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Breaking the Habit: How to Take Control of the Tech in Your Life

The time we spend with our devices adds up… and it’s probably not all that good for us. Here’s how we get into the habit, and how you can get out of it.
by Quinton O’Reilly | Mar 12 2018

Think about how often you check your phone. You might have checked your Facebook news feed once, refreshed it numerous times, or notifications may be grabbing your attention every few minutes.

Even your email inbox, which can feel antiquated compared to instant messaging services like WhatsApp, can cause stress thanks to the expectation of new messages coming in and the anxiety you feel when you can’t check it.

breaking-habit-tech-life

It’s not lack of willpower that is causing this, but how technology and products are designed. Since products tend to focus on how long people view them and the data they give, it’s no surprise that the experience is about creating habits that will stick long after the novelty wears off.

Compulsion

For most of us, our compulsion with these services starts with our phones, something that’s covered by Adam Alter in his book Irresistible. In one piece where he cites data from the app Moment — which determines how much time people spend glued to their devices — people thought they spent around 90 minutes a day staring at their phones.

The results were worse. Not only did people pick up their devices roughly 40 times throughout the day, but they also spent an average of three hours staring at it. Significantly more than the recommended guidelines of no more than an hour a day.

How a habit forms is usually down to how easy the task or objective is. Since your phone is beside you all the time, it’s easy to check whenever you have a moment of silence or boredom. These moments can add up quickly.

The Hook Model

To understand why this happens, you have to look into the nature of habits which Nir Eyal covers in his book Hooked.

With a background in gaming and advertising, Eyal knows a thing or two about forming habits and they form because our brain is eager to save time.

The most successful businesses and products available today, especially online, are habit-forming and the method they use is the so-called Hook model. This consists of four steps that, when repeated often enough, will form a habit around the product in question.

The four steps are:

  • The trigger: An external event that gets you to try a product for the first time (an ad or a friend’s recommendation)
  • The action: What we need to do in order to use the product (signing up, posting, etc.)
  • The reward: The fulfillment of the need that originally motivated us to take action (likes, comments, notifications etc.)
  • The investment: Something of value that we’ve invested in the product, like time, money or information.

The last step leads to the start of the cycle as these steps are repeated over and over again, as the user develops the impulse to use the product on their own, instead of being encouraged by external factors.

For a scientific explanation, when you get a reward, the neurotransmitter dopamine is released in the brain which gives off a feeling of intense pleasure. When you repeat it, the pleasure decreases meaning people spend more time online to recreate the first high.

Take an app like Facebook as an example. The four steps might look like this.

  • The trigger: A friend tells you about it.
  • The action: You sign up and post status updates and photos.
  • The reward: People like and comment on them, making you feel good.
  • The investment: You’ve invested time and data into it so you continue using it to get more likes and comments.

The key part of Eyal’s argument is you don’t form habits spontaneously. They’re a process that comes from a straightforward task or objective. If a task is complicated or hard, it’s unlikely you’ll form the habit in the first place.

Another key part, as Alter mentions, is that unpredictable rewards, be it likes, matches, or messages increases the chances of addition. That also contributes to the feeling of missing out on something important because you don’t know when it will happen.

Replacement

The good news from Alter is that these are habits, and bad ones can be replaced with good ones.

Beware of going cold turkey or trying to repress or suppress as it rarely works and you’ll fall back into old habits quicker. More considered methods should be used, especially since you can’t really ‘quit’ the Internet. Here are a few to get you started.

  1. If you can, rely on substitution. If there are certain times you find yourself checking your phone more than usual, replace it with another activity like reading, painting or something physical.
  2. If you have to check your Facebook profile or emails, maybe limit it so that you only look when on your desktop. Alternatively, you can save the link to the browser version onto your phone’s home screen so, at the very least, you won’t get notifications.
  3. When sleeping, put your phone in a place that you can’t access it easily. If it’s beside you on your bed, it’ll be on your mind and you’re more likely to check it.
  4. Download an app like Moment (iOS) or QualityTime (Android) to track your phone usage. The results over a week or two may help you identify problem apps.

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