Every time you look at your phone, it’s not just you and the screen that are involved. Thousands of Silicon Valley engineers and behavioral scientists are working behind the scenes “to make you scroll for as long as possible,” says Tristan Harris, founder of Time Well Spent, a group that aims to recalibrate our relationship with technology. He would know: after graduating from Stanford University, Harris sold his startup to Google, where he stayed for four years, using his position as a “design ethicist” to urge the company to give more respect to users’ attention.
As attested by the number of people staring at their phones all the time—and the fact that the combined market cap of Facebook, Google, and Apple approaches $2 trillion—tech companies have become extremely good at manipulating our attention. There are literally thousands of intelligent people being paid extremely well to figure out how to get users to never put their phones down. A lot of this has to do with exploiting key human needs, like the longing for connection and validation, says Harris. It’s that sensation of wishing your last social media post got more likes: “Facebook owns my sense of approval right now,” he says.
But, as these simple recommendations from Harris show, it’s possible to set better boundaries with your phone and get more of your attention back. While small, these tweaks work with your mental habits—rather than allowing software to exploit them.
Step one: De-automate your apps.
We’re not as in charge of ourselves as we’d like to think: about 40 percent of our daily actions aren’t actual decisions we make, but habitual behaviors. So if you want to manage your relationship with your phone, start by breaking your touchscreen habits.
Harris scrambles the placement of his apps on his home screen once a week, so that his thumb doesn’t automatically open up Twitter when, if he thought about it, he’d really rather not spend his time scrolling through all that endless chatter. Changing the arrangement of your apps can defuse your brain’s habit loop. Similarly, you can move your biggest time sucks off the home screen, forcing you to use the phone’s search function to summon those apps. “You can’t type unconsciously,” he says. Having to search serves as “a filter between me and my phone,” one that only works when you consciously ask it to.
Step two: minimize the ambiguity.
If you want to know why so many people’s faces are glued to their phones, consider another great behavioral addiction: slot machines. They make “more money in the United States than baseball, movies, and theme parks combined,” Harris says, and are three-to-four times more problematic than other kinds of gambling.
Like smartphones, their key ingredient is the “variable reward.” You press a button or pull a lever, and that either brings a smaller reward, a jackpot, or nothing at all. We don’t know which it will be, and the thing that keeps us coming back is the possibility that the next one will hit.
If the slot machine in your pocket sounds or feels the same whether it’s a push notification about the latest thing President Donald Trump did, a software update for an app, or an urgent text from a loved one, then you’ll be more compelled to dive in every time your lock screen lights up. Thus there’s a need to make your phone’s signals clearer and less random.
“Ambiguity creates curiosity,” Harris says. So the way to take back control is to tailor your signals: a special buzz or tone for your partner or family, another for friends, and others for news or social media. That way, without even having to look, you know what’s asking for your attention.
Step three: cut out the machines.
When you get a buzz saying that 50 people liked your last Instagram, that’s not some innocent message, Harris says. An algorithm profiled your behavior with the app, and sent that notification at the exact time when research showed you’d be most vulnerable. That’s why Harris set his phone to ping him only from WhatsApp, iMessage and other messaging services—instances where actual humans are on the other side requesting his attention. Any notifications coming from machines are turned off.
When we do this, a larger de-habituation happens: minimizing buzzes “helps our mind get back control of itself,” Harris says, since the more your phone buzzes, the more you’ll expect it to buzz. “The less frequently our pocket’s buzzing, the less our mind starts to feel those phantom buzzes in our pocket, and the calmer we get,” he says. “Hopefully that helps you get back some control of your attention.”