If my right thumb had a FitBit, it would have run multiple marathons by now, most of it mindlessly. Americans and British adults check their phones, on average, 150 times each day. Teens today look up from their phone 15 times per day (a joke).
Our brain’s dopamine system, meant to reward life-affirming behavior, has been hijacked by pixels in the shape of little red flags. Our fight-or-flight response, which evolved to help us attack or flee danger, is constantly being awakened by the endless content on our screens.
For every cute animal video, there is a call to anger, an igniter of debate, a shiny deal, a plea to save someone or something. We are stuck in REACTIVE mode. Now there’s a global health outbreak, with each update more alarming than the next.
Healing from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS) a debilitating neuroimmune condition, required keeping my nervous system calm, which meant stepping away from screens that sought my constant reaction.
In my opinion, digital overload is the most underrated contributor to post-exertional crashes for people with ME/CFS. And it’s an underestimated health hazard to the general public.
Here’s are seven easy steps to spend less time glued to your phone to give your brain a break:
Step 1: Unplug your Wifi before you go to bed
While your WiFi takes five minutes to boot up in the morning, you can allow yourself to do so as well before you dive into your inbox. I stretch and drink warm filtered water.
Studies show the benefits of reducing electromagnetic fields for a deeper sleep.
For those who use home monitoring devices, there are non-wifi baby monitors on the market and Nest can operate without WiFi.
Step 2: Sleep with your phone on airplane mode in another room
I don’t take my phone with me to bed. Instead, it stays in the kitchen. To tell the time, I keep a simple clap-to-display-the-time alarm clock on my dresser.
My friends and family text a lot in the morning. If I spot notifications when I enter the kitchen, I’ll be compelled to immediately respond. Soon after, I’ll get sucked into a social media and email checking spiral.
Having my phone on Airplane Mode in the kitchen at night makes Step 3 much easier.
If you have mobility issues, you can simply turn your phone completely off.
Step 3: Do one thing before you check your phone in the morning (build up to more!)
If you’re reading this article on the toilet, you might have a problem.
Try to do at least ONE thing before you check your phone in the morning, and build up to more each week.
Before you check your phone, first go to the bathroom, drink a glass of water (ideally room temperature or warm), or stretch.
I’ve compiled 7 things I do each morning before I check my phone to start my days feeling peaceful and calm. To have a healthy morning routine also meant getting on an earlier sleeping schedule. (Note: As of April 2022, I’m no longer doing all of these, but I’m thinking about getting back to it again.)
Step 4: Turn off mobile notifications on social media and email
I’ve learned that checking my phone every time there’s a notification is not only a productivity killer, but according to new research, is terrible for our brain health.
I’ve since turned mobile notifications off. When I worked in tech, I found it helpful to turn Slack channel notifications off. I only keep notifications on for text apps to communicate with loved ones.
There is never an Instagram “emergency” which needs our immediate attention.
I’ve also ‘silenced’ group conversations (these are never urgent). It’s nice at the end of the day to look through the cute photos that my family or friends have sent to one another.
Step 5: Put phone away from reach (or turn off) when eating
It’s impossible to avoid scary news these days, even when innocently checking Facebook. Reading about chaos and danger can send chemicals through our bodies that direct blood from our digestive systems into our muscles.
If you’re at work or school, try storing your phone in a drawer or work bag. You can check it after you’ve finished your lunch. (This, of course, does not apply to people with moderate to severe ME/CFS who are mainly house or bed-bound, like I myself once was.)
At home, avoid keeping your phone on any surfaces where you eat. If you eat at your coffee table, don’t simply throw it to the other side of your couch.
Putting my phone out of reach when I eat or turning it completely off has helped me stay calm and improve my digestion. When I’m checking social media, I’m not chewing as much.
Step 6: Move distracting apps to your second-to-last screen (or remove from phone entirely)
During my health recovery journey, I eventually removed all energy-zapping apps from my phone. This helped my brain and therefore body more easily recover from physical exertion, since I reduced needless mental exertion.
My husband, a robotics professor who likes to be efficient with his time, used to keep Facebook on his second to last phone screen and Twitter, somewhere in the middle, so he’d have to really be cognizant to reach them.
Later, he removed all social media from his phone entirely. He has to check them from his computer.
Update April 2022: I now have Facebook and Instagram on my phone again (not Twitter though), and I’m thinking about removing them. I notice myself mindlessly scrolling after dinner and know that it’s not helpful for my circadian rhythm to be staring at screens later in the evening.
Step 7: Before you check an app or email, ask yourself “Why?”
That’s it. This simple awareness can have a powerful effect.
Keeping our brain calm is beneficial to our body on many levels, such as strengthening our immune system’s ability to handle threats and our ability to heal. “Digital detox” was a catchy title for a post, but these habits are really a lifestyle choice for me.
These suggestions can be adapted to your needs.
Unplugging more completely was one of several things that helped jumpstart my upward journey back to health. Stay tuned for my more advanced steps for reducing device usage (and joyful alternatives) by signing up for our newsletter.