16 Quick Tips to Break Free From FB, Instagram, and Netflix Addiction and Reclaim Your Life
“We limit how much technology our kids use in the home.”
Steve Jobs uttered these words in a 2010 interview with New York Times journalist Nick Bilton. This was the same Steve Jobs who had unveiled the iPad just a few months earlier – and with enthusiasm, “What this device does is extraordinary… It offers the best way to browse the web. Way better than a laptop and way better than a smartphone… It’s an incredible experience. It’s phenomenal for email. It’s a dream to type on.”
“So, your kids must love the iPad?” Bilton asked Jobs. “They haven’t used it,” he replied. Walter Isaacson, who had dinner with the Jobs family while researching his biography of Steve Jobs, told Bilton, “No one ever pulled out an iPad or computer. The kids did not seem addicted at all to devices.”
Since then, Bilton met a number of tech giants who impose similar restrictions. The example of Chris Anderson, the former editor of Wired and now chief executive of 3D Robotics, stands out. “My kids accuse me and my wife of being fascists and overly concerned about tech, and they say that none of their friends have the same rules,” he said of his five children, 6 to 17. “That’s because we have seen the dangers of technology firsthand. I’ve seen it in myself, I don’t want to see that happen to my kids.”
The dangers he’s referring to, not limited to kids by the way, include everything from depression, to anxiety, to less emotional stability, reduced impulse control, lower self-control, greater distractibility, lower emotional well-being, obesity, diabetes, sleep difficulties, cancer, damaged eyesight, and a range of other negative health outcomes.
Why do we spend so much time with problematic technology if it’s obviously bad for us? In short, because we’re hooked, and it’s no accident. We live in an attention economy, which means every app and website wants us to spend as much time with them as possible. The more of our time and attention they get, the more advertising they can sell. Big tech companies employ thousands of so-called Attention Engineers whose job is to invent new reasons and new persuasive tactics to bring us back to their platform.
The truth is, Facebook, Instagram, Netflix, YouTube, Candy Crush, and co. are after our attention. If you can’t stop checking your phone and waste hours upon hours of your life browsing through your social media feeds, playing online games, or watching TV shows, it’s because tech companies are hijacking your brain and engineering behavioral addiction.
TV host Bill Maher says checking your likes is the new smoking. He refers to Mark Zuckerberg and other tech CEOs as “tobacco farmers in T-shirts, selling an addictive product to children,” and wants them to “stop pretending that they are friendly nerd Gods building a better world.”
So, what if you don’t like tech companies designing your life? What if you loathe wasting hours of your time on your devices? What if you fear the negative consequences associated with tech use? What if you want your time back? Here are 16 tips that will help you with that.
1. Measure the Degree of Your Tech Addiction
What gets measured, gets improved. In one study, people who were assigned to wear a pedometer walked at least one extra mile per day on average and improved their overall activity levels by 27%.
Want to break free from tech addiction? Measure how much time you spend using problematic tech every day. Want to spend less time on Facebook? Measure your daily FB consumption. Want to reduce phone usage? Measure how much time you’re spending on your phone every day. Use pen and paper to track your time for a few days. Simply write down everything you do and how much time it takes. Or use a time-tracking app like Toggl. Or use Checky to see how often you unlock your phone. Or install RescueTime to get an overview of how you spend your computer time.
Tracking creates near-instant changes in your behavior. It’s a form of accountability. It raises your self-awareness. And, frankly, you won’t like the guilt and regret associated with logging hours and hours of wasted time.
2. Set Up Your Home Screens
Research on priming shows that everything in your environment has a subtle and unconscious influence on you. Anything you see, hear, taste, touch, or smell can trigger unintended behaviors and goals. Walking past the gym can trigger the goal of working out, while walking past the jewelry store can trigger the goal of buying luxury items.
One study showed that putting sweets on a secretary’s desk in a clear rather than opaque bowl – which made the sweets more visible but not more available – increases snacking by 46%. Snacking on sweets is an equivalent to snacking on Facebook, Instagram, Email, Candy Crush, or Apple News. By making these apps less visible, we can reduce their respective snacking.
So, how do we make addictive apps less visible? We remove them from our home screens. On your computer, delete desktop shortcuts and taskbar shortcuts. On your phone, move problematic apps off your home screen (duh!). And on your browsers, install extensions, such as Empty New Tab Page or Momentum. Upon opening a new tab, you then see either a completely empty tab or one with a beautiful photograph, inspiring quote, and the question, “What is your focus today?”
Here’s what my home screens look like for my laptop, browser, and Android phone:
3. Delete Apps Like Your Life Depends on it
One of the key addictive features of modern technology is its nonexistent barrier to entry. Think about it, if you had to walk for a minute or pay five bucks every time you wanted to access Facebook, you wouldn’t use it as much. But all you have to do is click an icon or type in “Fa” into your browser – and voila: your brain is on a candy land of abundant, immediate rewards.
Perhaps the best way to reduce our compulsive and unconscious use of time-wasting technology is to increase the barrier to entry. We must make it harder to access Facebook and co.. How? Deleting the respective apps on your phone will go a long way. While you can still access the websites, you have at least increased the barrier to entry. Instead of clicking just once, you now have to click to open the browser and click again to type.
I have personally deleted all social media apps and all games from my phone. Does it help me waste less time? Absolutely!
4. Use Firefox Focus as Your Mobile Browser
Even after deleting almost all time-wasting apps from my phone, I was still wasting plenty of time. Why? Because accessing Facebook and co. through the default browser was too fast and easy. That’s why I suggest using Firefox Focus as your mobile browser. It doesn’t keep history. It doesn’t keep you logged in. It doesn’t remember your login information.
When I want to hop on Facebook on my phone, I need to type in “Facebook.com,” and then type in my username and password. This increases the barrier to entry by quite a bit, and as a result, I see myself spending less and less time on Facebook.
5. Go Gray
Former Design Ethicist at Google Tristan Harris is one of the most informed people when it comes to the addictive nature of modern technology. To fight the addiction, he recommends enabling grayscale on your phone as this will make Instagram, Snapchat, and co. less appealing. According to an article in the New York Times, it will also reduce the attention-grabbing effects of icons.
If you want to give it a shot, follow the instructions outlined in this Lifehacker piece: “The process for enabling grayscale differs for different models of Android phones, but it’s typically accessed via the “Accessibility” menu. In iOS 10, go to Settings > General > Accessibility >Display Accommodations >Color Filters. Switch Color Filters on and select Grayscale. To easily toggle between color and grayscale, go to Settings > General > Accessibility > Accessibility Shortcut > Color Filters. Now, you just press the home button three times to enable grayscale. Triple-click again to go back to color.”
Personally, I take a slightly different approach. I use the Android app Twilight to reduce the amount of blue light my phone emits. (Why? Read this.) This results in a red-colored screen that hopefully has similar effects as a gray screen would. The only time I pause the app is when I’m in bright sunlight, in which case the blue light from the screen is balanced by the full-spectrum light of the sun.
6. Put it Away
As discussed in tip #2, sight is one of five senses that can trigger you into unconscious behavior. Seeing your laptop on the desk or your iPad or phone on the couch will make you want to use it.
That’s why I suggest putting them into drawers when you don’t use them. You may think it’s no big deal – “I can still grab my phone within a few seconds even if it’s in a drawer” – but it is. When I have the discipline to do this, I’m not nearly as compulsive with checking these devices. It also somehow feels better. When you walk into a room with a smartphone present, all of its unconscious associations get triggered, “What am I missing out on? Is there a new message? Did someone want to call me?” and you start freaking out.
Putting your devices away comes with other benefits too. As I explain in this article, the mere presence of a phone disrupts social interactions and hurts cognitive performance. Here’s a new mantra to ty out: Drawers are my friends.
7. Turn Off Sound, Vibrate, and Notifications
For the first three to five hours of my day, the phone stays in airplane mode and lives in a desk drawer. The rest of the day it’s usually silent, meaning sound and vibration are turned off, except in rare occasions when I expect an important call or message. Notifications are turned off for everything aside missed calls and text messages.
Every time an external notification interrupts you, it means you lose any focus and momentum you’ve built up. You suffer switching costs. If the notification is emotionally charged, it may drastically raise your stress levels. Perhaps worst of all, every interruption may lead to hours of procrastination. As research by Gloria Mark has shown, it takes an average of almost 25 minutes to return to the original task after an interruption. How many times have you gotten side tracked after a distraction? How many times have you told yourself, “it’ll just be a minute, I’ll just have a quick look at email… and Facebook… and BBC News… and…”
Besides, research is showing that we self-interrupt often enough. In one study, participants in their real-work settings estimated that they checked email every 15 minutes when it was actually every five minutes – and that was without notifications. Researchers now suggest that the more we get interrupted externally, the more we feel the urge to interrupt ourselves internally. Ouch!!
The only way to exit this cycle is to disable notifications, especially for email and social media but also for dating, podcast, to-do list, task management, and gaming apps. If you’re terrified of disabling email notifications, know that you can setup alerts for emails from specific people, such as your boss, kids, or spouse. You might be able to do something similar for text messages and calls depending on when you read this.
8. Don’t Use Your Phone as Your Alarm Clock
If you’re anything like me, you can’t just eat one cookie. No, when I eat one cookie, I’m hooked. I want more. The same happens with addictive technology. When, at any point in the day, I spend more than a couple of minutes on Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, or News websites, I get hooked, and for the rest of the day, I’m experiencing strong urges to spend more time on these applications. Yet, as long as I haven’t used them yet, I find it much easier to resist them.
That’s why I play a simple game every morning. I try to go as long as possible without touching my phone and without going on my list of problematic websites. It works well, and I usually get a solid 4-6 hours of highly productive work done before succumbing to troubling apps. You don’t have to go as far as I do, but give it a try. See how much more calm and at ease you’ll feel.
To make this work you’ll need to replace your phone with a different alarm clock. Face it: When you have your phone in your hands as you wake up, you can’t stop yourself from checking your alerts, can you? In fact, one study showed that 79% of smartphone users use their phone within 15 minutes of waking up in the morning.
Besides, why waste willpower on something you could so easily avoid? And why prime yourself with the stress and anxiety associated with your phone? Trust me, you’ll have a better day if you start it without your phone.
9. Replace With Healthier Sources of Entertainment
When you feel the compulsive urge to use your phone, does it really matter what you do with it? When I deleted social media apps from my phone, I started using YouTube more heavily. When I blocked YouTube, I moved on to News and entertainment websites. When I blocked those, I downloaded “brain apps.”
Addictive technology and its delivery of instant, non-stop rewards has exacerbated our reward-seeking nature. Since the advent of Facebook and co., patience and self-control have gone down while impulsivity and instant gratification seeking have gone up. One result of this madness: We’ve become entertainment junkies.
The good news is, we can replace unhealthy sources of entertainment with healthier ones. Instead of checking social media during a work break, play some dart or ping-pong, talk to co-workers, call your mom, or go for a walk. Instead of watching Netflix after work, grab some beers with your buddies, play a round of tennis, or join a cooking, yoga, meditation, or dance class. Instead of wasting the weekend watching Sports, go on a hiking trip with your family. Or go to Disney World. Or visit a local museum. Or go fishing.
We want to enjoy ourselves, that’s normal. But addictive technology is the lowest and least satisfying form of entertainment. What is left after a Netflix marathon? Guilt? Regret? Back pain? All it takes is a little bit of planning and some discipline and you can get your entertainment and your satisfaction and your health, too.
10. Plan Your Leisure Time
When you come home after work without a plan for the evening, your attention will get hijacked by the allure of addictive technology. Your intolerance for boredom will push you straight into the arms of Facebook, Netflix, and co.. The same happens on weekends. Once Saturday morning rolls around and you’ve entered the seductive world of entertainment, it may already be too late and you’ll end up wasting the entire day.
If you’re serious about spending your time wisely, you need to overcome your reluctance to getting specific. See excuses for what they are – planning your free time will not take the fun out of it or make you unspontaneous. You must decide beforehand what you’ll do with your time. Plan your weekends. Plan your weekday evenings. Yes, it takes some effort, but what’s the alternative?
11. Don’t Just Run Away – Have Something to Approach
Behavioral psychologists differ between approach and avoidance goals, and the general consensus is that the former is more effective than the latter. In fact, as you’re about to learn in tip #15, fighting against something can be counterproductive. Instead, it’s better to fight for something, to approach something exciting.
Not spending so much time on addictive apps is an avoidance goal that we can reframe as an approach goal: Using our time more wisely.
In addition, it helps to have an exciting vision we can approach. Ask yourself: What would you like to achieve in the future? Who would you like to be? What goals do you wish to accomplish? What hobbies could you take up? What projects interest you? What would be a good use of your free time?
You need a reason to use your time wisely. As modern philosopher Brian Johnson says, “Have a purpose greater than enjoyment.”
12. Understand That You’re a Creature of Habit
Most of your behavior isn’t the result of conscious choice, but of unconscious habit. You don’t make the conscious decision to check email, hop on Facebook, or play Candy Crush. These are habitual behaviors that get triggered either externally through environmental sounds, smells, tastes, and sights, or internally through thoughts and feelings.
Your brain creates habits out of necessity, in order to save energy. This can be good or bad depending on the habituated behavior, but the crucial point is: Your brain wants to create habits and it looks for opportunities to do so. This means that behaviors tend to reinforce themselves. Every time you repeat a behavior, you make it more likely to perform the behavior again in the future – it becomes habitual, it becomes part of who you are.
That’s why people rarely change over a lifetime. If you meet your college friends years later, you’ll find they’re still more or less the same. A nice person doesn’t become hostile overnight; a disciplined person not lazy; an angry person not mellow. Sure, changes are possible, but they take time. As the Buddha supposedly said, “Little by little a person become evil, as a water pot is filled by drops of water… Little by little a person becomes good, as a water pot is filled by drops of water.”
It has been said that the best predictor of someone’s behavior is that person’s past behavior, and it’s true.
The spiritual guru Osho explains that if you spend this moment worrying, you will spend the future moments worrying also: “In your very worrying about the future, you are wasting the present; and slowly, slowly it becomes your second nature to worry about the future. So when the future comes, it will come as the present; and because of your habit of worrying about the future, you will waste that moment also in worrying. You will go on worrying about the future for your whole life. You will stop only when death comes and takes away all possibility of the future. You missed your whole life: you could have lived – but you only planned. Live intensely and totally now, because the next moment will be born out of this moment; and if you have lived it totally and joyously, you can be absolutely certain that the next moment will bring more blessings, more joy.”
How you behave today is how you behave tomorrow. “What is found now is found then,” said Kabir, a 15th century Indian mystic.
The point is: When you follow your compulsive impulses this time, you’re more likely to do it again next time. Or more bluntly: Every time you check email, you make it more likely to check email again in the future. Every time you decide to watch another episode of your favorite Netflix show, you make it more likely to watch another episode next time.
If you want to resist the pulls of social media in the future, start resisting them today. If you want to stop following the urge to check email, stop following the urge today. Discipline begets discipline. The rich get richer. How you behave today is how you behave tomorrow.
13. Un-Train Impulsivity; Train Willpower
Wikipedia defines impulsivity as “a tendency to act on a whim, displaying behavior characterized by little or no forethought, reflection, or consideration of the consequences” If you’re an impulsive person, you tend to blindly follow your impulses. Feel like grabbing a snack? You do it. Feel like checking Instagram? You do it.
Impulsivity’s counterpart is willpower, the ability to override impulses and choose long-term success over immediate gratification. If we want to get in control of our addictive behavior, we need to un-train our impulsivity and strengthen our willpower. Instead of giving in to the impulse to check Facebook, we need to resist. The more we’re able to do that, the less we’ll succumb to the allure of addictive technology.
This is, of course, nothing more than an expansion of the previous idea. But it’s so important, it bears repeating: Every time you follow the urge to check your phone, you make it more likely to check again next time. You’re essentially strengthening your impulsivity. Yet, every time you override the urge to check your phone, you make it more likely that you’ll override the impulse again next time – you’re strengthening your willpower.
This is scientifically validated, by the way. When people engage in activities that require self-control – such as exercising, keeping track of what they’re eating or how they’re spending their money, remembering to sit up straight every time they think of it – this helps them strengthen their overall willpower. One study showed that students who were assigned to a daily exercise regimen not only got physically fitter, but they also became more likely to wash the dishes instead of leaving them in the sink, and less likely to waste their money on impulse purchases. This way, improving your willpower by resisting the urge to check your phone will improve other areas of life. As Roy Baumeister writes in Willpower, “exercising self-control in one area seemed to improve all areas of life.”
14. Embrace Simplicity and Boredom
One impulse deserves special attention because it gets us into trouble so often. It’s the impulse to flee even the hint of boredom, to escape from being left alone with our thoughts and feelings.
Meditation expert Jon Kabat-Zinn illustrates it beautifully in Wherever You Go There You Are, “The impulse frequently arises in me to squeeze another this or another that into this moment… I’ve learned to identify this impulse and mistrust it. I work hard at saying no to it. It would have me eat breakfast with my eyes riveted to the cereal box, reading for the hundredth time the dietary contents of the contents, or the amazing free offer from the company. The impulse doesn’t care what it feeds on, as long as it’s feeding.”
The spiritual guru Eckhart Tolle calls the “assumption that the Now needs to be filled with something all the time” a “dysfunctional pattern of the mind.”
What do we do when we experience this impulse to escape boredom? We pick out our phones and re-wire our brains to pick out our phones again the next time we’re feeling the slightest hint of boredom. And so we’re building our own prison of compulsive behavior.
The remedy is an obvious one: Embrace boredom and simplicity. Next time you’re waiting in line somewhere, refuse the urge to check your phone. Next time you’re waiting for a friend, refuse the urge again. And slowly, slowly you’re hardwiring this new habit. You’re strengthening your willpower. You loosen your phone’s grip over you.
15. Accept, Don’t Fight
“What you resist, persists.” When researchers tell people not to think about something or not to feel a certain way, what they find is ironic: The more we try to suppress a thought, emotion, or impulse, the more we’re stuck with it.
In one experiment, researchers invited women into the laboratory for a taste test of chocolate cookies. Before bringing in the chocolate, the researchers asked the women to think out loud for five minutes. Some women were told to suppress any thoughts of chocolate, and others to express any thoughts of chocolate. Another group of women were not given any special instructions (the control group). At first, thought suppression seemed to work pretty well. The women told not to think about chocolate reported fewer thoughts about chocolate than the women who were told to express thoughts about chocolate.
The real test, however, came in tasting the chocolate cookies. Each woman was presented with two bowls containing twenty cookies. They were left alone in the room and told to eat as many chocolates as necessary to answer the taste survey questions. The results? Women who tried not to think about chocolate before the taste test ate almost twice as many chocolate cookies. Ouch! Suppression not only led to a rebound in chocolate thoughts, but also to a rebound in chocolate eating. Trying not to think about temptations makes giving in to said temptations more likely.
What does that mean? Taking a fighting stance against addictive technology, trying to suppress impulses to check your phone, or saying, “I will not give in to Facebook any longer!” might be counterproductive. The superior approach is one of acceptance, as has been proven in many recent studies. Over and over it is found that accepting cravings, impulses, temptations, urges – call them whatever you want – reduces the respective behavior.
So, when it comes to overcoming urges to check your phone or hop on Facebook, here’s what you should do: Accept your impulses and then focus on the exciting goals and projects you’re approaching (see tip #11).
16. Say “Don’t,” Not “Can’t”
When you commit to using any of these strategies, say, “I don’t use my phone first thing in the morning” as opposed to, “I can’t check my phone first thing in the morning.” “Don’t” puts the power in your shoes. You’re the one who decides to make a change. It’s a statement about your identity, about who you are as a person. “Can’t” gives the power to external forces. You’re not deciding, you’re being forced to do something.
Why does that matter? Because human beings have a natural resistance to authority. We don’t like being told what we can or can’t do. Tell a kid not to go after the liquor cabinet, and sure enough, what does the kid do when you’re not looking? In a 2012 study, women who told themselves, “I can’t miss a workout” were successful 10% of the time, while women who said, “I don’t miss workouts” were 80% likely to follow through on their commitment.
Addictive Technology Article Series
This was the third of three articles on addictive technology. Check out the full series below:
- The Rise of Addictive Technology: How FB, Instagram, Netflix, and Co. Get Us Addicted to Their Apps – Explains how tech companies exploit human psychology to make their platforms as addictive as possible.
- Why Addictive Technology is Silently Ruining Your Health, Happiness, and Productivity – Explores all the negative consequences of excessive tech use.
- (You're reading this.) How to Break Free from Tech Addiction: 16 Strategies to Reclaim Your Life and Stop Wasting Your Time on FB, Instagram, Netflix, and Co. – Gives you the tools to end your tech addiction and use your time more wisely.