Coaching Corner
Life Coach Tal Fagin Provides Guidance to Your Quandaries
Tal Fagin
LIFE COACH TAL FAGIN

Smartphone Addiction

Life coaching expert Tal Fagin gives advice on how to use 
technology to your advantage and for your convenience by 
controlling the amount of time you spend on your phone.

Dear Coach,
I seem to have fallen into an unhealthy relationship with my smartphone, and yet I can’t seem to lift myself out of it. 

It begins early in the morning when my phone (which is also my alarm clock) is the first thing I reach for. I check my texts and emails, peak at my social media feeds, check the weather, peruse the morning headlines, then revisit my emails and texts one more time. All of this before I even get out of bed!

Throughout the day, it only gets worse. Almost everything I do and everyone I interact with somehow involves a gadget. It all feels speedy and superficial, beyond my control and increasingly wrong.

Occasionally I feel tempted to slam the thing against a wall and shatter it, just to see how I’d fare, but even the thought makes me shudder. How would I even function? I am looking for a more reasonable approach to weaning myself from this dependency, while still operating as a full-fledged member of modern society.

Can you help?

Sincerely,
Hooked 

Dear Hooked,
Thank you for articulating the question on so many minds.

Almost everyone I know feels somewhat shackled and burdened by their technology, and I am currently coaching a number of clients seeking to curb pesky tech habits. One wants to feel more present with his children, and one has noticed headaches and nausea after too much device time. One feels perpetually scatter-brained and distracted, bouncing from one task to the next without her former ability to focus. Still, another suffers from “compare and despair” syndrome after spending too much time on Facebook or Instagram. 

All of them tell me they feel exhausted, pulled in too many directions and, when it comes down to it, just plain sad and lonely. 

Welcome to the age of technology!  

Before you go shattering your devices, let’s focus a bit on the positive, shall we? Clearly, technology enhances our lives in myriad ways. We snap photos, maintain our calendars and communicate easily across the globe. We have unlimited access to top-notch entertainment, and when we run out of detergent or toilet paper, Amazon Prime has it at our doors the next day. There is medical advancement, crowdfunding for good causes and basically instant and free access to the entire collected knowledge of all of humanity!  

It’s kind of thrilling, not to mention oh-so-useful, to have the world at our fingertips, wouldn’t you say?  

Then again, the negatives are starting to catch up with us all. Depression is on the rise. Relationships are suffering. Attention-spans are dwindling. The ability to “work from anywhere” has devolved into “working from everywhere all the time” and experts worry that a generation is growing up without empathy.

In your case, Hooked, you say you have “fallen into an unhealthy relationship” with your phone that you “can’t seem to lift” yourself out of. You use words like “wean” and “dependency” lifted straight out of the addiction lexicon.   

And there is a good reason for that.  

Like the cigarettes that hooked previous generations, smartphones began as cool, sexy, seemingly innocuous accessories that have begun to reveal a darker side. Our devices (and many of the apps we can’t seem to live without) were designed—on purpose and by incredibly smart people—to be addictive. They play on certain psychological vulnerabilities and take advantage of long-studied behavioral patterns. They are like little slot machines, constantly beckoning with the “rewards” of buzzes, flashes, and dings. You swipe down and wait for the thrill of new emails. You check your posts to see how many likes and shares they get, each one delivering a little dopamine rush that quickly fades and leaves you wanting more.  

There is a growing body of information out there about the addictive nature of our phones, but my sense is you are already all-too-aware of the problem. So let’s talk solutions. As with almost everything in life, moderation is the key. Beyond that, I invite you to try one or more of the following:

Knowledge is Power. Keep track of your daily tech habits, much the way dieters track their daily food intake. How much technology do you actually consume? What exactly are you consuming—healthy, necessary, value-added items—or garbage? When do you find yourself reaching for your phone, and in each case, why? Is it for work? Pleasure? Procrastination? Is it just a mindless habit? A distraction or crutch? In each instance, make note of how you feel. Are you energized and satiated, or do you feel disappointed or depleted? The first step to solving any problem is awareness. Paint a fuller picture of your habit (there are even apps for this!), and go from there.  

Institute Small Changes. Once you have a better sense of when, how and why you reach for your phone, you can start to make small but impactful changes. Identify, then reduce or eliminate digital habits that feel harmful or unnecessary. Personally, I noticed a few years ago that whenever my children “interrupted” me, say by needing my attention while I was firing off an email, my go-to response was “one second.” I later realized, to my horror, that the unintended message I was sending was “whatever I am doing is more important than you.” Now, when one of them asks me a question, I immediately put the phone down and look them in the eye, then take a moment to consider their request before going back to whatever I was doing (or switching gears to tend to them). I know lots of families who ban devices from meal time or bedrooms, and a slew of friends who have self-imposed “rules” limiting Facebook usage. Some people declare one day a week a “Tech Sabbath” and disconnect for 24 hours. What changes might you make?

Get a Room, just NOT the Bedroom. Speaking of changes, why not start first thing in the morning? Invest in an alarm clock and leave the phone to charge in another room overnight. Not only will you solve your immediate problem of getting sucked in before getting out of bed, but there is a mountain of evidence on how using our gadgets too close to bedtime messes with our circadian rhythms and impedes sleep. Give yourself a chance to reboot and unwind, to relax and breathe at the end of the day. Everything is better after a good night’s sleep.

Dumb it Down. Limit distractions and notifications by keeping your phone in Airplane or Do Not Disturb Mode. You can also go into settings on specific apps, like Facebook and Instagram, to limit your notifications. All those buzzes and pings are like Pavlovian bells that condition you to keep turning away from what you are doing and back to your phone. Making your smartphone a little “dumber,” by silencing your notifications (or turning them off completely) will limit this addictive conditioning and help you start taking back control of your time and your attention span.  

Power it Up. Guess what? You can reduce your phone habit by installing certain apps intended to reduce the amount of time you spend on it. Ah, the irony! I haven’t tried any of these personally, but I can tell from their names (Freedom, QualityTime, and BreakFree, to name a few) what they are intended to do.  

Go Social. Trolling Facebook and Instagram is like binging on Snackwells. You may feel momentarily full, but you quickly find yourself slightly nauseous and craving something more. Some of the most disconcerting news about our smartphone habits is how they negatively impact relationships, reduce empathy and increase feelings of inadequacy and loneliness. Our digital connectedness has many of us feeling utterly disconnected — from ourselves and one another. Why not approach your relationships the old-fashioned way? Ditch the social media and make some real plans, ideally involving eye-contact. Gorge on the wholesome, full-fat, delicious experience of meaningful personal connection. Try this at least once a day!

Confront Your Fears. Perhaps the thought of disconnecting triggers a fear of missing out? Maybe you worry that if you don’t immediately respond to every text or email, you will offend people or otherwise fall out of favor? Are you afraid that the world will somehow cease turning—or the news cycle cease churning—if you are not entirely au courant on every occurrence? Investigate any underlying fears you may have around limiting your tech habit. Question what you will really be missing if you disconnect a bit. More importantly, ask yourself what you might gain.

Make Meaning. Weaning yourself from your phone needn’t feel like a punishment. Reducing your gadget time will free you up to pursue more fulfilling activities. Machines are meant to be productive and efficient, but we humans possess a wider array of qualities. Creativity, innovation, exploration and deep learning all take place in our quieter moments. Not to mention pure enjoyment! Take a walk in nature. Visit a museum, catch a show or attend a concert. Savor a cup of coffee, stand on your head, paint, read, doodle or dance. Do just about anything that feels good, and for no particular reason. Life isn’t all about productivity or crossing items off a list, nor is it best spent alone with your face glued to a screen. Go tech and fancy-free, and give yourself permission to do something scrumptious at least once a day.        

In short, Dear Hooked, use technology to your advantage and for your convenience, but honor that essential part of you craving more balance. When in doubt, if you aim for moderation and make choices that add meaning to your life, you won’t go wrong.  

Good luck!
Tal