Instead of rearranging my priorities my internet usage got worse. At my peak, my eyes would be on my screen for over 5 hours per day. I know this because my phone would tell me every Sunday, using the time tracking app Screen Time.

I hated my behaviour. I hit break point and I needed to get drastic. I needed to break these habits, but I wanted to retain the upside of owning a smartphone.

Here’s what I did.

  1. Removed all social media apps.
  2. Shifted uninteresting occasional tools into a single folder.
  3. Removed WhatsApp (this was the seismic shift, the gateway habit).
  4. After a couple of days without WhatsApp, my wife told me that she was feeling anxious that she couldn’t reach me any time she wanted. I Installed Between to serve as a relationship instant messenger. This worked great! I wouldn’t recommend this if your gateway habit to phone usage is chatting to your significant other. At this stage in my marriage written communication is little more than “pay this bill”, “we’re out of milk” or “where the fuck are you come down here and help me bath the kids”.
  5. Removed email client. This was tough as I was a serial inbox checker.

What was left on my home screen?

This helped me get back down to around 2 hours per day, but on stressful days the minutes would creep up. After a couple of weeks I was back over the 3 hour mark.

The solution was staring me in the face in these weekly usage reports. Even after removing everything else this one application kept tripping me up, over and over. Day after day. If I’m honest with myself, year after year.

It was my security blanket on a bad day. The workaround. The purest form of my weakness.

The internet browser.

The change that finally took my phone from distraction to utility was to remove the internet browser.

But wait, Warren, you can’t! What if you need to google something? What if you urgently need to get a file from your email? And besides, you have an iPhone. iOS doesn’t let you delete the browser.

True, you can’t remove the browser from iOS without jailbreaking. I could have used software like Freedom or Cold Turkey to set time-based rules, but I tried that in the past there was always some emergency exception that spoilt my day when I tried that.

I needed a middle ground where I could get internet access in an emergency, but with enough resistance that I wouldn’t be tempted to haul the browser out just because I was bored or stressed. By placing apps like Kindle and Audible in easy reach, I could occupy myself with something more substantial and less sticky.

Digging around in Screen Time, I found a setting that gave me what I wanted.

Settings > Screen Time > Content & Privacy Restrictions > Allowed Apps

Turn on the Content & Privacy Restrictions, then go into Allowed Apps and turn off Safari. Job done.

This works because it uses inconvenience and your own laziness to your advantage. You know the browser is there, but five steps just to disable it? Too cumbersome to do this on a whim.

And the exceptions? Shortly after making this change, I had to redeem a prescription at the chemist. The prescription was in my email inbox. It was fiddly and fussy to undo the settings and dig the document out, but the frustration was minor. As soon as I forwarded the document, I turned the browser back off.

The relationship I have with my phone is different now. The benefits have only just started to show. I am starting to notice little things. My attention is a little less fractured. I am more present with my children. I don’t feel the compulsion check my phone in case there is something I need to respond to.

My Screen Time is down 72%. Pickups are down 38% and first use is usually Between because the phone will vibrate for that. I know the wife only messages me for something important, and most of the time she calls first. The usage that is left comes from phone calls, video conferencing, Audible and Kindle.

I have regular Zoom calls with my friends and I’m seeing them more than I have in years.

I only use Audible when away from the children doing chores or running errands because I like to listen in peace. Reading on the Kindle is rare. I make a point not to do that when parenting. It doesn’t have the same kind of pull as a browser anyway, in the same way a book doesn’t.

I don’t feel any guilt around this level of consumption. There’s no separation anxiety any more.

I’ve already started working on bringing this philosophy to the other window in my life – the laptop. This is much trickier because using the laptop is tied to both my work and entertainment. I devote time daily to thinking on how to sidestep my terrible self-control.

Some early changes include:

macOS is boring in that it “just works” and I would probably be better off sticking to that. Who knows, maybe ditching the laptop for an iPad with a keyboard and pointer device would be viable at this point. I’d still have the browser to contend with though. I don’t have an answer for that yet other than discipline.

I’m sure I could have made all these problems go away with discipline alone, but there’s a growing body of research that suggests these devices are deliberately making it very hard for many people. After years of trying and failing to break free from my excessive phone usage this is what I came up with. It’s a work in progress. I hope it helps you.