'How to break up with your phone': Your step-by-step guide to a 7-day challenge

Author Catherine Price shares her tips for breaking away from your phone.

ByABC News via logo
September 6, 2018, 7:30 AM

In today's 24/7 digital world, you may feel like your phone rules your life, from text messages to email to apps and social media.

It doesn't have to be that way, according to Catherine Price, the author of "How to Break Up With Your Phone."

Price, who had an epiphany about her attachment to her phone after becoming a mom, has created a seven-day phone breakup challenge to help people re-evaluate how much they use their phones.

PHOTO: "How to Break Up With Your Phone" author Catherine Price poses with ABC News anchor Dan Harris.
"How to Break Up With Your Phone" author Catherine Price poses with ABC News anchor Dan Harris.
ABC News

Interested in trying the phone breakup challenge for yourself?

Here is a step-by-step guide from Price.

For more resources, challenges and information, visit phonebreakup.com.

Pre-game: Establish your motives

Why do you want to break up with your phone? That sounds like an obvious question, but you’d be surprised by how many people say “I want to spend less time on my phone” without having any idea why they want to do so, or what they’d like to do with their time instead. Then they try to change their habit through sheer willpower, and get frustrated when, inevitably, they fail.

Instead, it’s essential to spend some time thinking about what you want your relationship with your phone to look like.

PHOTO: A woman uses a cellphone in this stock photo.
A woman uses a cellphone in this stock photo.
STOCK/Getty Images

What are your priorities in life? How is your phone is getting in the way? (For example: “I want to sleep better. But I keep checking Twitter before bed. So I’d like to stop checking Twitter before bed so that I can improve my sleep.” Note how that’s different from the vague “I want to spend less time on my phone.”)

With your priorities clear, you’ll find it much easier to make changes.

Your assignments:

1. Find (or buy) a standalone alarm clock. You’re going to need it.

2. For the duration of the week, commit to keeping your phone out of your bedroom. Instead, read or meditate (or do something else relaxing that doesn’t involve screens) for 15-30 minutes before bed — and notice what impact it has on your stress levels and sleep.

Lastly, remember, the goal isn’t to spend less time on your phone, it’s to spend more time on your life.

Day 1: How to change a habit

At their core, all habits begin with dopamine, a chemical our brains release when they think something is worth doing again

Dopamine can help establish good habits (e.g. eating, leaving the house with clothes on) but can also reinforce bad habits, sometimes to the point where they become addictions.

This is what happens with our phones: they’re deliberately packed with dopamine triggers, such as bright colors, novelty, and unpredictability, that make them the equivalent of slot machines that we keep in our pockets.

PHOTO: Two women scroll on a cellphone in this stock photo.
Two women scroll on a cellphone in this stock photo.
STOCK/Getty Images

Thanks to these triggers, it doesn’t take long for our brains to associate checking our phones with getting a reward. Soon the very sight of our phones makes us want to check them. What’s more, when we can’t check them, our bodies release stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, that make us feel anxious and twitchy.

The bad part about habits is that it’s nearly impossible to fully break them once the dopamine loop has been established.

The good thing about habits is that we can change them.

To do so, we need to remove triggers for the habits we’re trying to change and add triggers for the habits we’re trying to establish. The general rule of thumb is that you want to make it as easy as possible to live up to your intentions, and as hard as possible to slip back into your old routines.

So that’s what we’re going to do today. We’ll start with your phone, and move on to your physical environment.

Don’t freak out about anything that we do. This is an experiment, and you’re welcome to change things back whenever you want. (And also, this is the most labor-intensive part of the challenge, and extremely effective!)

If you can’t do everything right now, you can refer back to this set of instructions here.

1. Your phone should be a tool, not a temptation.

- Examine your home screen. It should only contain tools. Delete (or move to your second screen) any app that has the potential to suck you in. Ideally you should put these into folders so that you have to launch an app by typing in its name.

- Add at least one app to your home screen that supports a positive habit (e.g. meditation app, guitar tuner). That way, when you check your phone out of instinct, you’ll be presented with a trigger for a positive habit.

- Turn off notifications (They turn us into the human equivalent of Pavlov’s dogs, drooling in anticipation whenever we hear one go off). I suggest turning off all notifications except for phone calls, texts, calendar and navigation apps to start. If you miss particular notifications, you can turn them back on one by one. The point is to only be notified about things that you want to find out about.

- Change your home screen to black (the more personalized your phone is, the more emotionally connected to it you’ll feel).

- Change your lock screen to an image with a message that will remind you of your time. Downloadable options are available here.

2. Make changes to your physical environment to support the habits you want.

- Get a standalone alarm clock. Think about it: you need to touch the alarm clock in order to silence it; therefore, if your phone is your alarm clock, you are guaranteeing that your phone will be the first thing you touch when you wake up. In other words, you’re setting yourself up for a day spent off your phone.

- Establish no-phone zones. I suggest starting with your bedroom, your dining room table, and, if applicable, your kids’ rooms. Also known as “engagement zones,” these are places where your phone is not allowed.

- Set up a charging station for the phone out of the bedroom. (I charge mine in a closet.)

- Set a bedtime for the phone that is at least 30 minutes before your own. (I recommend going so far as to create a sleeping bag for your phone. You can buy one or improvise with a sock!)

- Create a pre-bed alternative for yourself (e.g. put a book on bedside table).

- Put a pad of paper on your bedside table so that you can write down things you want to do or check on your phone when you get up.

- Up until your phone’s bed time, it’s fine to check it, just leave it plugged in so that you have to go to the phone.

- Don’t worry if you slip up; just notice, identify what happened, and get back on track. No judgment!

If you can’t do all this right now, don’t worry. You can finish up tomorrow if you’d like. And remember, your progress probably won’t be linear, but as long as you’re moving in the right direction (and catching yourself when you fall off track), you’re succeeding.

Day 2: Your life is what you pay attention to

Have you ever wondered why so many apps are free? It’s because we’re not their customers. Advertisers are their customers, and our attention is on the product being sold. This is a big deal because our attention is the most precious resource that we have and once we spend it, we can never get it back.

In addition to finishing making the changes to your environment and home screen that we talked about yesterday, our assignment for today is to start noticing when (and why) you spend attention on your phone.

The goal isn’t to judge yourself. You’re simply trying to make sure that when you spend your attention on your phone, it’s the result of a conscious choice.

To make this easier:

- If you haven’t already, change your lock screen image to one of these.

- Put a rubber band or hair tie around your phone. When you feel it, it’ll prompt you to notice that you’re about to check your phone.

- Every time you catch yourself reaching for your phone, ask yourself: Is this what you want to be doing right now? If so, continue. If not, stop.

Any time you notice that you are about to reach for your phone, take a moment to ask yourself:

What for: What are you picking up your phone to do?

Why now: Why are you picking up your phone now instead of later? The answer could be practical or emotional.

What else: What else could you do right now besides check your phone.

If you do your Ws and decide you really do want to use your phone right now, that’s fine. The point is simply to make sure that when you do use your phone, it’s because you want to be using it.

Day 3: Get curious

The mere act of paying attention to how you feel when you’re engaging in a habit is a powerful tool for behavior change. Today, try to notice what your cravings for your phone feel like in your brain and in your body. How long do they last? What would happen if you didn’t immediately indulge them? If you do check your phone, how does it make you feel mentally and physically? How do you feel after you stop?

To make this easier:

Get or find a small notebook that you can carry around with you in your pocket or purse. When you feel a craving for your phone, try reaching for your notebook instead.

Use it to make lists of things you want to check or do later, and to jot down ideas or observations you have throughout the day.

Getting stuff out of your brain and down on paper can be a great way to reduce your anxiety about not checking, and record some of the thoughts and ideas that occur to you in the moments when you’d normally be on your phone.

Day 4: Have a JOMOment

JOMO is short for the Joy of Missing Out. It means being present (and content) with whatever experience you’re having, without worrying about what you might be missing.

Today, have a JOMOment. Deliberately leave your phone behind while you do something nourishing, joyful or meaningful.

Note that the idea of even five minutes without your phone is likely to make you anxious — that’s totally normal! Start small, and remind yourself that when you miss out on your phone, you’re giving yourself the opportunity to actually experience your life.

To make this easier:

If you’re worried about leaving people hanging, set up an auto-response for text messages, email and/or voicemail that explains that you’re away from your phone and tells people when they can expect a response. (You can also provide an alternate way you can be reached in an emergency.)

Read more here about how to set up auto-text responses on an iPhone and here for an Android.

Day 5: Don’t 'phub'

“Phubbing” is short for “phone snubbing," or checking your phone in the middle of an interaction or conversation.

It’s basically a way of saying that the person you’re with isn’t that important, and it’s super rude. So for today, make a point of not phubbing. What’s more, notice when other people phub you and politely ask them to stop.

To make this less awkward, I suggest explaining that you’re participating in this phone breakup challenge, putting your phone away, and asking them if they’d mind doing the same—you might be surprised to find that they’re interested in trying it, too!

The more conversations we have about when it is and isn’t acceptable to use our phones, the quicker we’ll establish a society-wide etiquette around devices, and the easier these conversations will become.

Day 6: Do one thing at a time

When we’re on our phones, we’re nearly always trying to multitask—whether we’re swiping between apps, scrolling through our feeds, or checking our phones while we’re driving or walking down the street.

Not only is this potentially dangerous, but it’s also dumb. Why? Because despite what we like to tell ourselves, we can’t actually multitask. Our brains can only do one cognitively demanding task at once.

Ask them to do more, and they quickly become overwhelmed. In other words, If you feel like spending lots of time on your phone makes you feel frazzled, distracted or anxious, you’re not crazy, you’re right.

So today, see what it feels like to just do one thing at a time.

If you’re on a phone call, just be on the phone call (don’t open up your email). If you’re walking down the street, just walk down the street. If you’re using an app, just use that one app. And if you’re up for it, pick a time to just be. (I like to spend Uber rides staring out of the window.)

At first you’re likely to feel jittery, uncomfortable, and/or bored—but if you keep it up, your discomfort is likely to fade away, and you might feel actually feel calm.

Day 7: Look back and look forward

The point of breaking up with your phone is to help you get back in touch with your priorities in life and to create a relationship with your phone that feels healthy, purposeful and fun.

We’ve spent the week creating new habits (and changing old ones). Chances are that you feel motivated and excited by the work you’ve done so far, but also worried that when the challenge is over, you’re going to fall back to your old routines.

Let’s not let that happen!

One of the best ways to solidify the changes you’ve made is to simply put them down in writing. So think back over the past week: What worked? What do you want to keep doing? And looking forward, what are some additional changes you could make to improve your relationship with your phone?

And remember, if you do find yourself slipping, don’t beat yourself up. It’s totally normal, and change takes time.

In a sense, our phones are reminders that everything in life is constantly changing and that fluctuations are inevitable. Some days, we’ll feel good. On others, we won’t. And that’s okay. As long as we’re cultivating self-awareness, we’re doing it right.

Day 8: How’d you do?

You did it. You’ve made it through the seven-day phone breakup challenge and have started a new, healthier relationship with your phone.

It’s probably not perfect (spoiler alert: No relationship ever is) but you’re beginning to identify how your phone makes your life better.

You’re learning how and when it makes you feel bad. You’ve begun to create new habits—and your phone is on its way from being your boss to being a tool.

You’ve joined the growing ranks of people who are getting back in touch what really matters to them in life.

For more resources, challenges and information, visit phonebreakup.com.