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How can I lead a phone-free life?

illustration:: Elena Scotti / Photos: Getty Images

Giz asksGiz asksIn this Gizmodo series we ask questions about everything and get answers from various experts.

It’s the rare person who logs out after a long day of scrolling and thinks, “I need a lot more of this in my life.” Because the thing is about the internet, it’s awful. Even the good parts suck because the good parts are swirled together with the bad – you can’t access one without wading through the other. Often times the good parts are just jokes about the bad parts, jokes that wouldn’t make sense if you hadn’t already exposed yourself – for no reason – to worthless and / or angry content. That said, it’s time to break the cycle – for this week Giz asksWe have brought in a number of experts to help us do just that.

Eric Loucks

Associate Professor of Epidemiology, Behavioral and Social Sciences, and Medicine at Brown University

Humans are able to invent and use tools. Think of the technology of a fish hook and line. They were revolutionary to help us feed our families. Digital technology was developed more recently than a fish hook. As with all tools developed throughout history, we keep those who help us and let go of those who don’t. How can we tell if a particular digital tool is helping? Well, when we are aware of our thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations, we can ask in strange, non-judgmental ways, “Is this digital tool helping more than anything else I can do right now?” If so, great. Keep using it. If not, let go of it and move on to the next priority action to take care of yourself and others.

Judson Brewer

Associate Professor of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Director of Research and Innovation at the Mindfulness center at Brown University

If we don’t know how our minds work, then how can we possibly work with them? When my patients come into my office, the first thing I do is try to determine how well they know their own thoughts. If you have no idea, I’ll start there. Helping people understand how we develop habits around social media is important, and it’s actually not that complicated.

Reward-based learning consists of three elements. First, there is the trigger: boredom, for example. Second, there is the behavior that is triggered: in this case, via social media. Third, the reward is: nine times out of ten you sign up and there’s nothing interesting there – but sometimes you hit the jackpot and there’s something new and compelling and your brain just injects dopamine and says, oh, go ahead once again! Another trigger is fear – you check social media because you are fearful and the behavior distracts you from that uncomfortable feeling (that would be the reward). Your brain learns to do again the next time you’re scared.

Social media is supposed to take advantage of this pattern. The platforms are designed to be as addicting as possible. It’s important to help people understand that these people are using the survival mechanisms of our brains (and, at the very end, using weapons).

Once we understand this process, we can use our brain’s reward-based learning system to find what I call BBO: the bigger, better deal. The only way our brains will stop doing something is if we give it something more rewarding. One way to do this is to show people how unrewarded the old behavior is – it might bring quick relief, but ultimately it makes things worse. We’re trying to help them pay attention to how it feels when they engage in more rewarding behavior – like when they focus – and get them to compare these two feelings in their brains. If you have the chance to check social media out or otherwise hesitate, just think about how it was the last time you did these things and compare it to how it was when you did this last time everything turned off their warnings and just focused. And your brain realizes that it just feels better to focus.

As you watch, watch your mind work and see how rewarding it is to take a break from technology. The idea that people simply force themselves to take a break from these things by willpower is ridiculous – it’s not based on neuroscience. This is a concept immortalized by the world’s proverbial weight watchers because they want people to think, “I’m not strong enough, I need to stay on your program longer.” That’s not how our brain works. As the day progresses, our willpower decreases and it becomes more difficult to resist these urges. Reward-based learning is the strongest part of your brain and can help you change your behavior.

Diana Winston

Director of Mindfulness Education at UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center and author of The Little Book of Being: Practices and Guides for Uncovering Your Natural Awareness

Nowadays it is almost impossible to lead a tech-free life. However, mindfulness can be used to minimize the excessive and sometimes unhealthy use of technology. I will focus on the moments when we turn to technology for time because we feel uncomfortable without stimulation.

For example, many of us turn to our phones in the moments when we are bored, waiting for something, and in all the intervening times. We’ve lost the art of being bored or uncomfortable, which is actually a pretty creative place if we’re willing to stay present in it. With mindfulness we can notice these moments of discomfort, feel the impulse to pick up the phone, read the news, scroll through our social media feed, etc. and pause, take a breath, notice the impulse, but not act on it . We can learn to be okay even in the midst of discomfort and to focus attention on our real-time lives. How do I feel right now, which sights or sounds are around me? What else could I do but jump on the phone? Or just take a calming breath and connect with life.

Elissa Epel

Professor and Vice Chairman, Psychiatry, UCSF Weill Institute for Neuroscience

Just do it. Leave it behind several times a day. Leave the part of your expanded mind, the “telephone” on which you become dependent, in another room or drawer. I am completely addicted to my phone, can often “feel” where it is, and when I can’t, I am obsessed with finding it.

Compulsiveness is the problem – how often we check it – because we fragment our attention. We strain our ability to be present with people in space and time. There are good reasons to become dependent on it, especially when we are accountable to other people or families. But in the end it still has a tax on our attention and hinders our wellbeing.

In our daily stress studies, we find that people who report feeling busy doing what they are doing are happier. You’re in a better mood. When we feel stressed out by something that happened that day, it is harder to get involved in what you are doing and be present to your presence. So we’re more likely to choose a screen.

There’s a natural competition between screen time and healthier activities. Now that we are spending more time at home, I have had the experience of taking a yoga class near me using my phone. Soon it landed on my yoga mat. No classmates or teachers to help me keep boundaries. And the rest is history. I hardly remember going to class.

Multitasking doesn’t really happen, we can’t do two things at the same time. It’s more of a fragmentation of our experience. Reasonable rules help – have a shorter working day – pandemic hours are more exhausting. For the day, turn off the computer as early as possible in the afternoon or evening. No phones at the dining table, during exercise, or before bed. These limits will help those of you who are addicted like me. Then there are advanced exercises how to give them up for a day or more. I’m still working on that.

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