field notes

A personal device usage policy in the war for your attention

I. THE SIEGE ON ATTENTION — THE UPHILL BATTLE OF RESISTANCE

I think it’s fairly uncontroversial at this point to say that devices have quite a hold over us. The use of devices is one of those things where it’s very easy to get into an unhealthy state, but a lot of work to get back into a healthy state and maintain it. And that should be no surprise: the forces driving the unhealthy state are the very apps we rely on; they have endless money and behavioral scientists at their disposal; they can roll out one feature to millions of people and change everyone’s behavior at once. While the forces driving the healthy state are mostly individual users; to have any chance at success, a user needs to be well-informed in the science and best practices of habit formation and breaking, needs to be equipped with strategy, tactics, ingenuity, willpower, persistence.

My own pattern is that I am almost always working to either regain the healthy state, or to maintain it. Then every now and then, something will require me to make an exception to my usual habits (coronavirus and, before that, the US primaries, were the recent triggers), and of course I’ll fall into a pattern of usage that I don’t like, until I decide once again that it’s time to do something about it.

I realized that what I refer to as the “healthy state” is just a conglomeration of habits and practices around my device usage that I decided to live by, because they’ll make for a saner mental life. It’s a series of decisions–or, to break it down even further, a series of questions, and my own preferred answers to those questions. At my best, I’m probably only actively using 70-80% of the practices, and working just to keep it at that level. But I’m okay with that. The discipline of having a set of practices, and working to hold myself to them, is more important than being perfect. If we don’t answer these questions for ourselves, and actively make our own decisions, someone else will decide for us.

(Digression: I guess I go through life as a C kid, expecting around 70% performance against my own rubric. Which is pretty funny given my fairly typical middle-class Asian American upbringing. But then, even in high school and college I would tweak my effort level and priorities such that I could try to get exactly 90% (the minimum for an A) in each class–no more, and no less. I was that kid.)

Taken together, I suppose we could call this a personal device usage policy: a document, a set of agreements with myself, that lays out what I want my digital life to look like. But I’ve never actually sat down and written it all out. Since it would be helpful for me to do so, I’ll write it here, and at the same time, you can follow along and write your own. So we’ll both have one. To that end, I’ll break it down into the questions I ask myself, and the decisions I’ve made for how to answer each one.

II. WRITING A PERSONAL DEVICE USAGE POLICY: THE QUESTIONS

Note: for any of the questions below that mention a specific device, like a phone, you can repeat the questions with all your other devices for which you want to have a personal policy, like a laptop, tablet, watch, etc. For the most part, I don’t feel the need to regulate my use of devices other than my phone, so I won’t have answers for those.

First, just the questions. For each question, picture what you want to be able to answer, in your ideal (but still realistic) world:

  • How would you summarize the overarching stance (values, goal, approach, philosophy) of your policy? What’s important to you? What do you NOT want in your life, when it comes to device usage?
  • When is the first time in the day that you look at your phone?
  • At what points, throughout the day, do you look at your phone? At what points do you NOT look at your phone?
  • At various times or places in the day, where do you put your phone? If on a surface, is it face-up or face-down?
  • When do you have your phone set to silent? When not silent, what kind of sounds does it make, and when?
  • What do you get lock-screen notifications for? What DON’T you get lock-screen notifications for?
  • When you unlock your phone for whatever reason, which other apps do you check before and after doing what you intended to do?
  • Which apps do you have on which devices?
  • What’s your policy around using your phone/devices for work?
  • When is the last time in the day that you look at your phone?
  • What other decisions does your policy include?

II. WRITING A PERSONAL DEVICE USAGE POLICY: MY ANSWERS

How would you summarize the overarching stance (values, goal, approach, philosophy) of your policy? What’s important to you? What do you NOT want in your life, when it comes to device usage?

The idea is to be able to focus on who I’m with or what I’m currently trying to do, to minimize interruptions and compulsions, while staying reasonably responsive to the people I’m close to (generally responding within hours for messages, within days for emails).

My policy is pretty specific and detailed. This is because using my phone is a powerful addiction that detracts from my life in many ways, but it’s not practical for me to go without one, so I’ve had to come up with all kinds of tactics to manage my addiction.

When is the first time in the day that you look at your phone?

For me, it’s after my first coffee in the morning (same for all devices), and I want it to stay that way. When I “relapsed” into a bad state earlier this year, I was looking at my phone once when I woke up in the middle of the night (which I did every night, for a while), and once as soon as I woke up. Then one morning I thought, “What if today, I don’t touch my phone until after I get up and have coffee?” And I like that much better, so I decided to keep it as a practice.

At what points, throughout the day, do you look at your phone? At what points do you NOT look at your phone?

In other words, what triggers or anchors should and should not cause you to look at your phone?

It’s easier to start with some NOTs:

  • NOT while I’m in the middle of something where my phone is not necessary, like reading, journaling, watching a movie, talking to a friend, or walking.
  • NOT while waiting, e.g. in line, unless it’s to do something specific on my phone, like read something or text someone. I don’t want to compulsively check for new posts / messages / likes / etc.
  • NOT immediately after doing things where I was unable to look at my phone for just a few minutes, e.g. right after taking a shower or a nap, out of this compulsive desire to be reunited with my phone.
  • NOT to unnecessarily check the time (e.g. every 5 minutes??). I use a watch when possible.

And times when I am okay with looking at my phone:

  • Every few hours, when switching between activities.
  • While I am semi-actively having a texting conversation with someone, so I’m expecting their replies.
  • When I am using it for a specific purpose.
  • I think that’s about it.

At various times or places in the day, where do you put your phone? If on a surface, is it face-up or face-down?

  • When I go out, it’s in my pocket. If I’m sitting down and I’m afraid of it falling out or being stolen (or sometimes just for comfort), I may put it on the table, but face-down. (Which way it’s facing makes a huge difference for me in how distracting it is, so that’s why I ask myself this question.)
  • When I’m at home, it’s really best for it to be out of my line of sight and out of arm’s reach, otherwise I check it compulsively. I like to keep it at the charger if I can, which (currently) is across the room from anywhere I can sit.
  • If it must be near me for some reason (2-factor auth, getting pictures from the phone camera roll, etc), I try to keep it face-down.
  • It’s okay for it to be face-up if I need to look at it a lot for what I’m doing.

When do you have your phone set to silent? When not silent, what kind of sounds does it make, and when?

Always silent. Nothing is allowed to make any sound, except for music, videos, and the alarm. But I don’t use an alarm to wake up, except in very rare cases.

Also, maybe a year or two ago I even switched it to not vibrate for text messages, only phone calls. Not having it vibrate on receiving text messages has made such a huge difference. I can’t imagine going back. (In fact, I almost forgot to mention it, because I forgot that it was ever any different.)

What do you get lock-screen notifications for? What DON’T you get lock-screen notifications for?

Yes: Messages, WhatsApp, phone calls, Instagram, Google Maps directions.
No: Email, Slack, any other app.

When you unlock your phone for whatever reason, which other apps do you check before and after doing what you intended to do?

What I would like is to only go to the app I intended to go to, and maybe also afterwards to reply to messages I received, and then to put my phone down again; but this one is really hard for me. I’ve improved at not compulsively going to a different app (email, Instagram, etc) before I do what I’d actually intended to do, as I used to unlock my phone to type something in a note, but then wind up checking some other app first, and forget the thing I wanted to write down. Pretty sad. I still compulsively check other apps after I do the thing I intended to do. It’s a work in progress.

Which apps do you have on which devices?

For the most part, my computer and my phone share the same apps (for those that make sense as mobile and desktop apps). On my iPad, I don’t have any messaging or social media apps: because I’m not going to try to type on an iPad keyboard; because having messages sync properly between 2 devices is annoying enough; and so that I can read distraction-free (which is mostly what I use it for).

What’s your policy around using your phone/devices for work?

I’m working for myself currently, but when I worked in tech and had a full-time office job, my policy was as follows:

  • Don’t expect me to respond to anything outside of normal work hours.
  • My actual practice was that I would still see messages outside of work hours (because I used my work computer as my personal computer, so on the same Slack app I talked to friends but would also see work messages; same with Slack on my phone), but I usually wouldn’t reply to anything I saw. I’d make a note or otherwise mark it for later.
  • “Normal work hours” wasn’t the same as “when I’m at the office,” as we had the flexibility to be at the office or at home, as needed. So I might already be responding to messages from home in the morning, then physically go in a little later.
  • I’d try to respond to Slack messages within 1-3 hours, email within 1 day.
  • I’d try not to check Slack before getting out of bed.
  • No work email on my phone. I had work Slack on my phone, but with notifications only for DMs–but eventually, no notifications at all, on my phone or computer, as I checked Slack often enough myself. You could still override and force it to notify me. Hardly anybody ever did this.
  • No calls while walking; I’m either fully there or I’m not there.
  • To summarize: a manager at a startup these days usually doesn’t get to have a perfectly hard separation between work and personal life (to be 100% unreachable when outside of the office or outside of work hours), especially when collaborating across different time zones, but the point of my policy was to be fully present and responsive to the person or situation at hand. That meant minimizing interruptions and distractions, as well as trying to actually rest when not working.

Of course, it’s a negotiation between you and the expectations and culture of your workplace. And, even if you’re technically allowed to implement the policy you want, you have to get the people around you used to it by following your own policy consistently (and sometimes explaining it), so that they know what to expect.

When is the last time in the day that you look at your phone?

For me: right before I go to sleep, when I use my phone to put on some audio.

What other decisions does your policy include?

There are a number of other decisions you could make in a policy encompassing more of your digital life, like which social media apps you use, what you subscribe to and follow, decisions around security, privacy, and permissions, but we won’t get to that here.

IV. PUTTING YOUR POLICY INTO PLACE

Alas, we won’t go into tactics for implementation here, as one could write a whole book on it–and many people already have. Just look at the dozens/hundreds of books on habits, and on addiction.

But the first step to implementation is definitely to know where you currently stand in the answers to all these questions.

Once you know and you can see what needs to change, I wouldn’t recommend trying to follow everything in the policy at once, if it involves many changes, but I’m sure there are people who might do well with a sudden drastic change. Personally I developed my policy incrementally (and never wrote it down till now, as I said), and at any one time I’m only focused on one or two of the practices. It’s the grueling work of changing dopamine flows and rewiring whole chains of (sometimes unconscious) behavior.

It’s my belief that making these decisions up front–and writing them down!–will help you know what you want to do in the moment. Good luck!

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