We went on a phone diet. Here’s what we learned about decreasing screen time.

After realizing their screen time was out of control, two friends vow to use their phones less for a week. Here's what they learned.

I’ve always been a late bloomer when it comes to technology. I’m on the old end of the millennial spectrum and didn’t get an email address (what up, AOL!), flip phone or smartphone until years after most of my friends had. 

Friends used to make fun of me for being behind the curve. After all, my mom got a smartphone before I did and I only got an iPhone when a former boyfriend picked me up from my house and basically dragged me to a Verizon store to join the 21st century.

Iphone held in someone's hand
Photo by Michael Weidemann on Unsplash

But since then, I’ve developed some less than ideal screen time and phone use habits . Because I use my phone as an alarm, it’s often the first thing I see in the morning. And completely pointless Instagram rabbit holes (I wonder who Channing Tatum is dating now?) sometimes keep me up for hours at night.  

Call me old-fashioned, but I miss the forced creativity of pre-internet days. Tons of research suggests that boredom is essential for creativity (think about how many lightbulb moments you have in the shower), and I hate the feeling of occupying my eyes, ears and brain with things all day and never giving my mind a chance to wander. I also regularly think about the harrowing research finding that simply having your phone near you makes you dumber.

So when my coworker, Janeane, offered to do a one-week phone diet with me, I was all about it. 

Here are our TLDR tips if you’re trying to reduce phone time too:

Sarah and Janeane’s tips for being on your phone less

  • Bring a journal or a book everywhere you go. 
  • Keep your phone out of sight and out of hand as much as possible.
  • Turn your phone to grayscale, which basically makes your phone less fun. 
  • Ask someone to go in on a phone diet with you. It’s great to have accountability, competition and a partner for the emotional struggle.
  • Track your progress and pay attention to what type and amount of phone use makes you feel best. 

We arrived at these by journaling throughout the week to capture the struggle, progress, backtracking and feelings of it all. Here’s a play by play of how it went for each of us and what we learned.

Day 1 – Wednesday, October 2nd

Janeane

I’m starting this phone diet because I feel like my phone is a part of me — on me, near me or sucking me in at all times. I want to feel free. I typically spend four hours a day on my phone (thanks for this disturbing information, Apple). I pick my phone up around 50 times a day — that’s about every 20 minutes if I’m awake from 7 a.m. 10 p.m. A big culprit for me is stalking my work email — I’m afraid of something urgent popping up, so I check really frequently to try to stay ahead of things.

Day 1 was all about self-study — observing what motivated me to pick up my phone. At one point, I was in the doctor’s office waiting to get a flu shot and my nerves sent me right to my purse to get my phone out. I guess I thought of my phone as something to calm me down.

By paying attention and using my phone only when I actually wanted to, I was able to check my phone less today. I filled some typical “phone time” times (e.g., riding in a Lyft, waiting at the doctor’s office, hanging out on a bench outside) journaling and reading “The How of Happiness” by Sonja Lyubomirsky. 

Because I was checking it less, when I did reach for my phone the “reward” was bigger — like more happy text messages and more “your order is here” emails — though those can easily take me down a phone vortex that’s only interrupted by my actual life needing my attention.

Sarah

Though I’m not on my phone for hours and hours a day (last week, an average of 1 hour and 44 minutes per day), I’m apparently touching it constantly — picking it up about every 13 minutes. Instagram is my drug of choice, and last night I went on deep dives into Brandy’s and Jia Tolentino’s accounts knowing it was my last chance for unabashed phone freedom. 

I’m competitive as fuck, so today I used my phone as little as possible. Janeane texted me this long thoughtful thing and I replied, “I would write more, but I don’t want to use my phone time!” 

Today my phone felt like a utilitarian device to only be used when necessary, which is how I thought about cell phones prior to smartphones. I’d love to readopt this mindset. I checked social media zero times today because, like I said, turn anything into even a moderate competition (even if it’s just with myself) and I don’t play around. 

I also wore a watch so I wouldn’t have to check my phone to see what time it was and risk getting sucked in. It helped a lot.

  • Phone time: 20 minutes
  • Instagram time: 0 minutes
  • Pickups: 38

Day 2 – Thursday, October 3

Janeane

Today I’ve been more relaxed about how I’m using my phone. I am still avoiding social media entirely, which is delightful, but I’m still using my phone to text and do research (things like dinner plans, upcoming trips). I see the latter as more helpful than harmful, so I don’t feel guilty about that. 

Bringing a book or journal with me has been helpful when I need something to do other than be on my phone. I went to a few meetings and left my phone at my desk and that felt freeing. Just the idea that I don’t always need to be with my phone or near it is a nice change. 

Sarah

Last night, I dreamt that I lost my phone and I literally burst into tears with relief when I found it. I wonder what Freud would say…

Today I was way more lax with my phone use, which is probably why I used it for over an hour. I even checked Instagram a few times. I’ve started to notice that I want to reach for my phone the instant I get bored. For example, today a website was taking longer than usual to load (maybe five seconds?) and I felt the urge to check my phone. Is this how people who smoke feel? I don’t want the reward center in my brain to work like that — needing some sort of “fix” the second something is even mildly frustrating or boring.

When you’re actively trying to avoid your phone you become keenly aware of what’s happening around you — I started to notice what fixated zombies we all are with our phones. 

  • Phone time: 1 hr 7 mins
  • Instagram time: 15 mins
  • Pickups: 60

Day 4 – Saturday, October 5th

Janeane

My relationship with my phone is wildly different on the weekends. I don’t care about my phone as much — where it is, whether or not I’ve gotten notifications, etc. I feel freer because I know I’m not expected to respond to work messages right away and rarely receive urgent ones. I did end up taking a peek at my work email to ensure there wasn’t anything I needed to deal with so that I could “truly relax,” but the level of email stalking was nowhere near my weekday habit. So that’s progress. This has made me think about how much importance I put on my work in general and my need to always be “on.”

Sarah

Phone time didn’t feel very high today. Part of my screen time was a call with my mom in the morning, so that feels like a net positive. I also listened to a podcast while I cooked dinner and that felt like a real treat, not just the constant stream of music, podcasts and news that I often mindlessly fill my eardrums with.

  • Phone time: 55 mins
  • Instagram time: 13 mins
  • Pickups: 35

Day 5 – Sunday, October 6th

Janeane

Sundays are usually my leave-the-phone-at-home day, where I do something healthy instead. Today, I went to a workshop on Ayurveda principles and left my phone in the room next door for hours. I did use my phone tonight as a tool to plan out my week, seeing what meetings I have and where I can fit yoga into the week. 

Sarah

Woman's hands typing into a phone
Photo by Oleg Magni via Unsplash

This was a more phone-centered day for me. My best friend from college and I send each other voice memos via WhatsApp almost daily, so 23 minutes of today’s time on the phone was that. I’m realizing that I won’t be able to avoid using my phone entirely and some things about it (communicating with friends and family) are lovely, not draining.

At night I fell into a 30 minute Instagram black hole. These always catch me off guard and it doesn’t feel good realizing what I’ve done as I emerge from them. At least it was the first one of the week. I laid in bed and felt bad about it while reading a book on self-compassion. The irony is not lost on me.

  • Phone time: 1 hr 34 mins
  • Instagram time: 38 mins
  • Pickups: 35

Day 6 – Monday, October 7th

Janeane

Yet another 3.5 hour phone day. I’m even more concerned because I didn’t feel like I was on my phone for this much time. This makes me want to understand the analytics better and which apps I’m using most. I did a lot of texting today and my pickups primarily came from notifications from text messages, so I’ll try turning those off and see what happens.

Sarah

I started the day doing a bunch of social media promotion for a panel I’m speaking on this weekend, so I almost immediately used up the allotted 30 minutes of social media I had budgeted for the day. Because promoting The Juggle and myself are part of my job, I can’t fully withdraw from social media.

I felt less vigilant today and ended up on my phone more than I wanted to be. That first day was HARDCORE and I’d love to have at least a few days a week like that, where I’m on my phone for less than half an hour. 

  • Phone time: 1 hr 52 mins
  • Instagram time: 38 mins
  • Pickups: 75

Day 7 – Tuesday, October 8th

Janeane

Today was my wedding anniversary so I left work early to celebrate and barely looked at my phone after 5 p.m. As a result, I hit an all-time low of 1 hour 39 minutes and only 13 minutes on social media.

Sarah

I closed on a house today (!!!) so spent a lot of time texting with friends and family. I also posted about it on Instagram. It’s hard not to be a narcissist who checks for likes constantly, hence the 80 pickups.

  • Phone time: 1 hr 25 mins
  • Instagram time: 29 mins
  • Pickups: 80

Final thoughts

Janeane

Screen shot of phone with apps in a folder called "time wasters"
One of Janeane’s strategies for avoiding certain apps

Am I using my phone too much?  Yes, the answer is yes. Even though I was really trying, my average daily phone time (3.5 hours) did not decrease. But I learned that on the weekends I’m at 1.5 hours, and I’m cool with that. 

The things that I realized drain my mental battery are: constantly checking email and apps (especially LinkedIn in the morning… like, why?) and shopping online when I feel sad and stressed.  While I didn’t decrease my screen time, I did make some healthy changes. I deleted old apps I don’t use. I deleted LinkedIn, Slack and Google Hangouts. I moved social apps into a separate folder. I turned off most notifications and (this was huge for me) turned off work email. All of this has led to a great reduction in anxiety for me.

Over the course of the week I felt a lot of feelings. Anxiety, relief, compulsion, freedom, power, guilt. Yes, all of those over a phone. At first, the more I avoided it, the more I wanted it. It called out to me all day. And honestly, it got worse before it got better. But by the time the weekend rolled around, I felt like a free bird. Free from work emails, hangouts and “things of urgency”… I could just be. I feel like this on most weekends, and one big learning is to try to tap into that feeling during the week by limiting work to my laptop and business hours. 

I have a lot of work to do still. I’m going to try Moment even though I’m suspicious of the amount of data I’d be sharing with them.

Sarah

Before I got a smartphone when people asked me why I didn’t have one I joked, “I’m afraid it will kill me in my sleep.” Now that I literally dream about texts and social media, and we’re all convinced our phones are listening to us, I’m not sure my past fears are so ridiculous.

The fear of my phone taking over my life and sucking up all my creativity is what motivates me to use it less. My biggest goal is to feel like my phone is an auxiliary tool that I occasionally use to make my life better, not a literal extension of my arm that fills my eyes and ears with constant noise.

What I learned by looking at my usage data (under “screen time” on your phone) is that I don’t flush as much time down the Instagram toilet as I thought. It turns out that a lot of the time I spend on my phone is texting.

I am mildly horrified, however, by how many times a day I pick up my phone. This week, putting my phone in another room was really helpful when I was at home. And trying to notice when I grabbed for my phone helped me use it less.

Janeane and I would still like to be on our phones less. But we realized that it’s going to take ongoing work and more than a week to change these habits.

What do you think? (Leave comments here.)