Trying to use your smartphone less? Get a smartwatch.

Fewer distractions mean less pointless screen time.
a man using an Apple Watch outside to use his smartphone less

If you're still tempted to access random information on your watch, it's OK. Reducing unnecessary screen time is a process. Björn Antonissen/Unsplash

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It’s traditional to start an article like this by proclaiming that everyone spends too much time staring at screens. And, while some studies suggest there are negative consequences to doing so, I’m not here to debate the pros and cons of screen time. Instead, I’m here to show you how to use your smartphone less.

If you’re able to pick your phone up to do something without getting sucked into doom-scrolling on Twitter or mindlessly refreshing Instagram, you’re my hero. I struggle to have the discipline to just put my phone away.

Something simple—like throwing on a favorite playlist—can easily lead to me wasting 15 or 20 minutes doing, well, very, very little. The problem isn’t my phone. It’s me, and I know I’m not alone in this.

I have, however, found a simple fix. It has cut my screen time drastically and stopped my doom-scrolling. I got a smartwatch.

Most smartwatches can do enough, but not everything your smartphone can do

There’s a huge gulf between what your smartphone can do and what you need it to do. For me, an Apple Watch can do almost everything I previously needed my iPhone to do.

Here are some of my watch’s key tasks:

  • Set an alarm. Bonus: this means I don’t need my phone in my bedroom.
  • Play music and audiobooks.
  • Pay for stuff.
  • Receive time-sensitive phone calls and text messages.
  • Let me monitor and triage email notifications—without being able to respond or get distracted.
  • Use my meditation app.
  • Check my to-do list.
  • Send quick texts.
  • Track workouts.

Really, it lets me do almost all the important stuff. The things I want to be able to do while I’m running errands, researching an article, or just not being distracted by my smartphone, so I can ultimately use it less frequently. It’s perfect as the always-at-hand device in a way that something as capable as my phone isn’t.

You’ll need to make sure you choose a smartwatch platform that plays nice with your phone, but no matter which one you choose, you should be able to get most of the same benefits. There are, however, some limitations. The Apple Watch, as much as I like it, can’t do everything. It is, essentially, un-browsable—which is both good and bad. This means no doom-scrolling, but also no looking up recipes or quickly (and easily) buying things online.

The Garmin Fenix is a solid option if you have an Android phone, but the company is heavily focused on exercise tracking. That means Garmin smartwatches have fewer features because their batteries have to last longer than a day. And Google has shown little interest in continuing to develop Google Wear, so if you want something as fully featured as possible, Samsung’s Galaxy Wear watches strike a good balance.

When I get a message or email that I should handle quickly, a watch is no use. But at least I can see the alert and know I need to find my phone so I can reply properly.

And if I’m waiting in line somewhere, I have to deal with getting a little bit bored. No comfort-flicking between apps or Reddit. I’ve just got to do what my grandparents did: people-watch and plot world domination.

Really, what my Apple Watch has forced me to do is use my smartphone only when it’s necessary—or when I choose to. There’s nothing wrong with spending an hour on Twitter; it’s only a problem if you picked up your phone to call your mother and ended up neck-deep in tweets. But with a smartwatch, you can make a call while avoiding Twitter—minimal willpower required.

How to make it work for you

If you want to use a smartwatch to reduce your overall screen time, you’ll need to set it up so you can trust it. There’s no point in strapping an extra, always-on screen to your body if it’s just going to prompt you to check your phone more.

To go truly phone-free, you’ll need to get a smartwatch with an LTE connection, like the Apple Watch with cellular capabilities or Samsung Galaxy Watch Active2 LTE. That’ll enable you to make calls and get texts no matter where your phone is. I don’t actually need to be reachable all the time (and enjoy being offline) so I’ve been happy with the non-cellular model. I can leave my phone at home and still have music, podcasts, and audiobooks to stop me from overthinking that embarrassing thing I did 15 years ago.

Also, if you don’t want to be on your phone, don’t keep it nearby. Leave it in another room or on a high shelf—especially when you’re going to bed.

The worst thing you can do is have your smartwatch show every notification you get on your smartphone. Your phone should get almost no notifications as it is, but having your watch light up every time someone likes one of your tweets is the exact opposite of what I’m advocating for. Dive deep into the notifications options of the various apps. My Apple Watch only shows me incoming calls, iMessages, and emails from a select list of senders. Set yours up so you only get the super-important notifications, too.

Find a good notes or to-do app that syncs between your watch and phone. I like Things for my iPhone and Apple Watch, but any will do. There will be times when you want to look something up and won’t be able to. Instead, just make a note to do it later.

Use Do Not Disturb, Silent, Theater Mode, or whatever your chosen platform calls “shutting the hell up,” as necessary. I don’t like having my wrist light up in bed or when I’m trying to write.

Think about what you really need your phone for, and see if there’s an app that can replicate it on your smartwatch. You might be surprised at how capable it is for things like navigation and scheduling. Not all smartwatches can fully replace everything you might want them to, but even focused platforms like Garmin’s can do enough that you won’t need to stay so attached to your constantly-beeping phone. It’s quite freeing!

Seriously, don’t ignore your phone problems. Getting an Apple Watch was just part of the fix for me, but it gave me the distance I needed to delete some of the worst-offending apps on my smartphone and use it less overall.