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    people enjoying a park on a summer day

    Simple Steps to Combat Smartphone Addiction

    Finding technology and habits that make life better, not worse.

    By Tara Isabella Burton

    July 3, 2024
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    • Amy Nolan

      Bravo! This article spoke to me and I wish the author the best of luck. Like so many people, I too struggle with trying to limit the phone and not being present in the real world. For the past year and a half I have been trying to de-machine my life as much as possible while being realistic in my aims. I gave up online shopping for lent this year and that was a revelation. Why am I ordering scotch tape on Amazon? The Takeaway is that you have to do these new (actually old) ways for at least a month for them to change your habits and it is well worth it. Onward and upward!

    • Kelly Endicott

      This comes dangerously close to sounding like an Apple Watch ad. I appreciate what you've said though, about your breakthrough happening when you *added* these enriching commitments to your life rather than *taking away* the smartphone.

    I am writing this essay on the fifth floor of the New York Society Library: an eighteenth-century subscription library housed in an early twentieth-century townhouse on East Seventh-Ninth Street. I am writing on the fifth floor because the wood-paneled members’ room – easily the library’s most beautiful – does not allow keyboards. Beside me there is a genuinely dog-eared print book (George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, purchased from the Strand in my teens). My cellphone is at home, where a pot of scratch-made Georgian beans is simmering in my slow cooker.

    It is a beautiful life. I am not at all used to it. I have been, for most of my adult life, an addict. I am not addicted to drugs, or to alcohol, or to any other too-easily-glamorized substance. Rather, I, like many of us, am addicted to small, insubstantial hits of dopamine. I am addicted to smartphone screens, to impulse-buying vintage on eBay, to Reddit, to unnecessary Lyfts between places I could just as easily and far more pleasantly walk or take the bus. I Amazon myself things available at my local drugstore. I waste too much time and spend too much money. My reports from Screen Time, when I can bring myself to read them without feeling sick, crest into six or seven hours. I usually feel sick. Every year, for almost a decade, my New Year’s resolutions have contained some iteration of “this will finally be the year I break my smartphone addiction.” Inevitably I fail.

    My powers of attention are minimal. I fidget. I cannot sit still. I can barely watch movies. It is extremely likely – though I have not been formally diagnosed – that I have some form of ADHD, like my father before me. At my lowest point I considered going on Adderall, despite strong concern about its side effects, to attempt to salvage a sense of control over my own life.

    There is a particular irony to this failure. I am someone who spends the bulk of my professional life writing, and thinking about, the desire for transcendence, the possibilities of presence, the intertwining of attention and love. I love old things and slow things and beautiful things, and I have spent most of my life wishing I could be around more of them. And still, when I am running late (usually because I have been scrolling) I sometimes take a Lyft rather than the bus or subway, because – I do not always admit it to myself – it is easier to scroll when riding in the backseat of a car, where other things are less likely to compel my attention.

    It is not that I do not know there is another way to live. Twice – each time during the completion period of one of my novels – I have spent a month offline, either without internet altogether or with just a flip phone. Both months were among the happiest, and most creatively fulfilling, of my life. I cooked more too. But, inevitably, these periods would end; being entirely internetless, in public, proved impossible to live out in the everyday (for starters, I missed my group chats), and I lacked the strength of will to continue a better way of living without the extremity of my self-imposed barriers. To live well, to live quietly and wholesomely and beautifully and frugally and thoughtfully, seemed incompatible with living in New York City: a place I loved and was committed to. I could imagine, of course, going away somewhere to “detox” – romanticizing, at times, the idea of a retreat to Fox Hill or another Bruderhof community. But I could not imagine living that way in a city that, in my worst moments, seemed purpose-built to channel my attention into noxious silos: a place where everything from restaurant menus to theater tickets seemed to require me to take out (and, inevitably, spend time scrolling) my smartphone.

    This year I have started that project again. Last year – for a variety of reasons – was perhaps the worst of my life; I greeted this one with a desperate desire to hold faster to whatever good I could. I do not know if I will be successful. But, over the past few months, I have found myself closer to success than I have ever before been. I am also, I think, the happiest I have ever been.

    The funny thing is, I didn’t start out with the intention of breaking my smartphone addiction, nor indeed to break my addiction to newer technology more broadly. If anything, the inciting incident of this particular period in my life was the purchase of technology: a sixty-dollar air fryer, which allowed me (someone who cannot really cook) to cook myself simple, affordable, healthful, and pleasurable meals without too much effort and, vitally for me (someone who absolutely cannot clean effectively), without too much dishwashing. Around that same time I made a few additional commitments to myself: volunteer regularly, cook at least two meals a day at home, walk everywhere I can, take cars as rarely as possible, waste money as little as possible, always carry a book with me, and do my work primarily at the aforementioned library – a half-hour stroll from my apartment.

    Small habits begat other small habits. I spent less time socializing in expensive cocktail bars and more time at my local arts club in midtown: a communal space where drinks are subsidized, and you don’t need to purchase them to be there. Rather than eating at restaurants – I began to prefer my own cooking – my “activities out” tended to include theater performances or film screenings. I joined a local gym that doubles as a neighborhood community center, whose members I started recognizing in my strolls around the neighborhood. Volunteering, likewise, was an opportunity to walk – delivering meals to seniors in the area – and through it to get to know my area better. I started stopping by the local produce stand near my apartment on the way home from the gym or the delivery: buying vegetables I felt confident enough to air fry. I made lunch at home, then walked to “my office” – noting along the way there or back places I might stop for specialty groceries, or a place to sit and read. (Walking or browsing for that night’s groceries also proved a more fruitful use of “ten minutes to spare” than, say, stopping at Starbucks for an expensive coffee I didn’t actually want.)

    My relationship with screens improved, less from a single cold-turkey-style commitment than from a few small but significant decisions. I put a social-media blocker on my smartphone, as well as on my iPad, the device I use when writing outside the home. Within three weeks my habits had sufficiently changed to allow me to replace my smartphone with an Apple Watch, using a ten-dollar monthly plan that allows me to make and receive calls, texts, group chats, and emails (along with map directions, transit times, and opera tickets) from the watch, without any access to a browser or other scrollable content. (My phone remains plugged in, and otherwise untouched, in a corner of my apartment.) Without access to distractions, “transit time” became either an opportunity to walk or, if I was taking public transit, to read.

    My relationship with screens improved, less from a single cold-turkey-style commitment than from a few small but significant decisions.

    As my life improved – so remarkably and quickly I myself did not at first understand it – a few common factors became clear. I was spending the bulk of my time and attention either in my own home, the homes of friends (many of whom lived within walking distance), or at institutions – my arts club, the library, even my gym (to say nothing of my church) – that were not focused on turning a profit, but providing a local useful service at the lowest possible operating cost. Likewise, without my smartphone – a conduit to sites and apps designed explicitly to extract money from me, either by encouraging me to buy things or by monetizing my attention – my interior life remained my own: time to think, read, write, or simply watch the world go by. I cannot think of any other time in my life in which so few companies have made money off me.

    What was striking, too, was the degree to which it became clear that my problem was not with technology, nor even with certain elements of the smartphone (I am delighted, for example, to retain access to my group chats, and to be able to check the bus schedule), but with its pernicious misuse: kindling and sating the desire to experience what Kyle Chayka has called a “frictionless” world – one in which, for example, we do not have to make conversation with our local produce-seller to get food, or interact with our neighbors en route to the uptown bus, or sit alone with our own melancholy thoughts – because what we want can be satisfied with minimum effort. My problem with attention was, I came to realize, a kind of anxiety: a fear of friction itself, a reluctance to participate in the very presence I thought I craved.

    people enjoying a park on a summer day

    Photograph by PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo.

    My new life, such as it is, is enabled by technology, even as it rejects its excesses. I am grateful for my watch, my air fryer, even – book purists might be appalled – my Kindle, which can slip into a small purse more easily than a print book, and thus makes it more likely I will take the chance to read when out. But the technology I use is, increasingly, in the service of making possible – even in a city like New York – a life of smallness: a life where I can remain in touch with friends, go see theater, read books, write, cook simple meals for myself, and check what time the bus is leaving. The technology I retain access to, in other words, is technology that makes the good things possible – even as I am stricter than ever with myself about technology that does not.

    To “break my smartphone addiction,” it is becoming increasingly clear to me, was a nigh-impossible goal, not simply because smartphones are incredibly addictive, but because to combat them required combatting the entire culture they represent. It required, in other words, a change of an entire way of life. It required active, constant refusal to participate in a culture that wanted to pervert my desires for friendship, community, beauty, and fulfillment into a desire for stuff and ease and looking good in social-media photos.

    It became clear, too, that living in New York City actually made this way of life easier. Being able to walk to church, or across Central Park to visit friends, being able to access produce stands on every other street corner, being able to get deeply discounted theater and opera tickets and sit in parks and libraries, being somewhere with 24/7 public transit, and access to volunteer opportunities outside my front door, being somewhere dense enough and walkable enough and culturally rich enough that all the things I want to do are accessible without getting in a car or having to navigate via smartphone screen, is itself a kind of blessing: and one I would like to see expanded to as many car-reliant cities and suburbs as possible. If anything, smartphone withdrawal has been made possible by being fully in the world, rather than running away from it.

    I do not, to be clear, think I have unlocked the secret to the good life, in New York, or in any other place (although I am telling as many people as I can about the Apple Watch trick!). Nor am I – in full consciousness of my failed attempts – confident that this latest attempt will stick. But I am acutely conscious that – without intending to – I have managed to develop a far healthier relationship to my phone than ever before. And, if the only part of this life that sticks is that I buy my daily produce from the nearby Razman, where I specify whether I’m buying for today’s dinner or tomorrow’s lunch so that he knows how ripe of an avocado to give me, my life will nonetheless have been immeasurably improved.

    Contributed By taraisabellaburton Tara Isabella Burton

    Tara Isabella Burton is an author, a columnist for the Religion News Service and a contributing editor at the American Purpose.

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