How often do you check your phone when you’re out and about? I’ve been reflecting on this question while writing in a rented cottage in Scotland, without internet access or phone signal. I counted the number of times my hand twitches towards my pocket, where a smartphone usually nestles. The tally was at least once an hour.
These frequent little checks of personal devices are known among human-computer interface researchers as “micro-interactions” – rapid glances at email, social media and apps, often lasting only a few seconds.
If it’s disconcerting that checking my smartphone has become a habit, there’s a particular irony for me: for the last few months, I’ve been involved in a project to design a “code of conduct” for smartphone usage on Australia’s Sunshine Coast. The code comes in seven parts, and aims to help holidaymakers stop their smartphones taking over time they’ve set aside for leisure, each other and the place they’re in. Behind it, though, lies something that applies to us all: the need for new etiquettes in an era where shared notions of acceptable behaviour lag years, if not decades, behind the tools we’ve incorporated into our lives.
Here, then, are seven “smarter smartphone” rules, designed to stop technology getting in the way of other experiences.
Talk now, text later
Or tweet later. Or email later. The list goes on. The thinking behind this is simple enough. Courtesy of the magic screens in our pockets, we can do almost anything online, anywhere, at any time. And so we do – failing along the way to put boundaries around leisure and pleasure, meals and sleep, vacations and intimate moments. We gorge ourselves on digital delights, and obligations, and somewhere along the way fail to savour who or what is right in front of us. Which leads on to…
Take a phone-free day
There’s an uneasy edge to this challenge: shouldn’t we simply learn self-control? Every device has an off button, after all. Yet we can be peculiarly unwilling to use it - a tendency captured in the delightful acronym FOMO, or Fear Of Missing Out. How can we resist the continual dopamine hits of someone “liking” our status, replying to our messages, or retweeting us?
Our conscious minds have a limited capacity for high-quality decision-making, and guard it jealously. As author Charles Duhigg put it in his 2012 book The Power of Habit, “most of the choices we make every day may feel like the products of well-considered decision making, but they’re not.” We decide once to keep our mobile phone switched on and fitted snugly into our pocket - and then our initial choice vanishes, sliding instead towards something automatic. Habits are those actions where life has crept under our skin and become a part of us.
So, break the routine – and make your habits visible once again. Perhaps the best way is to leave your phone on the bedside table for the day, but you might also try a technique I discovered by accident while travelling: engage “airplane mode”, and breathe in a blissful few uncontactable hours.
Or, of course, you can take a more extreme approach. Take the method employed by author Evgeny Morozov, who routinely locks his digital devices inside a safe with a timer. He even claims to place his screwdrivers inside as well, which prevents him prising the safe open in a moment of weakness.
Avoid being a search-it-all
In other words, forgo maps, search engines, and review websites once in a while – and embrace serendipity instead.