050: Dear Phone, We Need a Break (and it's not me, it's you)

Last year I read How to Break Up With Your Phone by award-winning writer and science journalist, Catherine Price and it was eye opening... to say the least. We understand that our phones are addictive and that there’s often more productive/sociable/energizing/[fill-in-the-blank] ways to use our time… but we turn to our phones because they’re soothing/easy/distracting/[fill-in-the-blank].

I feel like I’ve had a tenuous relationship with my phone since my first Nokia 3310 almost 20 years ago, but our rocky relationship has been extra dysfunctional in recent years. Addictive algorithm-infused social media is challenging to resist. All-too-easy access to our ever-present phones means that I’m picking it up dozens of times each day, reinforcing the damaging cycle of dysfunction.

Dear Phone, we need a break (and it’s not me, it’s you).

I’ve broken up with social media on my phone before (which represents a big chunk of my current total screen time), deleting Instagram for a period of time and removing myself from Facebook altogether... but it never sticks and why would it? It’s designed to be addictive. And in perhaps the greatest act of not talking-the-talk, I’m using it right now to conveniently preach my distaste and distrust using the very platform I wish to condem. It’s. Messed. Up.

Nevertheless, reading Price’s book a couple of years ago reinforced my need to reevaluate my relationship with my phone. Now I’m not denying that there are some very good reasons to use my phone, such as using email, project management and calendar apps, not to mention actually using it as a phone to call my Mom every once in a while. But I think we can have a healthy, functional relationship with this ever-present object in our lives, and we can have a less healthy, dysfunctional desire to pick it up all day long.

One thing (among many) that I’m concerned with is how my phone use is impacting my creative thinking, both in the short term and the long term. This is one of the central themes in this episode and the lens through which I’ve reread Price’s work.

This gem of a book is split into 2 sections: Part 1 is called “The Wake Up” (the 5 W’s of breaking up with our phones) and Part 2 is called “The Break Up” (how to break up with our phones). Today’s episode will dive into both.

The Wake Up

Early in the book, Price wastes no time making a case for why we should care about putting down our phones: “While research on [wireless mobile] devices is in its early stages (unsurprisingly, given that they’ve barely been around for ten years), what is known so far suggests that spending extended time on them has the power to change both the structure and the function of our brains - including our abilities to form new memories, think deeply, focus, and absorb and remember what we read.”


Smartphones are literally rewiring our brains, changing the ways we think, which undoubtedly has consequences for how we problem-solve, experience creativity and, perhaps most importantly, understand and cope with our own thoughts and emotions, for better or for worse.

Price goes on to say: “And the more I read, the more I became convinced that our attachment to our devices is not a trivial issue. It is a real problem - I’d go so far as to say that it’s a societal addiction - and we need to do something about it.”

These sobering words are a stark reminder that our phones are changing our brains; literally altering their structure and function, including our ability to form new memories and think deeply.

What’s just as concerning AND infuriating is that this is done at our expense... for a hefty profit.

“Not only are phone and app companies aware of their products’ neurological effects, but they pack their products with features that will trigger them - with the explicit goal of getting us to spend as much time and attention as possible on our devices.”

I suppose I already knew that companies are purchasing our attention, but to have it spelled out in black on white makes me feel like a real sucker. Social media is offered to us for free, after all, so how can tech companies be some of the richest on the planet? Well, we’re not the customer... we are the product.

WE are the product.

Our focus is being exchanged for cold, hard cash because with the right algorithms, well-targeted products and services are squeezed into users’ feeds (which translates into consumer spending) and thereby advertising dollars become well spent. And what’s most clever on the platforms’ part (and intoxicating to many users) is that we generate our own content. We’re a self-perpetuating money making machine!

Ramsay Brown is the founder of a start-up called Dopamine Labs, a company that helps app companies keep you glued to their products. “Brown offered the example of Instagram, which he says has created code that deliberately holds back on showing users new “likes” so that it can deliver a bunch of them in a sudden rush at the most effective moment possible - meaning the moment at which seeing new likes will discourage you from closing the app.”

I’m not anti-technology. I’m not anti-consumer. I’m anti-being-taken-advantage-of. But if I know this in my heart of hearts, why can’t I look away from the piano-playing cat? Why can’t I just turn it off?!

Our attention is being sold, but even when we know we’re being tricked, we continue to scroll. It’s like watching a magic show where you know it’s all an illusion - sleight-of-hand and misdirection - but sawing a woman in half is still really cool to watch and you’re curious to see how it will all unfold.

We stay and we watch and we scroll and we click because we enjoy dopamine. She’s cute. She makes you feel good. And she brings her A-game when you pick up your phone.

“If your brain learns that checking your phone usually results in a reward, it won’t take long before your brain releases dopamine any time it’s reminded of your phone. You’ll start to crave it. (Ever notice how seeing someone else check their phone can make you want to check yours?)”

It’s a virtual yawn! (And you just felt like checking your phone AND you yawned, didn’t you?!)

Our phones are designed to offer novelty and do so consistently. According to writer Clay Shirky, the word ‘novel’ is derived from the printed books of yesteryear; from stories published not long after the commercialization of the printing press when there was huge excess press capacity with little content to publish (you could only print so many bibles, after all). Stories that had never before been written, printed and published to the masses were literally ‘novels’; new and never-before seen. But once novelty wears off, less dopamine is released. So producing constantly novel content is necessary to keep users coming back for more.

“...what really gets us hooked isn’t consistency; it’s unpredictability. It’s knowing that something could happen - but not knowing when or if that something will occur… this unpredictability is incorporated into nearly every app on our phones.”

The feel-good hormone, dopamine, is the star of The Phone Show. Just the thought that there could be new information headed our way (no matter how frightening or factual it may or may not be) is all that’s required for a warm and fuzzy hit of dopamine. Addictive behaviour is constantly reinforced and built into the algorithms behind our favourite, brightly-coloured squares.

But what if what we truly need is a moment of silence?

An absence of content; a break, subtraction, removal of noise, a moment of solitude without a barrage of notifications keeping us placated?

As Price writes: “If our smartphones excel at one thing, it’s making sure we never, ever have to be alone with ourselves.”

I’m someone who prides myself on not often feeling bored. Give me a pencil and piece of paper and I will happily spend hours (literally hours) in blissful contentment. Send me outside and I will find a way to have a good time with only the grass or sand or water around me. In the infamous words of my Granny (and echoed throughout my childhood by my Mother): “Only boring people are bored!”

But recently, I’ve noticed my capacity for contentment without stimulation waning. I’m fidgety. I’m uneasy.

In these moments of in-between I do what any “normal person” does: I pick up my phone.

A few months ago I spent an entire 60 phoneless minutes floating in a sensory-deprivation tank. (Yes, it’s a little out of the ordinary, but hear me out.) The experience took place in a shin-deep pool of warm salt water designed to be the ultimate relaxation experience. I had no stimulation other than a few lights on the ceiling. No shirt, no shoes, no cell service.

While the experience wasn’t transcendent or even really pleasurable if I’m honest, it was eye-opening and I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to try it. During the float I felt bored more often than I’d like to admit and not having any concept of time (a few seconds felt like a few minutes felt like a few hours), I thought seriously about standing up and ending the experience before the 60 minute mark... more than once.

I hadn’t been unstimulated like that in as long as I remember, and it was paired with a loss of control in a way that I found genuinely challenging. Being able to check our phones whenever we want, and receive the hit of dopamine each time we do, is something we take for granted and I saw the effects of losing it first hand. But maybe that’s exactly what I needed.

The way I see it, one of the scariest things I stand to lose in the way our phones are changing our brains is creativity. Afterall, “...creativity is often sparked by boredom, which is another mental state that our phones are great at helping us avoid.”

Boredom is a good thing.

Author, Glennon Doyle, has echoed this sentiment in her book Untamed: “I find myself worrying most that when we hand our children phones we steal their boredom from them. As a result, we are raising a generation of writers who will never start writing, artists who will never start doodling, chefs who will never make a mess of the kitchen, athletes who will never kick a ball against a wall, musicians who will never pick up their aunt’s guitar and start strumming.”

In a world where passivity is the new activity and consuming is the new creating, I want more. I expect more. I need more. And while boredom doesn’t always feel good in the moment, we should recognize the important role it plays in creativity, innovation and growth.

And for these reasons (and many, many more), I vow to put down my phone.

The Break Up

In her book, Price lays out a number of excellent thoughts and ideas about how to break up with your phone, as well as a complete 30-day program to help snap out of negative cycles and build new relationships with our phones. I’m going to highlight just a few high-level key ideas, but there are LOTS more outlined in the book so check it out if these are striking a chord.

As she makes very clear in her work: “We’re trying to resolve discrepancies between how we say we want to live our lives, and how we are actually living our lives. Sure, there may be some uncomfortable moments along the way, but ultimately, breaking up with your phone should make you feel good… Our goal isn’t abstinence; it’s consciousness.”

Price suggests the best place to start is to download a tracking app (iPhones have this feature now built in) to assess important stats about your phone use. How many times do you pick up your phone each day and what apps are you spending the most time using? Furthermore, ask yourself some important questions like:

“What do you love about your phone?

What don’t you love about your phone?

What changes do you notice in yourself - positive or negative - when you spend a lot of time on your phone?”

All of this behavioural assessment is setting you up to reimagine what your relationship with your phone could look like and how it can change for the better.

Anytime you reach for your phone ask:

WHAT FOR? What are you picking up your phone to do?

WHY NOW? Why are you picking up your phone at this specific moment?

WHAT ELSE? What else besides picking up your phone could you do right now?

Turn unconscious habits into conscious decisions.

One of the most interesting ideas in this “how section” of this book is around reframing; specifically reframing your FOMO (fear of missing out). Instead of focusing on what you’re missing out on when you’re not on social media, think about what you’re missing out on IRL (in real life!) when you’re spending time on social media. In other words, what are you missing out on in the world right in front of you, in this exact moment? Perhaps you’re missing out on your child gleefully playing (guilty) or the dog begging to be walked (double guilty) or face-to-face time with your significant other (triple guilty).

While we may be missing out on the updates of online personas when we’re technologically disconnected, we’re missing out on updating our own lives when we are technologically connected. Disconnect to reconnect. If we’re merely consumers of the world and not creating our own world, whose world are we living in?