Smartphones. We use them for a dizzying array of reasons – and the possibilities they open up are incredible. Yet it’s easy to develop an unhealthy relationship with our phones: compulsive checking, comparing ourselves to others or feeling mentally scattered. It can feel like our lives revolve around our phones, rather than the other way around.

People I speak to tend to agree that they would like to be more purposeful in how they use their phones. It’s just that this is easier said than done. I recently discussed this with Jonathan Garner, whose business, Mind Over Tech, helps people to explore their relationship with technology and build habits that fit their particular life contexts. The idea came from his time working as a web developer, when he had the sudden realisation that the tools of his trade – a laptop and smartphone – were affecting a huge amount of distraction and emotional turmoil in his life. “At the point where I was considering changing career, I realised that you can’t run away from digital,” he explains. “So I started to experiment for myself to see how I could improve my relationship with technology.”

In my own efforts to strike the right balance, I’ve found a mindful approach – centred around paying attention to my experience in an open and non-judgmental way – to be very helpful. Not so much in prescribing particular solutions, but in encouraging a ‘spirit of questioning’ to whatever I’m doing.

How can this spirit of questioning, coupled with a willingness to experiment, help us to nurture a more balanced and spacious relationship with technology? When we begin to question the technology we use and why, we also begin to make more conscious choices about the time we spend with our technology, allowing us to create a healthier relationship. To explore this, start by asking yourself the following three simple questions about your phone use...

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What do I want to use it for?

It’s easy to skip over this. We use our phones for so many things and we typically assume that having everything in one place is useful. But often it’s this ‘multifunctionality’ that sucks us into unhealthy habits. You pick up your phone to check the weather, only to notice a message… that links to an article… and so on. You finally re-emerge 30 minutes later. In this way, we end up spending longer on our phones than we’d ideally like, and the non-stop stimulation can cause stress.

It’s worth experimenting, therefore, with which apps we need on our phones. A while ago, I removed all of my social media apps, which I now check on my laptop. My friend Jasmin, too, recently started managing her screen-time – and her example is interesting as she works at Twitter. She told me that by focusing on some hand-picked social apps, at set times, she felt much better connected to the world around her: the apps she uses now feed into her life in beneficial ways rather than just being a draw on her attention. You might consider, then: would streamlining what you do on your phone help you to feel more nourished? Are there apps you could try removing for a period of two weeks, say?

How do I stop myself checking my phone?

Another helpful question to pose is: how often do I actually need to check messages and emails? How long, each day, do I want to spend browsing news sites and social media? It’s so easy to be constantly checking our phones. Jonathan told me that he often found himself revisiting his inbox multiple times within the hour ‘just in case’ something important had landed. Sound familiar? Yet, in most cases, there is rarely a need to reply within 24 hours, he says. “I now schedule explicit times in the day when I check and respond to emails – usually one block in the afternoon. This really helps me to create healthy boundaries.”

To help us reach for our phones less, switching off notifications can be quite liberating. I find it also helps to organise my phone so that my home screen is reserved for ‘boring’ things like travel and weather apps. Anything vaguely enticing, like email and WhatsApp, gets housed on a separate page. Obviously, the choices you make will depend on your personal circumstances; the key is to experiment. Making it social can help: for instance, asking a friend or colleague to spend a month or two trying things out and sharing with each other how you get on.

Where should I keep my phone?

Just as we default to using our phones for a great many things, we also tend to keep our phones right next to us throughout the day. But is this another angle that we can experiment with? When it comes to bedtime, the advice from sleep experts is pretty clear: you’re best keeping your phone in a separate room. Mine charges in the living room. What’s more, when I get up, I’ve found that I tend to feel better when I get showered and dressed before going to check it. We can also ask where our phones ‘live’ during the remainder of the day.

In my experience, when it’s within easy reach (trouser pocket, desktop) I will reach for it, even without being aware of it. What I suggest is to try breaking down your day into the times you’re at home, the times you’re at work (or out with friends, say) and the times you’re on the move – and consider the distance from your phone that best serves you in each case.

At home, my phone now stays – okay, mostly stays – near its charger in the living room. It ‘lives’ in a small basket there; when I notice that it’s magically found its way onto the sofa, I simply return it to its basket. At work, I keep it in my bag or desk drawer, where possible. This means it’s not within immediate reach for large chunks of the day. In this way, it’s only when I’m on the move, when I use it to stream music, that my phone ‘lives’ right next to me.

Woman using a smartphone
Photo by Paul Hanaoka on Unsplash

Learn how to use your phone more mindfully

This simple technique will help you stay present when using your phone…

There is no instant fix when it comes to cultivating healthy habits; it’s an ongoing practice. But simply bringing awareness and curiosity to various aspects of our relationship with our digital devices is the crucial first step. An advantage of a mindful approach is that, through it, we cultivate the art of paying attention on purpose, which is so useful in all spheres of our lives. Another central feature of a mindful approach is embodiment.

When my friend Jasmin told me about how she tries to stay present when using her smartphone, she talked about creating space to reconnect with herself, adding that “the best gateway to do that is through the body”. She told me about somatic check-ins that help ground her in her lived experience. “During a conversation, for example, I will scan for any sensations in the body – maybe there’s a tingle in my hand or a pounding in my throat – simply feeling them without any further judgement or attempts to change.”

This is a really important angle to consider as we reflect on our habits. When I’m absorbed in my news feed, I’m typically pretty disembodied. I’m unaware if my posture is bad (hunched over my phone) or if my breathing is irregular, what Dr Linda Stone – an expert in the psychophysiology of our relationship with technology – calls ‘screen apnea’.

So, next time you’re scrolling on your phone, you might ask yourself: Am I breathing smoothly or holding my breath? Does my body feel stiff or relaxed? What’s going on in my body right now? In our increasingly digitalised world, then, perhaps checking in frequently with ‘the life of the body’, as mindfulness teacher Jack Kornfield puts it, is the single most effective strategy we have to create a healthy, balanced relationship with our phones.

Featured image by Getty Images.

This article was originally published in In The Moment Magazine issue 34.