Addicted to digital technology? Here’s how to beat the habit | Oliver Burkeman

Banning yourself can have the perverse effect of making your phone more enticing. What you need to do is make it boring

Illustration by Michele Marconi






‘Smartphones are a diabolical mixture of bad and very good.’
Illustration: Michele Marconi for the Guardian

Recently, I bought a piece of digital technology to help me conquer my low-level addiction to digital technology. Yes, yes, I know this makes me sound like a sucker, no better than those techno-junkies who queue overnight at the Apple store for an early glimpse at the meaninglessness of their lives. But bear with me: Ditto, which costs about £30, is a thimble-sized contraption that clips to my belt and vibrates when I get texts or calls from specific people. So I can stash my phone in my bag, out of sight and reach, confident I’ll be contactable for, say, a baby emergency. (Or by the editor of Guardian Weekend. Obviously!) You can use the iPhone’s “do not disturb” feature to do something similar; but last year, researchers showed that just having a phone in your sightline impairs your cognitive capacities. By contrast, Ditto replicates all the secret joy of accidentally leaving your phone at home, with none of the accompanying panic.

Readers even more curmudgeonly than I am may mutter that if I have such a tortured relationship with my phone, I should just get rid of it – downgrade to a dumbphone, maybe. Didn’t we manage fine before smartphones came along? The trouble is that smartphones, like most technology, aren’t simply bad. They’re worse: a diabolical mixture of bad and very good. I love receiving photos of the baby while I’m at work; I love FaceTiming with faraway friends; I just hate the compulsion to stare absently at the web every five minutes. That’s the smartphone’s whole trick: all those addictive apps are essentially parasites.

“Hundreds of daily activities that used to be performed in separate locations, with different gestures, and through a range of interpersonal interactions, have now all been collapsed into the smartphone,” says Jocelyn Glei, in a recent episode of Hurry Slowly, her podcast on slowing down and cultivating attention. “Our brains have been trained to allot a substantive portion of our ‘automatic attention’ to our smartphones.” Every time I use the phone for something indisputably meaningful, such as tending to a friendship, I’m reinforcing the allure of all its other functions, most of which aren’t.

The frequently touted remedy is a “digital detox” – banning yourself from connectivity for hours or days at a time. But that can have the perverse effect of making the banned object more enticing. What I love about Ditto is that it makes my phone boring: if I know I’ll be buzzed for the important stuff, where’s the excitement in checking it?

That’s also the effect of another tip, featured in Catherine Price’s useful book How To Break Up With Your Phone, published next month: switch your display from colour to greyscale. (This is apparently so threatening to the addiction business model, it’s hidden five levels deep on the iPhone: go to Settings > General > Accessibility > Display Accommodations > Colour Filters.) Instantly, your phone is vastly duller. Perhaps that’s how we’ll find a sane relationship with tech: not through self-discipline, but by making it too tedious to bother with.

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Stephanie Brown’s book Speed: Facing Our Addiction To Fast And Faster gets at the deeper psychological reasons we’re keen to reach for our smartphones, even when it makes us miserable