Ayke van Laethem

Managing phone addiction

, by Ayke van Laethem

So I have a problem with phone over-use. I'm currently somewhere in the order of unlocking it about 100 times per day and (more worryingly) using it for multiple hours per day.

I think many smartphone users use their phone more than they would like or want to admit, and more than they're even aware. So here are a few things that have helped me reduce my dependency/addiction.

0. Learn about habits

I'll provide a very-very-short overview of how habits form. There are essentially 3-4 steps depending on who you ask. They start with a trigger, which causes you to do an action, which gives some sort of relief.

  1. Trigger: can be almost anything, including things you're not aware of. For examples: boredom, loneliness, the sight of an app icon on your smartphone, a phone ringing, numbness in your fingers.
  2. Action: what you actually do. Can be opening Facebook, checking your phone, biting your nails, taking a shower, anything you do without thinking.
  3. Variable reward: includes things like seeing what your friends did (on Facebook), reading something interesting, feeling refreshed, being distracted, etc.
  4. Investment: e.g. clicking a 'like' button, replying a message. When you often invest, the trigger will happen more often. For example, when you reply to an email message, you are more likely to get one back.


  • You hear the sound of a message received (trigger), open the message (action), and read it (reward). You also possibly reply to it (investment).
  • You are bored (trigger), open Facebook (action), read the stream (all sorts of variable rewards - Facebook is very good at creating habits!), and put a 'like' here and there or comment on a message (investment). It's no surprise Facebook will provide more notifications if someone comments on the same post as you commented or you liked.

There are two books I have (partially) read about habits. They provide a much better insight in how habits form and are stuck, and how you can deal with them.

  • Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products by Nir Eyal
    While this book is more oriented towards app writers (and their companies), it provides a very good overview of how apps are written specifically to get you addicted. The author makes a difference between addictions (which are always bad) and habits (which can be either good or bad), but I think the line can't be drawn so easily in the field of smartphone apps. Furthermore, I think that while the book learns that habit-forming products can be bad, the criticism isn't strong enough. And profit-driven companies will probably ignore the ethics part anyway. But learning how these apps keep you hooked helps in breaking those habits.
  • The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business Charles Duhigg
    I never finished this book. While it's not bad per se, it's very long and very pop-science. It's written by a journalist, not by a researcher, but still manages to sound like it contains sound research. However, it does provide a good introduction of how habits form and how they work.

Here follow some ways in which you can reduce or break the habits that make you use your smartphone.

1. Disable notifications

You should disable notifications for everything that you don't need to check immediately. This will break the first part of the habit cycle, the trigger. When there is no trigger, you are not compelled to do an action. Note that it can also increase usage when you keep checking your phone in the absence of notifications, so keep an eye on that effect.

  • Email notifications (e.g. Gmail). Most people don't expect an immediate response to email (unlike things like WhatsApp).
  • Many group chats (WhatsApp/Telegram/etc). Most messages aren't directed to you and depending on the group you can often check the messages at a later time. You can also consider keeping notifications enabled but disabling the notification sound, so you see it the next time you check your phone instead of interrupting whatever you were doing at the moment.
  • Facebook notifications. Really, almost all Facebook notifications are not directly relevant and are just as relevant the next day (or not at all).

2. Leave the phone somewhere else

Just so you get to feel how attached you are to your phone, consider leaving your phone sometimes outside of your direct reach, for example in an adjacent room. It makes the action harder to do, unlearning some of the habit. Every time I want to reach for my phone... it's not there and I have to deal with not being able to unlock it and see there's nothing new. Doing this just a few hours per day should help to reduce your phone usage at other times, as the habit of checking it is interrupted.

3. Install an usage tracker

Phone usage trackers give insight into how often you're using your phone, how often you unlock your phone and which apps you use most. It's a very valuable insight as you probably aren't aware of how often you do things without thinking.

I'm currently trying out multiple apps but BreakFree seems to work quite well.

4. Remove apps from your phone

If your habit is opening the Facebook app multiple times a day, it can be helpful to (temporarily) remove it. Even though Facebook is also reachable via a web browser, I have found it broke my habit enough so I can have it safely installed on my phone now without checking it too often.

5. Make a habit of checking things at regular but not too regular intervals

Instead of mindlessly checking your email or Facebook multiple times a day, make a habit of doing it every day or once every few days. The same may also be used for group chats.

I usually check Facebook once every few days, which is just enough to stay up to date but not enough for it to be a very strong habit that's hard to stop. It's a fine line to balance and it can easily go one way or another (not checking it and missing some somewhat more important updates, or checking it too often so a lot of time is lost).


I'm still working on managing my phone addiction but there are a few things which I can manage now so I hope these tips are helpful for someone.