My Journey to Mindful Smartphone Usage

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4 years ago, I had formed a very bad habit. Every time I would get bored, I would unlock my smartphone, open any app, and waste 15-20 minutes on it.

I would do something even worse sometimes – I would unlock my phone to do something important and then see another app and would end up spending 10 minutes on it, forgetting what I was supposed to do.
Realizing that this is a problem, I decided that I need to find a way to fix it.

I decided that I would be more mindful of my smartphone usage.

But how to do that?

Decoding my habit of wasting time on my smartphone

In his book “The Power of Habit”, Charles Duhigg explained that there are three components of a habit loop – The cue, the routine, and the reward.

The cue is the trigger that kicks off the habitual behaviour. I decided to figure out the cues that prompt my unchecked smartphone usage and avoid those triggers.

Trigger 1: Being bored and smartphone present in front of me

Me picking up my smartphone when I have nothing else to do is the first behaviour that I need to fix before doing something else. It became a muscle reflex for me to take my phone out of my pocket to scroll Quora or Twitter when I was waiting for something.
To stop this from happening, I started keeping my phone away from me. At least for the time I am working.
I would keep my phone where it is not visible to me. This made it hard enough for me to keep checking my phone every instant.

One tool I used for some time was a script I made using an Android app called “Automate”. Every time I would unlock my phone, it would show me a message and lock my phone for 10 seconds before I could use it again. This was such a big disappointment that I started hating the idea of using my phone. Needless to say, I don’t use it anymore :).

Trigger 2: Notifications telling me something

Many times when I would be working on something, I would receive a notification from Twitter or Reddit about something I commented on recently and I would get sucked up into it.

I value my attention too much to continue to let this happen.

I started blocking notifications left and right.

Android has this amazing feature where you can block certain “categories” of notifications while allowing other types of notifications. An example is that I can block the “Offers and Announcement” notifications of the PhonePe app while still getting payment transfer notifications.

phonepe notifications settings android
Notifications settings for PhonePe app on Android. I can block “Offers & Announcements” category while allowing other notifications

For social media apps like Instagram and Reddit, I don’t let them run in the background. So I receive the notifications only after I open the app.

I also used the “minimalist phone” launcher app for a while. It would filter notifications from apps that aren’t important in one place that you can look at later.

Trigger 3: Another app reminding me of something

When I set out to do something productive on my phone, I would see another app that would remind me of something that I thought of doing earlier. Now instead of doing the real important thing that I initially set out to do, I would waste my time on this old task.

To tackle this, I decided to change my phone’s default app launcher. I was using the “minimalist phone” launcher (mentioned above) where I would only see 4-5 important apps on the home screen. To find other apps, I would have to swipe left which opens the list of all apps. From there I would have to find the app that I was looking for.

I am using “Niagra Launcher” now which follows the same approach. Here to open Firefox, I would swipe once to open the app list. Then I would click on “F” to show the apps starting with “F” and then open Firefox.

This prevents me from finding other apps that I might start using.

A thing to note

One thing to note is that this cue is not just for apps. I can get distracted from other things – like a WhatsApp message from someone important. Or a new email I receive while I am searching for an important old email. As with other notifications, I try my best to limit my input. I would report and block WhatsApp messages from business accounts who have no right selling their products there. I would unsubscribe from email senders who are not important.

Still, this is not always enough. I have to be mindful of what I set out to do and force myself to not check other messages, apps, and emails. Only once I have completed the task that I wanted to do would I check other things. If I don’t have time, I will add them to my to-do list.

There are other things that I do to limit my smartphone usage that do not come under the “mindful usage” heading. This includes setting time limits on all distracting apps and websites, and not making any friends (hehe).

Some of my favourite tools to help limit your smartphone usage:

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