Nir’s Note: In this last in a series of guest posts on the topic of technology habits, Jason Shah shares practical tips he used to regain control over his devices. Jason is a Product Manager at Yammer and blogs about user experience and technology at blog.jasonshah.org. You can follow him on Twitter @jasonyogeshshah.

3787936766_a9cb677e8f_b“Not long ago, in a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center in Texas, a 17-year-old boy was weathering withdrawal at its worst. His body shuddered with convulsions. He hurled tables and chairs around the hospital.

Had he been hooked on heroin? Cocaine? Jim Beam? Joe Camel?

No, his psychologist said. The teenager had withdrawn cold turkey from the Internet.”

This account of a young man’s struggle with Internet withdrawal is from a 1996 New York Times article. Since then, the Internet has become even more pervasive and habit-forming.

The Internet has much in common with gambling: it’s compulsive; it’s compelling; it’s distracting.  Many people find it hard to resist the Web’s grip. Affluent adults in the US spend more than 30 hours a week on the Internet — it’s almost a full-time job!

Indeed, much of the web’s appeal is hardwired in our DNA. Technology companies carefully hone their services to cater to our survival instincts. Over time, we have become conditioned to know where to look on the Internet for rewards, and in the spirit of survival, we return repeatedly to get as much as possible out of a reliable source of pleasure.

Though psychologists and other professionals continue to debate whether Internet usage may become habit-forming to the point of being pathological, Internet addiction is being considered for official classification as a disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder.

Hello, I am an Addict

I have a confession. I am an addict.

I check my devices way too often. I feel stressed when I am away from my computer. And most disturbing (though not uncommon), I often imagine my phone is vibrating in my pocket, only to subconsciously reach for it and, with a jolt, realize it is in my backpack or across the table — and on silent.

My addiction to technology involves a plethora of habits I’d like to break in order to live what I believe would be a more deliberate, productive, and enjoyable life.

Here are my five worst tech habits:

  • Checking my iPhone unnecessarily and walking with my head down, eyes glued to the phone

  • Browsing Facebook, Twitter, and off-topic articles when I should be focused on work, especially when I am doing work that I actually enjoy

  • Googling every obscure question that comes to mind without first pondering the possible answers

  • Mapping myself to nearby places without using common sense first

  • Watching Netflix to fall asleep

Sure, iPhone technology is pretty spectacular. When put to good use, it can really maximize efficiency. But my iPhone also distracts me from the people I love. The temptation to open a new tab and passively browse the Internet draws me away from work I truly care about and damages my productivity. The “why think, when you could Google” mindset is eroding my imagination. Using my maps application instead of my memory has caused me to miss out on the landmarks that make a place special, and has put into dormancy the great sense of direction I once had. Watching streaming television before bed cuts into my precious hours of shuteye, and decreases the quality of my sleep.

So I have decided to break my terrible habits. To do so, I’ve considered the structural factors that enable these bad behaviors, in the form of internal and external triggers. Eliminating or rewiring these triggers will disrupt my habits, and allow me to change my behavior. Right?

Habit #1: Checking my iPhone Unnecessarily

I frequently check my phone without any real need. I find myself using my phone while walking to the office, in the middle of lunch with coworkers, or while I’m waiting for a barista to make my coffee — but why?

There are several triggers contributing to this mindless behavior. For one, the phone sits right in my pocket, on my person at all times where I can feel it. Sometimes I leave my phone on my desk so I’m not attached to it, but being able to see it at all times is not much better.

Triggers: notifications, feeling the phone in my pocket, seeing my own phone or other people use their phones (or phone-related accessories, e.g. earbuds), anxiety, and boredom.

Here are some steps that I’m taking to limit how much I check my phone:

  • Charge the phone in a different room at night. I really disliked the whole “Wake up, roll over, clear my notifications, and then snooze” routine I was developing. Charging elsewhere helps avoid stress right before bed and distractions first thing in the morning.

  • Turn off push notifications. These are rarely important and end up serving as dangerous gateways for all of the other apps on the phone.

  • Sign out of Facebook and Twitter apps on my phone. The friction of having to sign in makes those 1-2 minute rushes of social media doses harder to indulge.

  • Lock your phone / change your auto-lock to 1 minute. If my phone screen is lit up, I want to look at it. It’s hard to ignore. Locking your phone and letting the screen go black will make it easier to ignore than a bright screen with all of those shiny app icons.

  • Leave the phone in the work bag. Urgent calls are rare and my bag is just as safe as my pocket. Turn the sound on for calls if you need.

  • Add a passcode. The additional friction is enough to dissuade me from unlocking the phone sometimes, or at least buys me enough time to realize that I’m distracting myself.

  • Limit “good” reasons for needing to use my phone. For example, I used to listen to music on my walk to work. But my desire to change the song would quickly lead from scrolling a playlist to browsing my Facebook feed. So I have decided that, if I can’t just stick to whatever Spotify decides to play, I will not listen to music on my walk at all.

Habit #2: Checking Gmail and Facebook While Working

I’m often in the middle of working on something that I’m enjoying and find exciting. Yet somehow, despite a lack of boredom or spare time, I often open up tabs to check Facebook, Twitter, and Hacker News. It’s not a scheduled or helpful break. But when I get stuck, it’s just easy to rationalize two minutes of browsing the Internet as a way to “recharge” or learn something different for a moment.

Even when I do have the answer, I sometimes feel anxious to know that I haven’t missed a new email or Facebook notification. Even though these emails and notifications rarely require an urgent response, or any response at all, the impulse is hard to ignore.

Triggers: Anxiety, tab counts, remembering a friend, needing to dig up some information (e.g. someone’s phone number), mental exhaustion, and boredom

Some triggers that lead me to leave my work are anxiety (“What if I just got an email from The President? Even the 0.00001% chance is worth a 2 second check!”) and mental exhaustion, which is sometimes just perceived and not real at all (“I just finished a whole paragraph! Wow, that took a lot out of me. Let me do some mindless Facebook stalking.”)

  • Use browser tab counts. Keep Gmail and Facebook open in tabs: This is kind of cheating, and may seem counterintuitive. Ideally you have strong will, signed out, and don’t check these distractions when working. However, it’s a compromise for me. Instead of compulsively opening the page (and inevitably getting distracted) I can glance at the tab counts and know that I have nothing new. Avoiding the inbox and news feed helps reduce the number of triggers that could further distract me.

  • Log out of popular web apps, clear your browser history, turn off address bar autocomplete (if you can), don’t bookmark TechCrunch or whatever distracts you: For me, the friction of having to login every time I want to check Facebook helps stop me.

  • Unfollow everyone on Twitter: By following no one, my feed has gotten so boring that I don’t check Twitter very often anymore, yet still use it to disseminate content.

  • Don’t follow the trail and limit yourself on tabs: It’s a beautiful vision, the worldwide web — a collection of interlinked resources, ideas, and tools. But the problem arises when that blog post you were mildly interested in about SaaS pricing leads to a link about startup life which leads to a People Magazine article about Justin Bieber. “How did I get here?” you ask after 30 minutes of wasted time and 10 open tabs that map how you traversed the depths of the Internet. Be disciplined about accomplishing your goal when you click on a link and try not to follow a scary trail of time-wasting. Close tabs you’re no longer using, so that those tabs don’t come back to haunt and distract you later.

Habit #3: Googling Everything

The mind behind Lost and Star Trek, JJ Abrams, mentioned in a TED talk that there is no mystery left in the world. We can know whatever information we want with just a quick Internet search. Abrams keeps sealed a mystery box he bought with his grandfather when he was just a child. Abrams has never opened the mystery box.

He is generally right: we don’t let ourselves wonder enough.

And how many times have we all found ourselves saying “I don’t know [answer to obscure question]. I bet we can just Google it…” Before I return to my friends with how many feet tall the Eiffel Tower is or whether Yelp was profitable last quarter, I get distracted.

Trigger: Not knowing something

Not only is the distraction harmful and I have now killed the conversation, but also the idea that more knowledge is necessarily good is quietly dangerous.

Sure, there is little harm to knowing more. But that is a shallow understanding of what happens. There is a real cost below the surface of Googling everything without a second thought: the gradual erosion of critical thinking skills and one’s ability to form educated guesses. I am making an effort to stop myself before Googling information and getting lost in the twists of the Internet. This is a hard one to change because the triggers are often diverse, and not necessarily obvious. However, nowadays, one solution for me is simply seeing the Google search bar and forcing myself to justify what I am about to search for has helped me curb the behavior.

Habit #4: Navigating Short Distances, Bumping into People While I Follow the Blue Dot

When Mapquest digitized maps and rid married couples of arguments about how to get to Uncle Steve’s farmhouse, I thought the maps problem was solved.

When Google mobilized maps, I thought all of the new problems with maps – speed, accuracy, access, data manipulation, etc. – were solved.

But somehow, maps still are not without problems. For example, I find myself overly reliant on maps, using it to find places I can make a very good guess about otherwise. Sometimes the destination is less than two miles away. Sometimes I find myself updating the directions and following the blue dot when I am already standing in front of the venue!

Feeling confident in my direction is just a few taps of the finger away, so why not?

Trigger: Getting to a new location

To combat this, I’m working to map out my directions before I go or simply pausing to think about the logic of getting to places nearby, and avoiding maps altogether. I would even like to try asking people on the street for help as a break from always using Google Maps. Needing to look up the address for a meeting and map it is often a trigger for me to use my phone. Simply being mindful and trying to remember the address has helped curb the behavior, too.

Habit #5: Watching Netflix Before Going to Sleep

“It’s been a long day. I deserve a break. Let me watch House of Cards for an hour before I go to sleep.” That’s how I rationalize firing up Netflix at 11:30pm most nights.

Two hours later, I stir from being half-asleep to a greyed out, powerless Macbook screen.

I slam the screen shut, regret what I know will be a 4 hour sleep night, and roll over to go back to bed. Terrible.

Triggers: Mental exhaustion, boredom, browser bookmark, app icon, social media references to movies and TV shows (seeing shared videos on social networks, mentions of certain shows)

Honestly, the trick here beyond removing some of these triggers (deleting the bookmark and reducing how much I use social media) has simply been a matter of changing what I believe television means for me. The trigger is mental exhaustion, or believing I am exhausted simply because it is the end of the day. Historically, by believing TV helps me recharge, or at least does not require me to expend any more energy, it’s easy to give in to the triggers and indulge.

But today when I have the self-awareness to acknowledge the trigger of exhaustion, I am rewiring myself to understand that what I need is sleep, not TV drama, buffering, or fast-moving pixels. Realizing what I actually need helps me go to sleep without all of the TV first.

Breaking The Internet Addiction Takes a Mix of Trigger Control and Discipline

Nir, through his Hooked framework, helped me understand what made me behave in the way that I do. While I found the framework powerful as a person who builds products, I also found the framework useful from the other side of the table — in defending against the habits that technology companies are encouraging me to develop.

This defense is manifests in trying to eliminate or rewire the triggers for these five bad habits that I shared, and so far, it has helped me lead a much more productive and deliberate life.

Acknowledge the habit. Identify the triggers. Either kill the triggers or rewiring the triggers to get you to do whatever you would rather do instead. Rinse, and repeat.

This has worked for me. What triggers are responsible for your worst habits, and how do you plan on eliminating the triggers or rewiring what those triggers mean?

Note: This guest essay was written by Jason Shah.

Photo Credit: B Rosen

Get my latest blog posts by subscribing now!

Share this essay:

  • amyrhoda

    Great post, and it makes me realize what a good idea it is for me to not have data on my phone. I have a smartphone with a cheap pay-as-you-go text-and phone service, so I can’t use maps, and I can’t check email or social media when I’m out. I also did the trick of charging my phone away from my bed, so I don’t check social media when I’m in bed. (Instead I read books! Remember them? No hyperlinks!) But I still struggle with getting distracted when I’m trying to focus, either on work or something personal I want to get done. Self-discipline is hard.

  • http://danl.im/ Daniel Lim

    Really interesting read. I think I’ve got to stop using my phone as an alarm clock.

  • Miha Ahronovitz

    What happens if I don’t want to break the Internet addiction?

  • http://twitter.com/devans00 devans00

    I don’t see my fascination with the internet as a problem. It’s improved my quality of life in so many ways.

    In the days before I constantly checked my phone and tablet apps for updates or information, my nose was constantly in a book or magazine. I’ve traded print mediums for devices but my general habits haven’t changed that much. Except that I’m more interactive with and less isolated from the world at large.

    Is this a case of making a problem where one may not exist. But then again, I don’t feel as extremely connected to technology as the author describes his relationship to technology. My soul doesn’t feel sucked, yet.