It’s easy to become a slave to your phone. Human psychology makes it hard not to check notifications as soon as they pop up, and apps are so easy to use you can spend an incredible amount of time bouncing between them without even realising you are doing it.
More than one in five smartphone users are online for more than three hours per day, according to a report from Textlocal.
Instead of ditching your phone entirely, you can change the way you use it so you’re managing your time better with some simple psychological tricks.
The homescreen – the first thing you see after unlocking your phone – seems innocent enough, but how you arrange your apps can have a big impact on how you use them. “When something is very accessible to us, we can find ourselves clicking on something without even thinking about it,” says Hilda Burke, psychotherapist and author of The Phone Addiction Workbook. Rearranging your homescreen can help to cut this down.
1. Monitor your habits
Behaviour is based on three things: motivation, ability and prompts. A phone notification provides a prompt, which you have the ability to check with the ease of access to your phone. Humans are social creatures, and so have the motivation to click on these apps in order to fulfil social desires.
“Habits are automatic behaviours,” says Lauren Kelly, a behaviour design director at Behaviour Studio. “We don’t really know what’s happening and we don’t have any awareness that we’re clicking on something.” Most of our behaviour is based on unconscious decisions, and so to break habit loops you can change the design to create some friction so you don’t end up bouncing thoughtlessly between apps.
The first step to changing your habits is first to monitor them. Use a tracking app such as Social Fever or Screen Time on iPhones to see how much time you spend on certain apps, or simply make a tally of how many times you check your emails a day.
2. Create barriers
The next step is to create barriers between you and the apps you check too much in order to break this automatic response. This means that your ability to check them is reduced, breaking the behaviour. Move the apps so they aren’t on the first screen you see when you open your phone, or put them into folders to create an extra step before you can access them. Burke suggests that apps like Facebook and Gmail could even be deleted so you have to manually load them up on your desktop to access them.
Another way to break the habit loop is to take away the prompt to open apps – the notifications. While it may be important to see work emails or texts from your partner as soon as they come in, notifications from other apps could be causing you to open them more than you need to. In psychology there is the Zeigarnik effect, where people are more likely to remember a task if it is left unfinished – a notification badge represents an unfinished task your brain won’t let you leave alone, says Kelly.
Going into your settings and changing it so that you don’t have badge notifications or banners popping up every hour will mean that you can go on the app when you want to and when it is necessary.
3. Find the perfect layout
When reading digital content, people automatically tend to scan the screen in an F-pattern, according to research from Nielsen Norman Group, a research firm. As Westerners are used to reading from left to right, the left-hand side of the screen takes priority, as does the first row. If there are apps you wish you were checking more often, perhaps you want to spend more time on a wellness app or wish you remembered to check the stocks daily, then these should go on the top row towards the left. However Daria Kuss, an associate professor in psychology at Nottingham Trent University, points out that this may be different for larger phones such as the iPhone 11 Pro Max or the Huawei Mate 20 X, where users may be drawn to the bottom right corner as it is the most easily accessible.
The background of your phone may also have a psychological effect on you. Looking at images of nature can have a calming effect according toresearch published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, so setting your background to a leafy forest or a green meadow may help you to relax. The colour green itself is calming, but other colours may have the opposite effect. “It’s no accident that every single notification on your phone is red,” says Kelly. Avoid having a red phone background so your phone is less attention-grabbing.
You may even want to get rid of colour completely in order to not receive as much stimulation. According to former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris, setting your phone to grayscale will dampen the urge to stay on your device for long periods of time, as your brain is no longer getting the positive reinforcement it wants.
“Technology is here with us to stay,” says Kuss. “What we need to do is to use our smartphones in an effective, efficient way for the kinds of purposes that we want to use it for.” Many people use their phones for both work and personal reasons, and keeping a separation is important in order to keep a work-life balance, which can be done by making a few small changes to your homescreen.
Maria Mellor is a writer for WIRED. She tweets from @Maria_mellor
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