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What Helped Me Get My Brain Back

I’m sure you’ve heard the complaints about how millennials and members of Gen Z are glued to their phones. Or maybe you’ve heard about how our attention spans are decreasing, with much of the blame placed on this technology. The very devices, sites, and apps which are designed to make our lives easier are also designed to manipulate us into staying as long as possible and returning as soon as possible. People have formed movements around doing digital detoxes or just trying to unplug more, and there is an abundance of articles with advice on how to break your digital addictions. Over the last three or so years I’ve been trying to make my relationship with technology healthier, balancing the benefits and drawbacks of each device.

Let me explain how I got hooked in the first place. I didn’t have a smartphone until my 18th birthday. Before that, I had accounts on Pinterest and Tumblr which I used frequently, but only on my laptop and purely for entertainment, not keeping up with friends. Not being online in the same ways as my peers meant I was often unaware of social events and even big life events for some people. Before our junior year, a friend of mine moved to Texas with her family and I didn’t find out for weeks because she announced it on Instagram and everyone neglected to directly inform me. Sometimes there were parties I wouldn’t hear about until the following Monday morning because they were arranged in Facebook groups. It was pretty isolating.

Soon after I got an iPhone, I created an Instagram account, then twitter and snapchat accounts, then a Facebook account. None of them were actually all that enjoyable to use, but at least I wasn’t left out or forgotten. I inevitably fell victim to the phone addiction and loss of attention span which plagues so many plugged-in people and it was particularly bad my freshman year of college. Before getting out of bed in the morning I checked Snapchat. Twitter and Facebook accompanied the first meal of the day and Instagram kept me entertained while waiting for my first class to start. Later, I might eat lunch in my room while watching YouTube videos, which I often didn’t finish if they were longer than three minutes. At night, I’d scroll through Tumblr until my eyelids grew heavy. I was constantly entertained, yet also constantly on alert and anxious.

As time went on, I was less able to focus on any one task. I saw this in other people too, like a friend who dropped a literature class because he couldn’t focus long enough to actually read anything more than a short story. Technology was not only ruining my attention span, but it frequently ruined my mood too. I could feel my blood pressure rising the further down my twitter feed I scrolled. Going through Instagram photos made me jealous of people who I normally wouldn’t pay any mind. I began feeling anxious if I realized I hadn’t checked snapchat for a few hours, thinking I might miss something on someone’s story. These things were never important but they took up a great amount of space in my mind.

I realized my relationship with my phone was out of hand after trying to sit through a dinner without it. There are idealistic commercials that show family members putting away their phones and enjoying a spirited dinner together. In reality, when you’re used to constantly scrolling, you become unable to fully pay attention in those phone-less situations. It feels like an invisible string is connecting you to your phone and it remains in the back of your mind until you’re reunited.

So how to fix this relationship? After reading up on how other people had cut ties with their phones I tried a few different things. Some worked, some didn’t. The fidgety withdrawal I experienced surprised me. After a while, I started regaining my focus and stopped thinking about my phone. There’s still room for improvement but there has been a noticeable difference and I wanted to share advice on what actually helped versus what was just a waste of time.

At first, I considered quitting cold turkey. Cutting myself off like that sounded nice in theory but it just wasn’t practical. Aside from LinkedIn, having an online presence is almost essential to getting a job out of college today, especially if you want to work in media, as I do. About half the job postings I see require knowledge of social media, and they check your accounts before offering an interview. Facebook in particular was necessary for me, as the dorm I lived in for two years communicated with its residents primarily through a Facebook group. There are also a number of people who are easiest to contact through Facebook messenger.

Even if I had deleted all my social media accounts, I still would have needed my phone for other things than its plain calling-and-texting purposes. At NC State, in order to access my accounts (and therefore my homework and my email) I needed a two-factor authentication app to log in, and would be automatically logged out after a certain amount of time. Locking my phone away before doing homework meant I couldn’t access those very assignments. Almost every time I picked up my phone to tap the two-factor authentication, I would get distracted by some other app’s notification, derailing my work plans for a few minutes at the least.

While not working on homework, unplugging was difficult because of the constant thought that someone might need to urgently contact me (though they almost never do) or that they’ll think I’m ignoring them if it takes too long for me to reply. Even before I had a smartphone, people got annoyed if I took too long to reply. If someone takes more than a couple of hours to reply to my text, they usually follow up with an apology for not responding faster, even when my message isn’t urgent. You can set up automatic replies like out-of-office messages, but those are sometimes seen as rude. There can also be a physical danger in completely unplugging. A phone-less walk in nature sounds lovely until you think about not being able to call 911 upon encountering some creepy guy.

So, completely unplugging wasn’t a great option. I looked up how other people were addressing their phone addictions and applied a bunch of new rules in my daily life. First let me start with the things that didn’t actually make a difference, so you won’t waste your time with them.

1. Grayscale - One New York Times article suggested changing your phone’s accessibility settings to grayscale, removing the colors designed to draw your attention in one way or another. If you’re like me and use color-coding in your calendars and organization, this tip actually makes daily life more difficult.

2. Rubber band - Some people recommend placing a rubber band around your phone so mindless scrolling is more difficult but answering a phone call is not. This didn’t help me, as I would take off the rubber band to use a particular app, then forget to put it back on or altogether misplace it.

3. Most analogue solutions - The whole reason we use half the apps on our phone is because they’re convenient and actually make life easier. Carrying around a physical planner or calendar is less practical these days. If you’re out with friends and someone wants to know if you’re free next Saturday, saying "I’m not sure, I’ll have to check my planner" sounds like a brush-off. Pulling up your Google calendar makes it easier. There’s also the risk of losing that little datebook. It’s the same with other convenience apps. While snapchat notifications can be distracting, alerts from the reminders app help keep life in order.

4. Reverting entirely to old phone uses - I’ve read a couple of articles saying you should treat your cell phone the way you do an old house phone, leaving it in one spot of the house. Unless you’re one of the rare people who never need their phone to help them do their job, maybe this will work for you.

Now that the tips I didn’t find useful are out of the way, here are the things which actually made a difference over time.

1. Delete some social media accounts - I didn’t completely erase my online existence, but I did delete my Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat accounts. At first I felt their absence, but over time I stopped wondering what people were posting and realized none of it was usually important anyway.

2. Delete certain apps - There are some digital things which are useful but don’t need to be on your phone. For example, I still use Facebook, LinkedIn, and Pinterest, but I don’t have any of their apps on my phone since they’re never related to urgent matters. I took most game apps off my phone, but left solitaire (which I do still spend an inordinate amount of time using). What’s left is mainly utility apps and the apps I have to use for group chats.

3. Change notification settings - Almost all the apps I use have notifications turned off or reduced. The fewer notifications, the fewer spikes in cortisol upon checking my phone.

4. Rearrange apps - If there are some time-sucking apps you do need to keep, it helps to put those on a second or third page rather than your homepage. Putting those apps in a cluster also helps, as it makes them less visible overall.

5. Ban the phone from certain locations/situations - These are all small rules that can be added one by one over time in lieu of quitting cold turkey.

  • I stopped bringing the phone with me to the bathroom.

  • I forced myself not to look at it while standing in lines.

  • I zipped it up in my bag while eating out with friends.

  • I kept it in my bag during classes too. The only exception was if a professor was prone to run over time, making me late for my subsequent class, and I needed to keep an eye on the time. You’d think this could be solved with wearing a watch, but half the reason I looked at my phone in class anyway was to check the time when I got a bit bored. Having no clocks at all forced me to simply listen to the lecture, even if it wasn’t riveting.

6. Avoid its use at bedtime - Instead of scrolling through my phone, I now read before bed. Now I make it through more books and I actually fall asleep sooner.

7. Avoid its use first thing in the morning - A lot of articles will tell you not to use your phone as an alarm clock. I still do, but I’ve made some adjustments. First, I did buy an analogue alarm clock and began charging my phone across the room at night. I set alarms on both so that I’ll be forced to get out of bed and walk across the room. Before going to bed, I set my phone to airplane mode so when I turn off the alarm all I see is the time and my phone’s wallpaper, not a slew of notifications. I usually don’t turn airplane mode off until I’ve at least taken my vitamins and had my coffee.

8. Go sans wi-fi occasionally - Using my devices without wi-fi helps if I’m trying to work on one task that requires consistent attention. This helps me be more aware of my compulsive internet use. I’m working, hit a slight wall, and without even thinking I’ll open up a new tab to check Facebook, even though I checked it five minutes ago. If the wi-fi is off and I have to go through the extra step of turning it back on, I quickly realize I don’t actually care about what’s on Facebook and was just using it as a cure for my momentary writer’s block. This also works well with a phone, since half the time I used to pick up my phone was to cure a small instant of boredom and having to turn the wi-fi back on made me realize I didn’t actually need to check any apps. Turning off the wi-fi can also help if I’m just reading news articles. I’ll scroll through a site, open what I want to read in another tab, then turn off the wi-fi once everything has loaded. This not only keeps me focused on finishing the article before switching tabs, but it stops annoying ads on the page from loading and pulling away my attention.

9. Some analogue solutions - As I mentioned earlier, a lot of analogue tips didn’t work for me. What did work are three things:

  • Writing my to-do list by hand instead of keeping it on an app. This has actually been shown to increase productivity.

  • Taking notes in class by hand and typing them up in a word doc later (with my wi-fi turned off). This is recommended for effective studying anyway, and the more I did this, the less I had to study for exams later in the semester.

  • Writing down directions instead of using a GPS. Not only did this improve my navigational skills, but it let me notice things along the way since I wasn’t glancing at my phone every few seconds.

10. Turn off autoplay - If you don’t have to intentionally select another episode or video to watch and it automatically begins playing, chances are you’ll end up watching TV or YouTube longer than intended.

11. Tone your attention muscles - Increasing your attention span takes time and practice, but it can be done. Instead of switching between tabs constantly, I now force myself to finish reading an article on one page before I’ll begin another. Today, I can sit and read a book with no problem, but when I was trying to get back into reading, I started with books of short stories or essays that could be read in one sitting.

12. Find things that hold your attention - Read a book that everyone says is a page-turner. Go see a musical production where they make audience members turn off their phones. Watch a foreign film with subtitles you have to read, so you can’t look at your phone without missing plot points. I also like watching horror movies where you have to watch closely to catch things moving in the background. One thing which made a big difference for me was traveling. I spent a month studying abroad in Italy before I made most of these changes I’m recommending, but I put my phone down more because I knew I didn’t want to miss anything. Last summer I went back to Italy with my mom and made the decision to take fewer photos than on my first trip there so I could actually be in the moment and look closely at things I only saw briefly before.

13. Embrace boredom - A big part of why so many of us get addicted to our phones or the internet is because we’re uncomfortable with stillness and boredom. Our brain does need those moments, though. It’s when we process things subconsciously and make insightful connections. Taking time to do nothing is important.

These tips might not work for everyone, depending on circumstances. Increasingly, younger office workers feel like they have to be available 24/7 or risk being seen as not dedicated enough. If you work in media, you might need to be able to jump on reporting a breaking story (even if your company thinks a new Kardashian baby is headline-worthy). For the rest of us, while we can’t independently change American office culture, we can set boundaries for ourselves and encourage others to do so too. I recommend logging out of work email after a certain time in the late afternoon and not checking it until work starts the next day. Replying to emails at 11pm may make you seem more dedicated and more passionate about your work, but it will eventually lead to burnout.

My screen time record for the last week.

While so many of our brains have been re-wired to crave the constant distraction our technology provides, we can undo this and take back our brains. I still use my phone and the internet all the time, but I’ve gotten back to a place where I can easily read for hours, leaving my phone untouched. I can stare out of a car window, just thinking and observing, without the need for outside entertainment. I can also use my computer to write this post without constantly switching back and forth between tabs as soon as I hit a roadblock in my writing.

If you enjoyed this post, send me a message saying so! Just don’t expect a quick response.

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