In early December, Sam Altman—president of startup incubator Y Combinator—sent out an ominous Tweet.
Digital addiction is going to be one of the great mental health crises of our time.
— Sam Altman (@sama) December 3, 2016
Naval Ravikant, a co-founder of Angel List, an online hub for entrepreneurs and investors, added his two cents: “When everyone is sick, we no longer consider it a disease.”
When two Silicon Valley fixtures are worrying aloud about spending too much time on their smartphones, you know this problem is getting serious. Luckily, there are a number of steps we can take right now to make sure our devices don’t control us.
Personally, I have unquestionably benefited from the convenient supercomputer in my pocket. But I struggle with it too—and with the constant feeling that I really ought to be consuming (and producing) more tweets, snaps, emails, and blog posts.
For what it’s worth, my wife says I’m an addict; about 75% of our marital tiffs involve me and a connected device. I’m not so sure I have a problem. But I am convinced that the ability to do uninterrupted and focused work is a competitive advantage for any professional. How can it not be? The numbers show that we check our phones 150 times a day; if each interruption consists of just one minute, that’s 2.5 hours of lost time, per day.
This makes sense, because technology companies actively want to hijack our psychological vulnerabilities. Tristan Harris, Google’s former design ethicist and founder of the Time Well Spent movement, has described how the apps on our phone are engineered to generate intermittent, variable rewards to maximize their addictiveness. Does that feeling when you pull down on your email, wait for it to refresh, and see if there are any new messages remind you of something? It’s no coincidence that checking your email is meant to emulate another addictive object: the slot machine.
In an attempt to reclaim my independence, I’ve developed nine hacks to reduce the slot machine effect and preserve my ability to do focused work. Here they are, in descending order of difficulty:
9: Create different (and long) passwords for each social media account
Adding an extra step to accessing social media sites is a solid deterrent. Picking characters like “”, “[“ and “%” also helps because on mobile, they’re a few taps away. More on why this is important below.
8: Delete as many social media apps from your phone as possible
The only permitted indulgence on my phone is Snapchat; Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Medium are gone. After all, who can resist a good face-swap! Even if you delete the apps, you’ll probably be tempted to check the sites via Safari or Chrome—hence the tip above.
7: Turn off all notifications and badges
Spoiler alert: You will pretty much always have new email! As Tristan Harris points out, that little red dot is part of the “intermittent variable reward” system. But whatever message is waiting for you is also probably not that exciting—there’s no need to know about it in advance.
6: Limit time spent on social media on your desktop or laptop
I use the StayFocusd Chrome extension, which lets you set daily timers on specific sites. Personally, I have a daily allocation of 20 minutes for Twitter.
5: Disable the Facebook Newsfeed
This has saved my life, especially after the election. The Chrome extension News Feed Eradicator allows you to check profiles and messages and post status updates, but prevents you from getting drawn into the mix. I’ve yet to look back on this one.
4: Batch your inbox
This is pretty aggressive and may not be a realistic possibility for all professionals. But batching similar tasks is a common productivity strategy. I use BatchedInbox, which allows you to set up to three specific times for email delivery throughout the day. (I use 7am, 1pm, and 7pm.) I combine this with an auto-responder to indicate that I’m also reachable via SMS. At a minimum, try this function on your personal e-mail.
3: Convert your screen to grayscale
Playing with a screen black, white, and gray is not nearly as fun as one with vibrant colors. Trust me, my three-year-old has let this be known loud and clear. On iOS 10, you can make the change by going to Settings → General → Accessibility → Display Accommodations → Color Filters → Gray Scale.
2: Disable touchID and create a long password
This is hands-down the most powerful hack to reclaim intentionality for your phone usage. Tapping a long password is just enough of an inconvenience to keep you away from those empty information calories. I’ve had this in place for a year, and while it’s always mildly annoying, that’s exactly what I wanted.
1: Go for airplane mode.
Desperate times call for desperate measures.
By now you may be thinking, “Wow, Khe’s phone is the serious No Fun League.” But while this may seem like overkill, if I’m being honest with myself, my wife is right—I’m pretty darn addicted. These hacks help transform my phone into what it ought to be: a computer, not a slot machine.