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Freedom from your phone: when to pick it up, and when to put it down

Your phone just vibrated. Did you feel that?

You reach for it, look at the screen, and nothing. Hmmm. Phantom vibrations are an indication that your connection to your smartphone is so strong that your brain is creating sensory hallucinations. I recently polled some of my fellow Millennial friends and was surprised to learn that these phantom vibrations were normal to them—something to be laughed off and of no concern. Maybe I’m overreacting, but I don’t want to be so tied to an electronic device that my body hallucinates that I’m receiving a notification when my phone is actually in another room, silent.

Calling for some boundaries

The second we reach for our phone to check it, we fall into its vortex. It can happen in the blink of an eye—maybe you press your digit to the Home button, it scans your fingerprint, and the phone opens to whatever you were browsing last, a social media feed. Ten minutes later, you pull yourself out of the hole and have to reorient to where you are and what you’re supposed to be doing.

How often does this happen to you? It’s kind of like taking an unruly dog on a walk—who’s in charge? Are you in control of your phone, or is

Our ability to get lost, distracted, and absorbed in a 5-inch screen affects our lives in a multitude of ways—at home, when we’re out with friends, and when we’re at work. How do we manage our business and personal space with our phones, to create some autonomy?

It’s true that the hit of dopamine we get when a notification pops up makes our phones addictive. And it’s easy to tell ourselves stories around why keeping that phone nearby is so important. I’m a freelance writer who works remotely and across time zones, so it’s important that I’m always available to my clients. When I get a notification, I practically leap out of my chair—my response is almost instantaneous. But really, what parts of being a freelance writer are so important that I need to answer any email, Slack message, call or text with that kind of speed? No parts. Honestly, there’s nothing.

My journey towards autonomy

Having autonomy means having the ability and freedom to self-govern, independent of outside influences. When I look deeply, I know I’m not autonomous from my smartphone. But I’m working on it.

My first step was to put my phone in silent mode, all day, every day. Now, my phone only rings audibly when I’m intentionally waiting for an important email, text, or phone call. At no other time does it vibrate or make noise.

My first step was to put my phone in silent mode, all day, every day. Now, my phone only rings audibly when I'm intentionally waiting for an important email, text, or phone call. At no other time does it vibrate or make noise.

Lo and behold, no more phantom vibrations. While it can be stressful to know I might be missing something when my phone is on silent, being conditioned to have a physical response to my phone is just not how I want to live my life. I’m not yet where I want to be, but there are a few specific things helping me to draw lines between business and personal use of my phone.

Mindful mornings. One of the ways my phone disrupts my life is by interrupting my autonomy in the morning. One of my resolutions and goals in 2017 was to create a to-do list each evening with three items I wanted to complete the following day. I did a really good job of making the list, but not of completing the items.

What I finally figured out is that when I checked my email, Slack messages, and Trello first thing in the morning—usually before even getting out of bed—I began working on the tasks and emails that came in overnight, not the goals I set for myself.

My morning routine now includes getting out of bed, stretching and foam rolling while listening to the news on NPR, then checking my email to read TheSkimm, making coffee, and then settling into work.

Turn off non-essential notifications. Receiving text messages from friends gives me joy. Receiving emails for work stresses me out.

The best thing I’ve done, as I attempt to define space around my smartphone use, was to turn off email notifications. Don’t get me wrong, I still check my inbox 10 times a day, but now I do it on my own terms—not whenever the screen flashes.

Don’t get me wrong, I still check my inbox 10 times a day, but now I do it on my own terms—not whenever the screen flashes.

If you’re looking for more autonomy from your phone, go through your notification settings and And seriously, challenge yourself. It might be scary at first, but take baby steps—try it for a day or two. If you miss the notifications, or feel like you missed something important, turn them back on. You’ll never know until you try.

Set up, and stick to, business hours. Many companies now allow for remote work and require constant communication—from messaging colleagues over Slack to email to Hangouts. All of which can also be done from your phone, while Netflixing on the couch after hours.

In general, I put away my electronics after 5 pm on weekdays. Given the sometimes unpredictable nature of freelance work, there’s sometimes the occasional business request in the evening, but since I work from home, I need to create boundaries between my physical work and personal space, too.

I like to write every day because it keeps me sharp, but I don’t like to interact with clients over the weekend. Even though I’m working, they don’t need to know that. (Ok, now they know that.)

Create an email system. There are many inbox management tools out there; it’s important to find the ones that work for you. I use a suite of tools, and have my own filing system—one that makes sense, at least, to me. I have a folder for everything. Some of my favorite tools are the inbox pause from Boomerang, and reminders sent from my Inbox app.

I try to keep my inbox at zero. It doesn’t always work, but I try to stay as close as possible. Any emails in my inbox are things that I need to handle or respond to. Once handled, they get filed away into other folders.

If I subscribe to a newsletter that I don’t end up enjoying, I unsubscribe immediately. Take the time, or set up a routine to get rid of the extra emails you don’t want, need, and don’t read.

Agency is your choice

Maybe this article doesn’t resonate with you, or you’re happily attached to your phone. That’s okay, too. But it’s helpful to stop and ask yourself who’s in charge and to take stock of how you feel, emotionally and physically, when you receive notifications… and maybe when you don’t.

I’ve noticed that my days are calmer and more focused when my phone is on silent. And on days when I really need to get things done, I leave my phone in another room because it helps me to feel more productive. The choice is yours: if you want it, you can have agency and autonomy over your phone.