Expert suggests skipping the life hacks if you are trying to break a phone habit in 2024

Expert advice on how to stop obsessive social media scrolling. File image.

Maybe you’re hoping 2024 is the year you quit scrolling Instagram at bedtime or peeking at emails during family dinners.

Oliver Burkeman, who writes about time management, is sceptical of the typical life hacks to stop staring at your phone including using app timers, turning your phone gray or shutting off your internet service.

For lasting change, Burkeman encourages us to understand what’s behind our tech compulsions.

There are the attention-stealing features of technology, yes, but also our desire to feel in control or avoid what’s unpleasant. Your phone is a perfect escape.

I found Burkeman’s 2021 book, “Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals,” refreshing in encouraging us to neglect more things – including our social media feeds – to have energy for the people and things that we care about.

It’s a difficult but urgent message. (The book title is a reference to the number of weeks in a typical life span. Scarily short.)

If it bugs you that you can’t bear more than a few minutes without whipping out your phone (like me), read this condensed and edited version of my conversation with Burkeman.

Shira Ovide: What’s your practical advice for people who want to cut back on a technology habit they don’t like?

Burkeman: I’ve had a lot of success with deleting social media from my phone. I do have PDFs of reading material for my work, and I might read news on my phone, but I am not in the world of addictive attention when I’m doing that.

It’s also important to ask what the habit you don’t like is providing you. I’ve had phases when what felt like too much time spent on technology was motivated by a desire to have more conversations in my day. Then it’s a question of trying to address your need in some other way.

Ovide: What do you think of tricks like switching from a smartphone to a “dumb” phone, setting a timer on a social media app or cutting off the internet entirely?

Burkeman: Those aren’t useless, but they’re going to be a partial solution.

Understanding what’s behind your habit shifts your perspective in a way that has ramifications in how you spend your days.

Ovide: Okay, then, what’s behind our tendency to use technology in ways we don’t like?

Burkeman: Ultimately we are attracted to anything – including our technology – that can enable us to escape feelings of isolation or feel in control.

If you’re going to spend a few hours focused on being present as a parent, have a difficult conversation with a spouse or try to write half a chapter of a book, you’re going to want to get away from that situation. Expecting the discomfort is a game changer because then you know what’s going on.

Ovide: I often get annoyed when people tell me they feel bad about a technology habit. I wonder if it’s something people worry too much about.

Burkeman: After I wrote an essay recently encouraging people not to listen to music or podcasts while we cook dinner or walk the dog, people asked if I was just making up things to feel bad about.

My point was that it’s interesting how hard it has become for many of us to do just one thing at a time.

Ovide: The night before this interview, I mistakenly arrived 30 minutes early to meet friends at a restaurant. My immediate reaction was to pull out my phone. What would Oliver Burkeman have done instead?

Burkeman: It’s easy to lecture yourself and say you should be more present in the moment. But then you sit there glumly, trying not to stare at your phone and instead follow your breath or whatever. It’s not fun.

On my better days, I can encourage my curiosity and focus on what is interesting. I’m interested in how the restaurant staff keeps things going at a breakneck speed and who does what job. Or I could cogitate on what I’ve been pondering for work.

Ovide: It’s that time of year so I gotta ask. What are your New Year’s resolutions?

Burkeman: I don’t make New Year’s resolutions.

I’ve become disillusioned with the idea of a total fresh start or an incredibly ambitious plan for what I’m going to do every day for the next year. If you’ve found it difficult to do physical exercise, for example, the idea that just resolving harder is going to deal with whatever is getting in the way is a red herring of self-help culture.

On the other hand, I’m always making resolutions. As long as you are not kidding yourself that you’re going to find the perfect system, the perfect morning routine, the perfect set of habits, it’s fun to always be changing things up and experimenting.

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