Take Back Control of Your Mobile Phone

Mmm, take back control sounds familiar… no, can’t think why except that I wrote about digital decluttering last summer when I’d just decided to look at my relationship with my mobile phone and leave Twitter.

In that post, I mentioned that we check our phones an average of over 150 times a day, I bet it’s even more now.

Since then I haven’t totally gone back to the dark ages (and I have gone back to Twitter) but I have had another epiphany so I thought I’d share the results. To call it life-changing feels like I’m overegging it, and I’m the Queen of understatement so I won’t say that, but it has been profound.

This is what I did to take back control…

Turned off Safari and Gmail on my mobile

Who even knew this was possible?!

To switch off apps on an iPhone:

Go to Settings – Screen time – Content & Privacy Restrictions – Allowed Apps

For a long time, I haven’t had work emails or social media apps on my phone but I used to wake up and check my personal emails straightaway. I’d browse through my inbox deleting messages or flagging anything I needed to look at later.

Then I’d go onto Safari where, like an addict desperate for a hit or a smoker needing their first cigarette of the day, I had to check BBC news and the Guardian (please don’t judge me). It was a compulsion, an essential part of the routine of my day.

I’d check both sites first thing in the morning and last thing at night and a few times during the day. Switching them off (I can switch them on any time if I need to if this is giving you palpitations) has changed my day immediately.

I have more time to spend on other things for starters.

I’m not sure exactly how long I spent on Safari on my phone each day but, being honest with myself, I could spend the best part of an hour on just those two sites. Plus who knows how long compulsively fact-checking or looking up share prices or anything else that seemed important and urgent at the time but I don’t miss at all now I’ve stopped doing it.

Nothing in life is as important as you think it is, while you are thinking about it

– Daniel Kahneman writing about the focusing illusion in Thinking, Fast & Slow (a must-read if you’re interested in behavioural economics at all)

Other benefits I’ve spotted are…

I’m less plugged in and finding myself checking the news online less often during the rest of the day too. I’m more likely to watch the evening news on TV when my wife gets home for my fix.

I’m more chilled out. I’m not a constant fact-checking machine. Yes, we have inordinate amounts of information at our fingertips but is it making us obsessive?

It’s OK not to know what show that actor in the TV show you’re watching was on in the 1980s, or whether we’re leaving the EU with a hard Brexit/a soft Brexit/WTO rules/Canada plus/Canada plus plus/not leaving at all today.

I read more. Instead of reading online, I lie in bed with a book. It’s blissful.

Sarah Perry's The Essex Serpent beautiful book cover

I’m currently reading The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry and it’s wonderful – beautifully written with incredibly well-drawn characters and totally immersive. I lose myself inside a fictional world for a few minutes before falling asleep rather filling my head with the more depressing reality of the news.

I sleep better as I’m not putting blue light into my brain just before I nod off (it amazes me I did this for so long as someone who takes sleep-inducing meds because my brain doesn’t produce the right chemicals to put me into a deep sleep naturally).

I read the papers again! This makes me so happy. I last used to sit and read the papers at the weekend with a fresh coffee when I was in my late twenties. Until recently I’d just do the Saturday Telegraph cryptic crossword (too much detail I know but I’m showing off), skim through them a bit and recycle them a few days later when I admitted to myself that I was never going to read them properly.

Now I sit and enjoy going through them knowing I haven’t read everything in the Observer online already and I no longer begrudge the £30 we spend on them each month.

Lady sitting on a wooden deck overlooking a lake meditating

I feel calmer and more in control.

This has surprised me. Not only have I regained time at the beginning and end of the day but I have less need to be connected the rest of the time, reading, scrolling, seeking new tidbits of information, feeding my brain. It’s like I’ve deadened that urge.

Every time we check our phones we’re feeding our brains’ need for dopamine, making it seek out more stimulation and strengthening the chain of addiction. Technology and apps are designed to make us keep checking them – why do you think notification circles are red?

And the world goes on. The incredible mess that is Brexit continues. The advent of rolling news means every last twist and turn is reported and our dopamine-addicted brains love it. But being always-on isn’t actually necessary. Our brains + technology have conspired to make us think we need to be plugged in all the time. We really don’t.

I am still informed. And I can still do very little about much of what I read about, or if I choose to do something I’ve got an extra hour a day or more to devote to it. I recently decided I’d like to volunteer a few hours a week – I can do that and still have time leftover.

Turn my mobile off at night

I’d read this tip and probably espoused it myself but I’d never managed to do it. Now I can because I don’t need to check my mobile at bedtime.

I turn it off and leave it in my study until the morning. If someone really needs to get hold of me, they’ll call me on the landline.

People always say “I leave it on for emergencies”. How many times has someone called you on your mobile in the middle of the night?

OK, maybe I don’t have people who need me 24 hours a day. But I have had that hideous 4 a.m. phone call when my Dad was dying so I’m not being flippant. And it came through on the landline in case my mobile was on silent.

On a lighter note, I don’t take my phone to the toilet any more either. Jeez, the hours I must have wasted. You think you’ll only look at your phone for a minute or two but in reality, you get sucked in and keep reading. Or calling. My poor wife got a lot of calls when I’d gone for a pee. Who says romance is dead?!

In the old days, people had a few books in their bathrooms: The Far Side (anyone remember that?), 101 Uses for a Dead Cat – silly books they got for Christmas, a switch off, a bit of harmless humour.

Now we tune in to the news, check our emails, read what our friends are doing on Facebook, keep ourselves connected having micro emotional moments of, yes, humour, but also jealousy, anger, inadequacy, sadness, overwhelm… and all while sitting on the toilet!

When did you ever feel stressed while reading a book about the rudest place names in Britain?

I must sound like I’m harking back to a simpler time – and, yes, yes, I am.

A time when we weren’t always connected, we looked up from our phones, we didn’t feel crap because we saw everyone else’s showreel constantly paraded on social media while our own lives might be stuck in permanent outtake mode.

A time when people didn’t complain that their other half spends the evening on their phone, mobile phone addiction wasn’t a thing and people didn’t text during meals or spend an entire rugby match (Scotland vs. France at Murrayfield in August) doing weird shit with Snapchat filters. Seriously. The entire game.

Murrayfield rugby pitch with Scottish and French flags
Dear lady who barely stopped taking selfies, the final score was Scotland 17 – 14 France 😉

Is there anything wrong with wanting things to be different?

Contrary to what I’m saying I don’t want to go backwards. I want to go forwards. We have this amazing technology, we carry mini-computers around with us night and day, we can do amazing things at the touch of a button. But the mobile is the tool, not the user.

Changed my ringtone

Years and years ago on QI, Stephen Fry said something along the lines of: “When your phone rings, it’s like it’s shouting Talk to me! Talk to me! TALK TO ME! Will you bloody well TALK TO ME!”.

Calls are often welcome but they can also be an intrusion and his words (although not the exact ones clearly – which I can’t remember!) stuck with me.

I recently decided to change my iPhone’s ringtone, which I associated with being interrupted to something I actually like and found Silk. It’s the kind of lazy tune that’s played when you’re having a massage, designed to be relaxing. Rather than shouting ‘TALK TO ME!’ it says ‘Hi there, how are you today? Let’s chat when you’re ready’.

Sounds trivial but it’s helped me like my phone more and take back control of it.

Didn’t upgrade my mobile

I first got a mobile in 1996 when I was 20. My mum had a stroke. I was there at the time, she was in hospital for three months, it affected me greatly. Suddenly I wanted to be able to be constantly contactable so I got a mobile phone.

That’s 23 years of owning a mobile (not the same one!).

I can’t remember what they cost in those days but even at a modest estimate of £25/month for 23 years, that’s nearly £7000 I’ve spent over the years. Add to that all the extra spending on holidays – I’ve never quite worked out roaming charges – that’s got to be another £1000+.

For the last few years, I’ve been on 18-month contracts and watched the countdown to when I could upgrade with glee, it’s been like Christmas coming early, and I’ve never questioned whether to upgrade or not. But this year I did.

I don’t need a bigger screen, more storage, more megapixels, blah blah blah… I simply don’t care enough about that stuff to spend hundreds of pounds on it.

So I said ‘no thank you’ this time.

old fashioned mobile phone aka a brick

And do you know what? The world didn’t end. Vodafone didn’t try and force me to have a new phone or tell me I’m a social outcast, they simply put me onto a new plan – one that costs £11 a month.

I have an iPhone, unlimited texts and calls and 1GB of data (which is fine for me as I work from home) and my bill is a quarter of what it used to be.

How amazing is that? Twenty-three years of bills and finally I feel like I’m winning!

I don’t have it in for technology, please don’t think that, but I do want to control my phone use so it never feels like a problem. I never want to feel that I’m addicted to it, that I can’t put it down or control my own impulses.

We know people’s attention spans are getting shorter, we know social media affects mental health, we know men and women cite their spouse’s mobile phone use in divorces.

By making changes I’ve reminded myself that I’m in charge. And it feels brilliant. I feel happier, calmer, more in control and have more time in the day. Perhaps that is life-changing?


What are your thoughts?