Put your phone down: 3 steps to intentional, productive work habits

The threats of social media are making front-page news. Proposed bans of TikTok for ties to the Chinese Government or state governments enacting legislation limiting social media are getting mainstream attention across the country. While the current conversation is focused on keeping young people safe and mentally healthy, the reality is that older Americans are suffering from phone addiction just as much as the teen crowd. Nowhere is this more present than at work.

The average adult spends more than four hours on their phone daily, and much of this time can be categorized as unproductive. If you’re clocking hours, that’s almost 40% of a workday. Amy Blankson, cofounder of the Digital Wellness Institute, estimates that adults today receive an average of 237 notifications per day across platforms like Instagram and Slack. This kind of fragmented attention can reduce our capacity for deep work, impacting our productivity and creativity. Cal Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown University and an author on human productivity, estimated the total costs of these smartphone disruptions to U.S. gross domestic product could be in the trillions of dollars.

Cold Turkey Won’t Fix Phone Addiction

The vast majority of the “fixes” inside and outside of the office focus on restricting or limiting access to phones and social media, an approach that oversimplifies the complex relationship we have with technology. A recent study highlighted in Psychological Reports suggests that simply banning platforms doesn’t address the root of the problems of loneliness and low self-esteem due to social media. Typically, just like strict nutritional diets, people often fall back into old habits when solutions are overly restrictive and aren’t sustainable.

Instead of elimination, moderation can empower and cultivate a mindful and healthy relationship with technology, enhancing happiness and health without needing to disconnect entirely. This approach can help boost productivity and keep us focused during the workday. 

I founded BePresent with that exact mission in mind. It is time for a more practical approach to phone addiction that fights fire with fire. Instead of focusing solely on restrictions, we use the same psychological techniques social media companies use to engineer engagement, but to motivate you to cultivate a healthy relationship with your phone, replacing the dopamine hit from scrolling with dopamine for moderating screen time. Since going live, here’s what we have learned works when it comes to a behavioral approach to reducing phone time. 

Establish Digital Boundaries

Putting usage parameters on your phone time can establish intentionality and counteract some of the unconscious tendencies we have that get us sucked in. When workers get stuck on something in the office—such as writer’s block or a struggle to draft a response to a challenging email—they tend to unconsciously reach for their phones in search of something more interesting and fun. 

For workers in this category, it’s important to adopt a more intentional approach by deleting social media apps from their phones. This will reduce aimless scrolling and encourage use on less accessible devices like a computer. 

Make accessing your phone more effortful by keeping it in your desk or backpack, or turning it off during work hours. You can also switch to grayscale mode to dull the enticing colors of notifications and apps. Even better, deactivate nonessential notifications to minimize digital distractions during work.

Reward Yourself

As James Clear laid out in his seminal book Atomic Habits, a core tenet of habit formation is to make a habit as easy and rewarding as possible. This can be done by harnessing the same principles that make smartphones so addictive—reward systems of likes and dopamine hits—to encourage more mindful tech usage. Apps that track and reward reductions in screen time can be just as engaging as the lure of endless scrolling. 

BePresent uses gamification to reduce screen time, allowing users to track progress and achieve milestones. This motivating experience, which rewards instead of restricts, has reduced our average users’ screen time by 15 hours per week. 

By celebrating milestones in your digital detox, you will create a rewarding experience that aligns with our natural desire for achievement and recognition. These are the same drivers that can help workers excel at their jobs. 

Cultivate Offline Interests

Studies have shown that people who replace screen time with meaningful offline activities are much more likely to stick to healthy technology use long term. At work, this can mean having lunch or coffee with colleagues instead of sitting alone at your desk scrolling. 

Whether it’s taking a short break with your coworkers or pursuing a long-neglected project, these activities provide a counterbalance to our digital lives. Our data shows that participants who engaged in offline activities reported a 30% increase in perceived productivity and a significant decrease in stress levels. This shift toward engaging in real-world activities reconnects us with the joys of living fully present and accomplishing goals that were being left behind because of too much wasted time on screens.

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