Break Your Smartphone Addiction the Atomic Habits Way – 14 Actionable Tips

By Nate McCallister


This summer, I’ve been working to cut down how much time I spend on my iPhone. 

Even in a world where everyone is using their phones so much, I was using it way more.

If you're an entrepreneur, my guess is you might have a similar experience.

So, in this article, I want to share some tips that have helped me dramatically cut down the time I spend on my device that I know can help you as well. 

The first thing that came to my mind when I started the process of breaking a bad habit was James Clear’s book "Atomic Habits". 

Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones
$11.98

My most gifted book. An absolute must read for anyone who wants to succeed at anything.

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09/19/2022 08:06 pm GMT

So, I approached my phone addiction in the way he outlined in his book. 

Breaking Bad Habits (The Atomic Habits Way)

First, if you haven't already, go read Atomic Habits by James Clear ASAP.

It is genuinely the most impactful book I've ever read. 

For now, if you haven't read it or it's been awhile since you did, here is what Clear's process for breaking a bad habit looks like. It will be the foundation for breaking our phone addictions. 

If you've read the book, you'll notice that the steps are simply the inverse of the laws for creating good habits. 

  • Make It Invisible
  • Make It Unattractive
  • Make It Difficult
  • Make It Unsatisfying

Let's get into the specific things we can do for each of these. But first, let me share a couple of quick thoughts on smartphones and smartphone overuse. 

4 Quick Thoughts on Breaking Smartphone Addiction

Let me preface by saying I have zero credentials or qualifications to treat true addictions. The only reason I'm sharing this is because these things have worked for me and I've spent many years studying habit formation and my experience with breaking bad habits. 

Thought #1

I believe that quitting cold turkey is a bad idea. There is plenty of research proving that stopping anything cold turkey is not the most efficient approach. Although it can certainly work, we want to focus on the approaches that are going to give us the best chance for success. So, we will be slowly reducing our phone use down to what we deem to be more acceptable levels rather than completely pulling the plug right away. 

Thought #2

The smartphone is a weapon for productivity and removing it entirely or downgrading to a "dumb phone" is an absolute last resort option. There are simply too many positive uses for it. Let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater. 

Thought #3

How much use is "too much" is entirely subjective. It might perfectly fulfill you spending 2x-3x more time on your phone than other people.

For me, I have 4 rapidly growing children and want to reduce my phone usage down to the absolute bare minimum to focus more time with them. 

Thought #4

There is so much more that could be said about phone addiction that a full book on the topic is totally reasonable. This article will be a hyper condensed dive into the matter, but there are great books on the topic if you want to go further. How to Break Up with Your Phone by Catherine Price is a fantastic book on the subject. 

Ok, let's get into the meat of this article. 

(Inversion of) Rule #1 Make It Invisible

Here's how...

Smartphone Lock Box

We're getting serious right out of the gate here!

This device makes it nearly impossible to give in to the temptation of opening your smartphone. 

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Struggling with using your smartphone too much? Use this slick lock box to make it impossible to cave into the temptation.

  • Fits most brands and models
  • Charges devices
  • Still can accept emergency phone calls
  • Set timers for lock times

Dramatic? Perhaps. Effective? Definitely.

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09/19/2022 06:11 pm GMT

There are many variations of it, but the one pictured above was this one from Amazon. I bought it recently, and it's pretty sweet. 

It fits most sized smartphones and has multiple modes for accessing the most basic uses in case of emergency calls. 

Use Airplane Mode

Airplane Mode

Regularly schedule airplane mode on your device when you need to do deep work. 

Purge Your Email Inbox

Checking email on your smartphone is distracting but can be important. However, we can delete unnecessarily distracting broadcasts, so we never have the temptation to deviate from productivity. Use a tool like unroll.me to remove yourself from mailing lists in bulk.

Unroll.me

Somehow, it's free.

You're going to be shocked at how many lists you're on!

Delegate or Delete Support Email from Mobile

This was a gamechanger for me. Customer support is one of the easiest things to outsource. I hired someone to manage my support emails for $22/hour and I can sleep well, knowing I don't need to put out customer service fires. 

Delete Distracting Apps

If you're serious about limiting your smartphone distractions, I suggest removing every social media app. Don't worry, if it goes horribly or you just don't want to sacrifice that long term, you can add them back later.

Delete Social Media

This can be extremely time-consuming if you're like me and had hundreds of apps. So, iPhone users, I recommend checking out a tool called iMazing to do this in bulk on your desktop. 

Turn off Default Notifications for Almost Everything

Do you really need alerts from ESPN? Yes, this was hard for me to turn off...What notifications do you have on by default that you could live without? It's probably almost all of them. Apps usually ask for notifications to be turned on when you install them and if you're like me, you might have inadvertently given too much power to distracting apps that don't deserve your attention whenever they want. 

Set Morning and Evening Rules

I recommend that you not use your phone for at least 1 hour after waking up and then stop using it at least 2 hours before bed. 

(Inversion of) Rule #2 Make It Unattractive

Smartphones are beautiful. The resolution of the displays, the feel in your hand... it's truly art.

The only ways I can think to make it unattractive is to... 

Use Gray Scale

According to former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris, who has founded the Center for Humane Technology, "Going gray scale removes positive reinforcements and dampens that urge to keep loading up social media feeds or mobile games."

tristanHarris

"Going gray scale removes positive reinforcements and dampens that urge to keep loading up social media feeds or mobile games."


Tristan harris

On an iPhone, click on the side button 3x fast and it will make everything black and white. This is the same effect as gray scale.

On Android, the gray scale toggle is part of their Digital Wellbeing suite of tools that comes built into all new devices. You can learn how to implement it on older or newer Android devices here (sorry I don't have personal experience using it so I'll defer to the pros). 

Use an Ugly or Obnoxiously Large Font

You know what your grandma's phone looks like? Make it look like that. 

Use a Custom Lock Screen

Make a screen that helps you remain mindful that you don't want to waste time on your phone.

Here is an image I used for my screen saver.

iPhone Lock Screen to Prevent Distractions

The lines, "What For? Why Now? What Else?" were something I took from the book "How to Break Up with Your SmartPhone" by Catherine Price.

What For? Why are you opening the phone? Is there an actual reason or are you just bored? If you're just bored, don't open it. 

Why Now? Is this a time sensitive thing or can it wait? If it can wait, wait. 

What Else? What else could you be doing instead? If you mindlessly scroll Instagram for 40 minutes, was there a better use of that same time frame?

(Inversion of) Rule #3 Make It Difficult

Now let's put some friction between you and your smartphone.

Move Most Distracting Apps to Last Page

This is an easy fix. If you're regularly opening your Coinbase account to check how much money you've lost today, put it on the very last page of apps. Swiping left 8 times will give you plenty of time to change your mind. 

Make Your Password as Long as Possible

On the iPhone, the most we can do is increase our passwords to 6 digits, but hey, it's something!

Install the Rescue Time App

https://www.stickk.com/

Rescue Time is a great app I've used for years to monitor how much time on spending across all of my devices. It works with your computer, tablet and smartphone and shows you things like how many times you've picked up your device, how much time you've spent on it and on which apps. 

Put a Rubber Band around the Middle of the Phone

Yes, a literal rubber band. This makes it hard to scroll. If you need to, you'll have to remove it. Remove it dozens of times a day and it will serve as a constant reminder of how much you're using your phone.

(Inversion of) Rule #4 Make It Ungratifying

Now, let's reduce those dopamine levels a little.

Get an Accountability Partner

Positive peer pressure for the win! Get another smartphone addict (it won't be hard) to make a pact with you to limit their screen usage along with you. 

Share the results from RescueTime or whatever app you'd like with your accountability partner. 

It's a big buzzkill to tell someone you respect you didn't stick to your deal.

If you want to really kick it up a notch, check out a service like GoalsWon. They connect you with a dedicated coach who will give you direct and personalized accountability every day.

Goals Won

There are also programs like Stickk that allow you to create contracts that hold you accountable for your goals. You set your goal and then create a penalty that you have to pay if you don't achieve it. This can be several things from flat out cash to someone else or a donation to a charity you don't like.

If you don't stick to them, pay up!

Conclusion

Smartphone addiction is not uncommon. How much is too much is totally up to you. However, if you want to reduce the amount of time you're spending on your smartphone, remember the 4 rules...

  • Make It Invisible
  • Make It Unattractive
  • Make It Difficult
  • Make It Unsatisfying

Implement as many of the little tips I mentioned above and you'll do fine!

Life is Short. Don't Waste it On Your Phone 🙂

 Good luck!

Things Mentioned in This Article

[Book] Atomic Habits by James Clear

[Book] How to Break Up with Your Phone by Catherine Price

[Product] Smartphone Lock Box (via Amazon)

[Software] Rescuetime for tracking activity on all devices

[Software] iMazing for deleting apps in bulk on iOS

[Service] GoalsWon for a personal goals coach

[Service] Stickk for creating contracts to stick with your 

[Article] How to Break a Bad Habit by Starting a Good One

[Article] Atomic Habits Review + 10 Biggest Takeaways

[Article] How to Break a Bad Habit by James Clear

Side Thought: "Why Entrepreneurs Have a Unique Attraction to Their Smartphones"

Not to make excuses for us, but as entrepreneurs, I believe we are extra susceptible to smartphone overuse.

Here are some things that make our experience with screens so unique. 

#1 Checking Daily Sales

Stripe, PayPal, etc. - Sales is possibly the most addicting siren’s call of them all for entrepreneurs. This is especially true for those of us who aren’t on fixed incomes. My earnings can vary dramatically from day to day. Checking my sales analytics can be a positive or negative experience. It's literally like a slot machine and I constantly want to see what I won or lost.

#2 Monitoring Our Social Media Profiles 

Social media is distracting enough, but when you throw your business into the mix, it can be nearly impossible to just put it away. I regularly check to see if my posts are getting engagement or if I need to put out some fires in the comments section. 

#3 Checking for Positive and Negative Feedback and Reviews

Although there is usually nothing we can do about it, regularly monitoring things that have reviews is enticing. I check my book on Amazon daily in hopes of seeing a new 5 star review and dread for a new 1 star.

#4 Checking for New Opportunities 

This is a blessing and a curse. As you grow your reach, more and more opportunities fall into your lap. At least once a week I have some sort of contact regarding a collaboration, new business venture or something that merits a little attention. They are rarely time sensitive, but it feels like they all need immediate replies (they don't).

#5 Ensuring Great Customer Support

Although I've finally outsourced nearly 100% of my customer support, I can't resist the urge to ensure things are being handled correctly. The more you pride your company on its customer service, the harder it is to ignore. 

#6 Messaging Partners

This is possibly my most frequent smart phone check in each day. Do I need to do something? Did something go well? Did something bad happen? Did someone share a hilarious meme? Making sure I keep a healthy line of communication between myself and my partners is a very important part of my day.

#7 Doing Actually Productive Work

This is why we can't totally toss out the smartphone. It's just too damn useful! I record videos, write blog post ideas in my notes, and a lot more. 

#8 Checking Investment Portfolios

There have been few things less productive than my investment into cryptocurrency in 2016. The constant ebb and flow of the market calls to me daily. Oh, and I do nothing about it! Why do I look? I do not know. Ever since November of last year, nearly every currency has consistently plummeted or plateaued, and checking it is stressful but necessary.

This doesn't excuse us, but if you're beating yourself up over your smartphone usage, just know you're not alone and it's not a simple fix. 

About the author

Nate is the founder and main contributor of EntreResource.com and author of Evergreen Affiliate Marketing. He is a lifestyle entrepreneur who spends his time building businesses and raising his four kids Sawyer, Brooks, Van and Lua with his beautiful wife Emily. His main interests include copywriting, economics and piano.

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