Saul Rosenthal, PhD

Boston Area Health Psychologist

Last week I shared five tips about helping out when you give your child a smartphone or tablet.

But what about you? All those Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and end-of-year prices are tempting. Maybe it’s time for you to get a new device. If you’re taking an opportunity to treat yourself to a new device, take the opportunity to review and strengthen your usage habits. 

First, this is not about denying yourself the enjoyment of gaming, social media, or whatever you  enjoy on your smart device. It’s about preventing the device from becoming a time-waster that gets you into trouble. It’s about increasing your efficiency. Clean your apps up, reduce distractions, tighten up your privacy. Get your digital habits under control and your brand new shiny device will end up enhancing your life rather than controlling it.

It shouldn’t be news to you that our devices play a growing role in all aspects of our lives. We use the same phone or device for work, school, and play. It also shouldn’t surprise you how easy it is for that same device to slowly start stealing more and more of your time. Before you know it, the device has shifted from a life-enhancer to a time-waster.

Here are five tips (and a bonus tip!) to help prevent you from sliding down that slipper slope, or to help you start crawling your way out again. If all else fails, contact a clinician who is trained in helping people get control over their digital lives.

1. Organize your apps

Put the important apps that you use most of the time on the front screen. While it might be best to delete time-wasters, if there are slippery-slope apps you just can’t live without, put them on the back screen, preferably in a folder titled “KEEP OUT!” The point is to slow down your impulsive access so you can choose what to do.

2. If possible, set up multiple user accounts — one for productivity and one for fun

While this isn’t possible with iOS, newer versions of Android allow you to have multiple user accounts. Set up the default account with your necessary apps. Set up another account with the apps you want to limit; games, social media, etc. Give that account a difficult-to-remember password. Again, the point is to slow down access to apps that might end up wasting your time.

3. Use a password manager

Storing passwords obviously improve security and privacy. They allow you to more easily use more passwords than the two or three you can easily remember. Manager apps also make it easier to use hard-to-guess (and therefore hard-to-remember) passwords.

Using a password manager can also help you stay productive and efficient. Set your productive apps up as always logged in. For the time-wasters, come up with really complex passwords that you can’t remember, and set them up so you always have to log in. You can use those few extra seconds it takes to use the password manager to ask yourself, “Does it really make sense for me to use this right now? It’s so much easier to go to my productive apps.”

4. Use parental controls

Don’t be insulted by this tip. Parental controls can help you use your device more efficiently. If you have trouble with distractions, set them up to limit your access to what you need. You can always turn them off when you don’t need them. Again, it’s about giving you a little extra time to decide what you really want to do.

If distraction is a more serious problem, let another person set the controls up so you can’t easily turn them off. That’s something I do for a number of my clients who are overusing and misusing their devices, but still need access for work or school.

5. Turn the color off

This is a tip I feel mixed about, as I discussed in another forum. Unlike Tristan Harris, I do not believe this will by itself make a big difference (although as far as I know, it has not been systematically studied). The idea is that grayscale is less effective at grabbing our attention than color. I suspect there is truth to that, but devices hijack our time in many other ways. Quick movement, sound, and rapid rewards for interacting are some of the powerful strategies apps use to make sure you continue to use them.

That said, color is a factor, so removing it can help. Perhaps as important, grayscale is a real contrast to the color-saturated world of smart devices. That contrast itself can help remind you to keep focused on your tasks, at least for a time. Over time, you might get used to the change and respond to it less and less. I would certainly put it into the category of one-small-thing you can do to help you keep control.

BONUS TIP — Get it out of the way

As long as your phone is accessible — even if it is OFF — your cognitive abilities and productivity are worse. So it’s not just about interrupting calls or distracting apps. If it’s physically available, your brain will put resources into it. And few of us have enough brain resources to waste.

We spend a lot of time on our smartphones and tablets. It’s really easy to let them take over more and more of our time. But it really doesn’t have to be that way. You can use your device for work and leisure while remaining in control of your life. Just remember, no matter what you think of it, it’s a tool for you to use. With a little forethought, you can use it wisely.

December 14th, 2018

Posted In: Tech