Similar to the way many people grab a drink or snack at a party to avoid feeling socially awkward, most people gravitate toward their phones for comfort and distraction when confronted with everyday uncomfortable emotions. Think: Standing in line at the grocery store (boredom), waiting for a friend at a restaurant (impatience or social anxiety) or missing family (loneliness).
An essential step in developing a healthier relationship with your device is relearning how to get comfortable with boredom, social anxiety, loneliness and other sometimes-unpleasant feelings. “The phone has allowed us not to tolerate boredom anymore,” says research psychologist Larry Rosen, Ph.D. “When the urge strikes you while you’re waiting for a movie to start, don’t grab your phone. Just let your mind wander. It is very difficult to do.” Ahead, a few ideas for making it easier.
When most people grab their phone to see what’s new—texts, likes, notifications—they’re rarely expecting anything pressing. What if you tried slowing down, allowing yourself a moment to figure out what you’re really looking for?
Yael Shy, a mindfulness meditation teacher, says, “Before you reach, take a deep breath. How do you feel? What is leading you to reach for the phone? Is it just habit? Loneliness? A desire to escape a particular feeling?” Taking that pause offers a sense of freedom and empowerment, so you can be more intentional about checking your phone when you actually do have something to attend to.
Ever felt jealous while scoping your co-worker’s vacation pics or your yoga teacher’s dreamy meditation routine? In the moments you find yourself envying others on social media, first just notice it’s happening. “See if you can take a few breaths and name the things that are going OK in your life,” advises Shy. “It can remind us that, often, more is going right in our life than wrong.” What do you have to be grateful for?
As Shy suggests, being glued to your phone serves as a convenient way to avoid uncomfortable feelings. Thus, taking a step back from your phone means more discomfort is bound to come up. But learning to sit with that discomfort—and recognizing that it isn’t harming you—can be powerful. “When uncomfortable feelings arise, acknowledge the emotion but accept it as normal and healthy,” suggests Victoria Dunckley, M.D., a psychiatrist in California. “You should feel good about the fact that you’re letting your brain stretch, rest, solve a problem or work through an emotion every time you resist using your phone.”
Set your phone’s timer for 15 minutes, turn the phone facedown and don’t touch it until the alarm goes off. When it does, check whatever you want for one minute, then repeat. This teaches your brain that you can be near your phone without being on it and you won’t miss out on anything, explains Rosen. When 15 minutes starts to feel too short, try 20, then 30.
Unplugging entirely from tech probably isn’t realistic: Our phones have become essential for emergencies, communicating with colleagues and being available to loved ones. Try limiting phone use with a more balanced approach, such as turning on only text or call notifications. And when your whole family is together, agree to put your phones on silent or in airplane mode to keep distractions to a minimum.
Relying on social media for news means you see only headlines (and everyone’s emotional reactions to them). Instead, consider using one central app or podcast for news. Some news apps provide morning and evening briefings with links to full stories if you’d like to learn more.
“Ask your family members or friends how they feel about your technology use—and really listen without getting defensive,” suggests Dunckley. You may find out they feel ignored or frustrated by your lack of presence. “Though this may be a painful conversation, it can be the kick in the pants needed to make a shift,” she says.
There are plenty of times you can create some distance from your phone—at the dinner table, before you fall asleep, during meetings and on afternoons when you’re with your family and don’t have to worry about being out of reach. Take the opportunity to put down your phone for a while and enjoy some time away from it.