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The Phone Hijack: Break the Habit and Boost Your Life

I had a problem and it felt very uncomfortable. I should have been better - at least that’s what my mind told me. You wouldn’t have known from the outside that this was happening to me...I still got things done and kept life working. But it sucked some of my joy away, and I realised that it was often caused by wanting to avoid discomfort.

So what was my guilty secret?

Well, maybe you’re reading this message on yours ... it’s my phone. Or more specifically being hooked on my phone instead of being in my life.

For me that looked like this:

  • The doom loop: compulsively checking the same apps when I've only just done it

  • The hijack: opening my phone to send a message, getting distracted and finding myself putting it down 10 minutes later without having sent the message. Rinse and repeat.

  • Smartphone Amnesia: finding my phone in my hand with no recollection of how it got there

  • Horror hygiene: taking my phone to the bathroom with me (#gross)

  • Stealth addiction: feeling relief from a craving I hadn't been aware of when I got back on my device after a few hours away

Can you relate to any of these patterns?

As an expert in mindfulness and meditation, it makes me feel vulnerable to admit this challenge. I know that even when you know what to do and how to do it, you can still find yourself in unhelpful patterns. However, my inner critic would love to shame me for not being perfect.

My hope for sharing this is that someone else who reads this will find comfort. You're not alone. Being human is a complex business and we are always growing and evolving.

What else can it look like?

Maybe for you, it’s not your phone:

...Perhaps it’s finding yourself at the cupboard eating food when you’re not hungry, craving fullness but even when your belly is full you still feel empty.

....Or it could be compulsive shopping where the high of a new find wears off too quickly.

...It could be that one glass of wine each night that turns into a bottle, numbing you out but leaving you sluggish and dull.

What unites all of these behaviours is not that they're inherently wrong or dysfunctional, it's that the joy is gone as it morphs into an escape and distraction. Whatever behaviour has emerged as your anaesthesia and escape, there’s nothing wrong with you (or me!). You're not broken or flawed.

You're simply being human.

It’s part of being human that we end up in unhealthy patterns. We unconsciously slip into ways of being that take us out of feeling at ease and joyful. The good news is we can also become aware and make different choices about who we want to be and how we behave as a result.

There are sustainable ways to cope differently; no matter if your preferred escape is the phone scroll wormhole, the snack cupboard vortex or the glass of wine vacuum.

Goodbye, shame and judgement, hello acceptance and progress!

The challenge of being human

We’re designed to survive at all costs.

Our whole nervous system is geared up to make sure we avoid danger and reproduce. We’re not set with a default for happiness. That desire is a much more recent development for us as humans.

So even though we WANT to be happy, at ease, balanced and joyful we have to learn and remember how to do it. We need to reframe what “happy” means. Some of the most meaningful endeavours in our lives don't make us feel joyful all the time - just think of parenting or starting a business for two examples of that. Instead, it's about creating a rich, full and meaningful life - and that looks different for everyone depending on their unique human package.

What does this have to do with my phone?

In the modern world, “danger” doesn’t come in the form of sabre-toothed tigers. It more often comes from within - the pressure to constantly be on, to push for more, to achieve more, to keep up. Those messages are built into our society and the social media that we consume.

Do you feel that too? The more we consume, the more we feel our own "lack"...

We start to believe, often unconsciously, that we’re not enough. There’s an endless stream of things we should be doing, achieving and having.

That feeling of not being enough triggers a primal response within us - the desire to be loved and accepted. That drive is crucial to our survival as a species. A baby instinctively knows that it needs to cry and have attention or it will die.

That feeling of falling short in some way feels unbearable because it feels like a threat. To that primitive part of who we are, being rejected or not enough IS a survival threat. Being accepted signals being in the tribe and safe as a result.

Falling into the phone wormhole

It feels horrible to be with the feeling of our “not-enough-ness”.

It can show up as an inner voice telling us we’re not doing the right things or not as good as others. However, It often doesn’t manifest as a fully formed thought at all. It’s more like a hidden driver of our behaviour:

  • A feeling of being unable to settle, restlessness and a craving

  • Falling into habits that give momentary respite but make us feel worse afterwards

  • Trying harder and harder, faster and faster but still feeling like the sand is slipping away from under your feet and taking you under.

One of my teachers calls this "the frequency of addiction". It's a place of deep discomfort.

That’s where my phone had crept in: to help me avoid it, even just for a moment. Sometimes without me even being aware of having the thought, my phone would be in my hand and I’d be mid-scroll. Ah the irony, as someone who helps others to cultivate mindfulness and intentional living!

Feeling it differently

This isn’t something we “fix” and then it’s done - I’ve been at this point before in one way or another. Maybe you have too. Being a healthy, happy human is a practice after all and much of what we do is a habit. Our brain is designed to automate as much as possible to free us up. So we quickly create cycles of behaviour with our thoughts and actions.

As we go through daily life we're always making decisions and choices about how to think and behave. Many (most!) of this becomes automatic. We make sense of the world based on past experiences and learning. So when something happens, we react without conscious thought.

Between the stimulus and our reaction, our thoughts and beliefs create meaning and guide our choices. What we think is our only choice of response is always being created from our thoughts. If that wasn't the case then we would all respond the same way to things - which of course we know isn't the case. We all have our unique "flavour" and blend of experience.

To change things in our lives that aren't working, we need to interrupt the pattern and take ourselves out of autopilot.

Breaking the cycle

To reverse a habit, the first step is knowing what's keeping it in place. We repeat a behaviour because on some level it's rewarding. That can be something positive that makes me feel good in the moment or it can be a difficult thought, feeling or sensation that I avoid.

When I work with clients using Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, this is how we approach situations that are impacting our ability to live the life we want. We look at what behaviours, thoughts, and feelings that happen in a target situation and then identify what we want to create instead. We get curious about the patterns that are playing out so that we can change them.

So what was my cycle with my phone?

For me and my phone, I needed more than just willpower to break the cycle. Our phones and apps are designed to be highly addictive so I recognised that two things were happening:

  1. I was avoiding the discomfort of whatever feelings were present: eg. boredom, uncertainty, anxiety (we'll come back to how to tacklet this in a future blog post - it's a big topic!)

  2. I was getting "micro-hits" of dopamine through the clever design of the apps I was using

Dopamine is a complex neurotransmitter associated with "reward". It's triggered to induce a pleasurable response to encourage more of a particular behaviour or action - think sex, cookies, shopping... From an evolutionary perspective, it would have helped our survival by prompting us to remember where we found that delicious sweet berry or to have sex so we could procreate.

When I pick up my phone, sometimes there might be a message from a friend that I've been waiting for. Or I might see a super cute reel of a cat that I want to share or someone will have liked my post on social media. That pleasurable experience triggers a "micro hit" of reward. Like a little message of "you should do this again"....

It doesn't even need to be rewarding every time. The inconsistency of when it will be something "good" creates more cravings - maybe THIS time there'll be something I need to see. The more we do it, the less powerful the "hit" so we need to do more. Endlessly waiting for it to fill that aching need for comfort.

To solve my phone challenge, I needed more than just willpower. I wasn't just lacking discipline and faulty. I needed to change things within my phone and environment to break the cycle. That would create space for me to choose different responses.

The Behaviour Intervention: Blocks and Boundaries

In CBT, it's often helpful to carry out experiments. I don't mean donning a lab coat and setting up test tubes. This is a way to change your thoughts and feelings through trying out new behaviour and seeing what happens.

It works because it's not about saying "You need to do this new thing forever and it will definitely work". It's about cultivating curiosity. "I wonder what will happen if I do X? I predict that Y will happen". Then you try it and see. Just like with a lab experiment, you keep going. Each time you try something, you're updating your beliefs about what is or isn't possible for you. Feel better? Keep going. Not quite enough? Tweak and try again.

My "behaviour experiment" meant putting some boundaries in place and recruiting some tech to help maintain them. This was my process:

  1. Brainstorm what my most addictive apps and websites are (this info is also in "Screentime" in Settings on my iPhone. I decided text and WhatsApp could stay for now but that email would be restricted)

  2. Decide some "rules" for when and how I can access different apps (for me I decided no access before 9am and then two 30-minute time slots during the day)

  3. Use a screen time manager app to lock the boundaries in place for the experiment (I used Refocus. Not an ad! It was just the one that ticked the boxes I needed)

So what happened?

Before I started (my predictions)...

I felt confident that I would stick to the boundaries as it's much more difficult to cancel the block than in the built-in screen time manager.

I told my family that I would be on my phone less - messages and WhatsApp would remain "open" but emails would be limited. I predicted that I would feel more focused and calmer.

Day 1 - 2

  • Jangly and irritable: After the first couple of days of only accessing emails and apps (including all social media) for two 30-minute blocks, I was surprised by how jangly I felt. I was irritable and my fuse was shorter. I felt restless and "off". Wow! Was this how addicted I had been? My physiology felt like it was experiencing withdrawal.

  • Pointless pickups: I would find myself picking up my phone many times, only to put it down again. I began to notice how automatic and compulsive the habit of checking was.

Day 3 - 5

  • I picked up my phone less: I noticed how much less compelled I felt to check it - or rather I became aware of how much I had previously been on a cycle of craving and relief! My phone became less rewarding so the drive to be on it lessened. When you do an action repeatedly, you strengthen the neural pathway so it becomes easier and easier to do it. This is neuro-plasticity at work. Your brain adapts constantly to the environment and its demands. Equally, when you stop "practising" that action, the pathway becomes weaker. Like a muscle losing tone if you don't work it.

  • My mind felt less disrupted and more contained: The boundaries around my phone had also created inadvertent boundaries around my work. If I wasn't seeing an email or social comment in non-work times then I wasn't sucked into thinking about work and vice versa.

  • I was getting more done: Those little checks I had been doing had seemed harmless, barely a minute sometimes. The reality, as I was experiencing by cutting them out, was that they had disrupted far more than I had imagined. According to a University of California Irvine study, "it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to the task".

  • My morning routines became stronger: By not checking anything on my phone until 9 am, my whole morning changed. Instead of other people driving my day through the emails or content I was presented with, I was choosing the flow.

Day 14

  • Small pauses naturally happen: Without the lure of my phone, micro-moments of pausing naturally happen. The default mode of avoiding those in-between moments was disrupted. This opened up space for my natural mind-wandering to be creative and supportive, instead of distracted and persistent.

  • Less weeds, more plants: The bouncing around of my mind when it's engaged mindlessly with my phone resembles the way weeds proliferate and grow. Things stay shallow and there's no time for deeper thought. With less distraction, my natural intuition could kick back in. "What do I need or want right now?" rather than simply doing.

  • This is a new normal: The freedom from having to decide whether or not to check my phone has been liberating. I started out believing that the problem was all mine. What I see now, is that this is just part of the story. It's still my responsibility to manage myself, but I can be compassionate that I slipped away from balance.

What now?

So, will I return to open access to my phone and its candy-store smorgasbord of attention-grabbing content? Nope! For me, as someone with an ADHD brain, it works much better to have the support of tech to manage my tech! Like many things, the problem can also be part of the solution.

It's left me wondering what the results of this tech world will be. Will we look back and wonder why on earth we gave such addictive machines to our children?

For me, this experiment proved (maybe unsurprisingly) that my days are calmer, more productive and more peaceful without open access to my phone and its endless wormholes. It also reminded me that it's ok if you can't do it all on your own.

How about you?

I'd love to hear from you. What's your relationship with your phone like? Am I alone with this guilty secret? Do you have any things you do to cope with the demands of life that aren't supportive of your long-term happiness and contentment? -on-

If you'd like to find out more about working one to one to make some changes in your life, you can find out more and book a discovery call here.

"Laura has an amazing ability to understand, ooze calm, empathise in a very non-judgmental way and provide strategies to help cope with an issue whether historical or current. I feel very comfortable talking to her about anything as she is naturally easy to relate on many different levels."

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