If I was to tell you there’s one thing you’re likely to spend 11 years of your life doing, what do you think that would be?

Waiting on hold for your telecommunications provider?

Standing in queues?

Searching for lost things?

Trying to remember your passwords?

Checking emails?

Now you’re getting closer….

It’s this: being on your phone.

Shocked? I was, and even in the toughest of crowds when I give presentations about efficiency and overwhelm, there are audible gasps and groans when I give this statistic.

But think about it. On average, we pick up our devices at least 3 times each hour, spending just under three hours a day on our phones – and some people’s use is MUCH higher than this. If we’re asked to estimate how much time we spend on our phones, our actual use is often double what we guessed. I seem to have conversations about this with people over and over again – as we’re often a bit perplexed about how our behaviour is so powerfully shaped by something so small. And I’m not immune to this myself, so I’ve been looking into what’s going on here.

What’s the problem?

It’s not just the sheer amount of time spent on phones that can be a problem, it’s what happens to us while we’re on them. As Mary Aiken says in The Cyber Effect, when we’re on our phones, to our family members and friends, we might as well be elsewhere. We’re present in body, but our minds are in a world of their own. While we’re using our mobiles, we’re NOT doing all kinds of other things, playing with our children, talking with friends, doing meaningful work, feeding our pets (my cats will vouch for this)….you get the picture.

We all know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of this inattention; research on the impact of phones on relationships showed that if two people are talking and a phone is on the table, even if that phone doesn’t belong to either of them, they report feeling less connected, and they rate each other less positively.

Phones distract us – even if they’re not ours – as they remind us of the world beyond our present moment. They’re a means of communication and connection, and they also disconnect us.

Phone-related deaths are being linked to driver distraction, pedestrian inattention, gaming addiction (I’ll pass on cliffside Pokemon Go, thanks all the same) and taking selfies under dangerous circumstances (there’s a very sad list on Wikipedia which I recommend you don’t read). According to the AA, 14.5% of New Zealanders say they use a phone while driving – and that’s just the people who admit to it.

What’s happening here, folks? Why is is that otherwise sensible people – even people who don’t tend to develop addictions to substances or other behaviours, and who don’t knowingly break the law on a daily basis – have become so enmeshed with these tiny devices?

Phone-related freak-outs

Ever lost your phone for an extended period of time? Or had it break and die, once and for all? Remember how you felt?

I still remember the cold panic I experienced years ago at Invercargill airport when I was about to fly to Stewart Island. I overheard a conversation about how, at that time, Vodafone had no service on the island and I had been oblivious to this. (Embarrassingly, I think I was more anxious about being without phone coverage than being away from my son for an extended period.)

Up until ten years ago, smartphones weren’t a huge part of our lives. Now, most of us take them everywhere with us and essentially treat them like an extension of our body. There’s even a word – nomophobia (shortened from “no mobile phobia”) – for the huge anxiety many people feel when they find themselves without access to a functional mobile phone or an active signal/wi-fi. In one study, forty-six percent of people said they couldn’t live without their phones.

Why, why WHY?

I’m going to be talking about this more in upcoming Facebook live videos over the next few weeks, but in a nutshell here’s what’s happening.

Much of this isn’t our fault. The way our brain chemistry works when we’re on devices is part of the lure – we get a small hit of dopamine (a feel-good chemical) when we use our devices or switch between tasks online. It’s the same chemical system which gives us a thrill – briefly – when we get what looks like a promising result on an pokie machine or an instant kiwi ticket.

And tech developers – particularly those who create apps or design software – work really hard to produce technology which keeps us online (or draws us back in). The more time we spend online, the greater the chance that someone somewhere is going to make money – either we buy something, we upgrade or subscribe, or we click on paid advertising.

One tiny step (which might be a little shocking)

We’re not powerless, however. If you feel like this is ringing bells for you and you want to take back control of your time, NOTICING your phone use is a great first step. Much of this use is habitual – we don’t even register that we’re touching our phones sometimes – so starting to pay attention is fascinating in itself.

For the next three days, keep a record in a diary or on a piece of paper (NOT on your phone, obviously!) by placing a dot or a line every time you pick up your phone. If you want to be systematic you can divide each day into hours, or else keep it simple and just tally over each day.

And if you’d like to wrestle back your time from your phone, once and for all, I’ve designed an online training to teach you how to do just that. Find out about the Outsmarting Your Smartphone workshop here.



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