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How to better manage your relationship with your phone

A man and a woman lie on a bed. Both are on their backs and are looking at their smartphones

Throw your mobile phone hard against a brick wall. Just imagine it.

How does it feel for you? What emotions come up in your mind and body?

What about when you realise you’ve left your mobile device at home, or in a taxi? Are you bereft? Do you crave it?


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Hear more about mindful tech and addiction on All In The Mind.

Last year, 84 per cent of Australians owned a smartphone — and among young people, that figure was 94 per cent.

And our dependence on mobile devices has crept up on us over time, leading to a range of problems, University of Washington Information School’s Professor David Levy said.

They are a result of unthinking habits we’ve developed around our mobile phones, like obsessively and unconsciously checking for notifications, Professor Levy said.

In his book, Mindful Tech: How to Bring Balance to Our Digital Lives, he argued using mindfulness techniques including “conscious observation” and “reflection” can help break bad habits.

But what does this actually mean, and why are smartphones so addictive in the first place?

Addiction like smoking, sugar

The habits we build around smartphones are so strong because they involve our body’s reward system — the same system that makes sweet food or smoking so addictive, University of Massachusetts Medical School Centre for Mindfulness’s Dr Judson Brewer said.

Dr Brewer has used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and other techniques to look at the brain’s processes when it comes to craving and addiction.

When we experience a trigger (such as hunger) this results in a behaviour (such as eating). This, in turn, releases a chemical in the brain called dopamine, which creates a temporary feeling of pleasure.

“If we get stressed out, and then we go and distract ourselves by surfing the internet on our phone or checking our Facebook feed, that temporary distraction gives that same type of temporary reward,” Dr Brewer said.

He said the dopamine reward is “intermittent” because we never know when the next Facebook “like”, email, text message or phone call is going to arrive.

That means we anticipate more and get a bigger hit when we are finally rewarded for our constant phone checking.

“If we knew that we were going to get an email every 30 seconds, then our brain is going to start expecting that, and it’s not going to get the big dopamine hit,” Dr Brewer said.

The cost of multi-tasking

This desire for dopamine can have you checking your phone every couple of minutes — and this can seriously interrupt your concentration power.

For example, when you’re at work, switching tasks to check your phone frequently comes at a cost, Professor Levy said.

Moving between tasks takes time — which we could use to do the tasks we’re actually supposed to be doing.

Then there’s the possible loss of focus associated with this multi-tasking.

Professor Levy researched how it impacts our ability to pay attention in a typical workplace in a study of human resource managers.

He first made them complete a range of tasks — on the phone, on email, texting and talking in person — in just 20 minutes.

Then, over a course of eight weeks, one group was trained in mindfulness meditation, another in body relaxation techniques, and a third had no training at all.

He then got them to repeat the original tasks and said those who had learned to meditate “had less self-reported stress and they had switched tasks less often”.

Those with mindfulness training were able to resist habitual behaviours — like instantly opening an email or text when it pops up — to focus their attention on individual tasks for longer.

“They began to make somewhat wiser choices about when to respond to something and when not to,” Professor Levy said.

How are you using your phone?

Professor Levy doesn’t advocate you give up your phone altogether, or that you switch to a “dumb” phone.

The first step is just to be aware of, and think about, the ways you’re using your device, he said.

Professor Levy runs mindfulness classes with future technologists, where he uses a phone meditation exercise to get people thinking about these questions. Here’s how to do it.

Try phone meditation:

  1. Think about your phone. What happens to your breathing? Does your body posture shift? What emotions do you feel? And what does it do to the quality of your attention?
  2. Take your phone out and hold it in your hand. Don’t turn it on or unlock it. What do you feel now? What’s changed?
  3. Unlock or turn on your phone. Open your email inbox. Don’t open any messages. Just scan. How do you feel?
  4. Open an email message and respond (if you can).
  5. Turn off your phone and put it away. How do you feel now? What’s happened to your breathing?

People respond to the exercise in a variety of ways, Professor Levy said.

“[Some] feel anxiety, their breathing changes … then finally when they put the phone away they feel more relaxed,” he said.

But he said others were energised and excited by the prospect of using the phone.

It isn’t about aiming for a particular reaction, but rather about getting you to think about your phone use, and what you could do differently based on what you discover, Professor Levy said.

For those who want to follow Professor Levy’s personal practice, here’s his approach to mindfulness and tech.

What the expert does:

  • Professor Levy starts his morning with a meditation
  • He punctuates the day with moments of meditation — even something as simple as checking in with his breath while walking to the printer
  • He tries to remain aware of when he’s using technology, and why he’s using it
  • For one day out of seven, he turns off all his devices