Tanya Goodin says she can pinpoint the exact moment she knew her smartphone addiction had gone too far.
She had damaged the screen of her device and, when she went into store to have it fixed, was told it would take 24 hours.
‘I essentially had a meltdown,’ the business consultant tells Friday. ‘I didn’t have a spare phone and I had no idea how I was expected to cope without one for a full day. I was physically panicking.’
In that moment, she says, she realised something, somewhere, had gone wrong.
Tanya was an award-winning tech entrepreneur who had spent 20 years running her own digital marketing agency. During a stellar career in London, she had been a finalist in BlackBerry’s Outstanding Women In Technology awards and shortlisted as Entrepreneur of the Year by the professional service body Ernst & Young.
‘But I’d become a slave to my phone,’ she admits. ‘This device, which was supposed to help us become more efficient, had taken over my life. I had this moment of clarity where I just thought this isn’t healthy.’
If Tanya’s suffering sounds familiar, that’s perhaps because studies, such as one carried out by DMG Events in Dubai, have found 71 per cent of UAE residents self-identify as being “addicted to smartphones”.
Whether dealing with out-of-hour work emails, constantly checking WhatsApp conversations or losing hours browsing social media, many of us freely admit to spending too long glued to our phones – yet feel powerless to stop. A study by the Android app Locket – which monitored how many times its 150,000 users checked their device – found the average person did so 110 times a day. Research firm Dscout, meanwhile, has estimated a typical mobile user touches taps, or swipes at their screen 2,617 times every 24 hours.
None of which is healthy.
The full consequences of spending too long on our phones are still being investigated but experts believe a reduction in concentration and productivity, increased feelings of depression (as we read about supposedly perfect lives online) and a greater likelihood of obesity – because we sacrifice exercise to scan social media – are all among the risks. Some research even suggests our ability to form real-life relationships is being damaged. A survey carried out by Baylor University, in the US, found 70 per cent of those questioned felt that so-called phubbing – being snubbed by someone on their phone – had damaged a close relationship.
Yet, reckons Tanya, it doesn’t have to be this way.
‘We have introduced tiny tyrants into our pocket,’ she says. ‘But we can tame them too.’
After recognising her own addiction, she founded Time To Log Off – a digital resource (ironically perhaps) that helps people put down their phones. She has since written two books with the same aim. The first, Off – Your Digital Detox For A Better Life, was released last year. The second, Stop Staring At Screens, comes out in October.
Now, the University of Oxford graduate is convinced that, approached right, all of us could learn to significantly reduce our mobile time – in just one week.
‘The idea is that, every day, we cut out a certain aspect of phone use,’ she explains. ‘Individually, each step seems manageable but, added up over the week, it makes a huge difference and begins to break our reliance on these devices.’
Also read: ‘It was like trying to give up smoking’
But can such a simple plan work? Here, Friday looks the key steps for readers to try; and we find out what happens when a self-confessed digi-addict gives it a go…
Day One: Alarm yourself better
The first thing many of us reach for everyday is our phone. Why? Because we use it as our morning alarm. The result is that, as soon as we open our eyes, many of us are straight into swiping and tapping.
So, says Tanya, buy an old-fashioned alarm clock instead.
‘That way you avoid the temptation of checking your emails and social media feeds within moments of waking up,’ she says. ‘Spend that time contemplating the day ahead instead.’
And don’t stop at an alarm clock. Dig out an old watch too. That way, when you want to check the time during the day, you won’t end up reaching for your phone and getting distracted by all those new messages and notifications.
Day Two: Get forewarned and forearmed
Phone apps are almost always designed to be addictive. Companies like Twitter and Facebook employ neuroscientists to figure out ways to make us spend more time using their products. They build in techniques and tricks designed to give us hits of the feel-good hormone dopamine while browsing. ‘They are exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology,’ said Sean Parker, Facebook’s first president, in an interview last year.
So refuse to be exploited.
Spend 10 minutes today reading up about all the ways such apps manipulate us. ‘Because once you know about these methods,’ says Tanya, ‘it becomes easier to resist them.’
Day Three: A digital spring clean
Look at almost anyone’s mobile and they’ll have apps they never use – and probably never did. So delete them.
That’s the easy bit.
Next is harder: Go through all the apps you actually do use and decide if they’re strictly necessary. Where you can replicate their function in a none-tech way, consider binning those apps too.
‘So, do you really need a digital diary or calendar?’ asks Sneha Arora, whose Dubai-based yoga and well-being company, Yogihearts promotes a mobile detox as part of its holistic living classes. ‘Why not go back to a paper version? You’ll be surprised by how much more efficient they are, and how much freer you feel when your whole life isn’t contained in a little box in your pocket.’
The same, she adds, applies to exercise apps: ‘it’s great that there are so many ways to monitor progress online but all that can be done offline too. No-one ever needs a phone to get fit.’
For those apps you do choose to keep, meanwhile, disable notifications so they are not constantly making demands on your attention.
Day Four: Phone-free zones
We’re now beyond the half way point and today is a big one: you pick places that are to become phone-free zones.
‘How many of us take our mobiles into the bathroom?’ asks Tanya again. ‘Perhaps that can be one of your no-phone spaces. You simply don’t need to be hooked up to the world while in there.’
Dinner too might become a digital put-down. ‘Make your meals mini detox moments,’ says Tanya. ‘Savour and enjoy what you’re eating, relish every mouthful free from screen distractions.’
And how about when you’re walking somewhere? Log off and look up instead. Enjoy the sights of this wonderful country. Whatever messages you have will wait. In the meantime, such short screen breaks should allow your mind to wander – key for boosting creativity and energising well-being.
Day Five: Set limits and venture out
It used to be simple: you worked until 5pm and then your time was your own. Now, not so much.
Smartphones mean many of us deal with work emails long after we’ve left the office. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
‘Really successful people understand the importance of disconnecting,’ says Tanya. ‘So, they set boundaries on when they deal with work messages. And we should all do the same.’
She recommends switching emails off at 7pm. If you can manage it, also try and give yourself an hour before bed without any screen time. ‘Read a book instead,’ says Tanya.
There’s another step today. Find a place for your phone – both at work and home – where you can store it away, so it’s not always in grabbable distance.
‘Reaching for our device in moments of boredom has become a memory muscle thing for many people,’ reckons Tanya.
We do it without even thinking about it – perhaps during TV adverts or while waiting for a kettle to boil. ‘But if we put the phone somewhere that isn’t in easy reach, the physical act of having to actually go and pick it up reminds us we should be reducing our use,” explains Tanya.
Day Six: Venture out, sans screen
If the thought of leaving home without your phone brings you out in cold sweats, then, paradoxically, that probably means you especially need to do it.
So that’s today’s task.
‘Going out without access to social media or email will not mean an end to the world,’ says Sneha, who is originally from India but now lives in Discovery Gardens. ‘Start small: go for a 10-minute walk and enjoy what’s around you.’
And if you’re worried that being without your phone means no-one could contact you in an emergency, Tanya has a solution. ‘Buy an old non-smartphone, transfer your sim and take that with you,’ she says. ‘That way you can still make and take calls – but you’re not able to start browsing the internet.’
Once you’ve managed small periods, increase the time. A trip to mall, a morning at the beach, a night out with friends. None of these require a mobile. So make a conscious decision to leave it at home once in a while.
Day Seven: schedule none-phone time
So far, we’ve taken steps to reduce the ways and places we use our phones.
Day seven goes further. Today is about putting two hours aside – no matter what we’re doing or where we are – when we simply don’t look at our phone.
‘In many ways this is the hardest step,’ says Tanya. ‘But it is this one that really breaks the feelings of dependency.’
If you can go two hours, you should then build this no-mobile period into every day. And if you can do that, look to expand the period: three hours, four, half a day.
‘Eventually,’ says Tanya, ‘the aim is to become happy going without your phone for a day or two days at a time. And you will feel the benefits.’
And do be prepared: with all that extra free time, you might just need to take up a new hobby. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? Either way: good luck.