No wonder smartphones have taken over our lives: They snap our photos, maintain our calendars, put us in touch with loved ones, store our music, let us work on the go, provide access to the vast storehouse of knowledge called the internet, and feed us a constant stream of entertainment. We’re certainly not here to tell you that phones are bad. But these fantastic little devices so excel at holding our attention that they can get in the way of the real world—and even rewire our brains to increase our phone dependence.
If you find yourself checking Instagram during a meal out with friends, playing Candy Crush as you walk down the street, or scrolling through your Facebook feed in bed until you look up and realize it’s 2 AM, you may have an unhealthy relationship with your smartphone. These tips can help you reclaim your life—or at least cut down on your screen time.
Change your habits
Depending on your daily routine, you’ve probably gotten in the habit of checking your phone at specific times throughout the day. By becoming more aware of these habitual reflexes, and taking action to change them, you can reduce your phone time. Consider adopting these habits one at a time, gradually weaning yourself off your pocket companion.
Start with the very beginning and end of the day. Studies show that having a phone in the bedroom can reduce your quality of sleep and your well-being. Instead of bringing it bedside, consider leaving your device charging overnight in the kitchen or living room. Worried about waking up on time? You can always invest in a cheap alarm clock instead of counting on your phone to drag you out of bed.
Many people begin their mornings by first checking their phones. So your next step is to get through your AM routine without succumbing to this temptation. Give yourself time to eat breakfast and get ready for the day before plunging into the maelstrom of emails, tweets, and Instagram posts that sprouted up overnight.
After you head to school or work, you probably keep glancing at your phone throughout the day. One study found that, in one day, the average American checks his or her phone 46 times. In order to reduce this number, you have to take charge of the times when your phone has the power distract and interrupt you.
Plan to mute your phone for set stretches of time at work, during mealtimes with your family, and even when watching TV. If you tend to keep your phone close to hand—in your pocket, on your desk, or sitting on the table—stash it in a bag, drawer, or another room entirely, for certain periods of the day. This isn’t just about keeping your device out of sight and out of mind: One study suggested the mere physical presence of your phone can dumb down your cognitive skills.
At home, another way to set boundaries on your phone use is to create simple etiquette rules—and get your family or roommates to help you follow them. This might mean never checking your phone after 11 PM, or on Sunday mornings, or when someone else is in the room with you. As with any other type of behavior change, start with a small, achievable practice that you’ll be able to keep doing.
Reconfigure your phone
If your email, text messages, and social media apps all ping you every time a notification rolls in, you’ve lost control of your day: Your routine now depends not on your schedule, but on whatever’s happening on WhatsApp, Twitter, or Facebook.
It doesn’t have to be this way: Android and iOS—and individual apps themselves—have settings to stem the flow of alerts, buzzes, and audible rings. On the most basic level, you can turn your phone off completely for certain blocks of time. Or you can keep it in silent mode, so notifications will still appear but won’t distract you as much. Another option is airplane mode, which cuts off your network connection. The effect is similar to shutting down your phone, but turning this mode off takes less time than waiting for your phone to switch back on.
To set phone-free periods in advance, take advantage of the Do Not Disturb mode. You can find it in the Settings app on both iOS and Android (where the mode appears under the Sound heading). This lets you choose certain times of day when notifications can still come through, but they won’t produce any sound or vibration.
Beyond phone-wide settings, take a look at your individual apps. In Facebook, for instance, you can access the settings by tapping the three horizontal lines icon on the top right (on Android) or the grid icon on the bottom right (on iOS). Then choose which types of events will generate notifications: For example, you might choose to receive alerts when you’re tagged in photos, but not every time your friends create new posts.
Most other apps, especially the ones in the categories of social media, instant messaging, and email, will have similar options you can adjust. You can also switch alerts on or off for specific apps within your phone’s settings: Simply open up Apps & notifications in Android Settings or Notifications in iOS Settings.
For more tips on reducing the number of alerts your phone receives, check out our full guide to taming your phone notifications.
If you want to take it further, think about uninstalling as many apps as possible and stripping your phone back to the basics. Do you really need to check your email when you’re away from your laptop? Can you live without a constant stream of tweets on your phone? Most of your apps have corresponding websites you can access from your computer, so you won’t be cutting yourself off entirely by uninstalling them. You’ll just be spending less time staring at your phone.
Install addiction-breaking apps
Counterintuitively, you can reduce your phone use by installing certain apps. We can’t cover them all here, but we can recommend a few that have caught our attention.
Checky (free for Android and iOS) simply gathers data about your phone use, showing you how many times you unlock your phone in a day and logging this behavior over time. If you want to slowly cut down on your smartphone time with some of the methods we’ve mentioned above, Checky can effectively chart your progress.
AppDetox (free for Android) lets you set limits on the time you spend inside individual apps. For any app on your phone, you can see stats for how often you’re dipping into it, and then set rules about daily usage: AppDetox can control which times of day you’re allowed open up the app, how many times you can launch it, or both.
Flipd (free for Android and iOS, premium features start at $2.99), like AppDetox, focuses on blocking access to certain apps for set periods of time. If you lack the willpower to stay away from your phone on your own, Flipd can give you a helping hand. And if you pay for the premium option, the app will give you longer lock times and let you chart your phone usage over time.
Onward (free for iOS), premium plans start at $4.99) provides a full suite of tools and features for more comprehensive phone control. You can track how often you use your phone and individual apps, set up rules for limiting phone use, and even have an expert give you personalized coaching to help break your tech addiction. Some of these options require a premium subscription, but you can also stick to the basic version, or simply test out the premium features with a free trial.
Forest (free with ads, extra options start at $0.99 for Android; $1.99 for iOS) takes a slightly different approach: It gamifies the process of easing you away from phone distractions. In this program, you plant a seed, which eventually grows into a tree—as long as you don’t navigate away from the app. If you ditch Forest during the growth period, perhaps to check Facebook or play your favorite game, the tree will die. This sounds gimmicky, but it’s actually a very effective and almost peaceful way of avoiding the temptations of your other phone apps.