Yep, I locked my cell phone in a safe for 24 hours

Gollum from Lord of the Rings stares lovingly at a cell phone locked away.

The search for a long-term solution to manage my cell phone usage

Yep. I did it.

I locked my phone in the safe for 24 hours this weekend.

At this point, I am sure you are thinking. Why?

After months of struggling with how to use my phone less, I decided that the only way to make an impactful change to my usage was to get radical.

What I’ve tried so far to limit cell usage

I’ve tried many different methods for limiting phone usage:

  • I’ve tried to limit the amount of time each app is used.
  • I filed away social media and “time waster” apps into their own folder.
  • I’ve placed my phone in a different room at times when I tend to spend the most time getting sucked into it.
  • We keep our phones downstairs at night when we go to sleep.

But no matter, what I seemed to be doing, I managed to pretty consistently use my phone for what seems like more than I’d like to during a given day.

And it is more than just my own opinion…my family has been affected too. I was…

  • Missing out on real-life moments with my kids, because I am not fully present.
  • Being told I use my phone too much by my six year old.
  • Distracted by the constant push of social media.
  • Not being there for my wife as much as I would like. Both of us sitting there vegging out with our phones, together, but seperate.
  • Overloaded with Information. Here I am “retired”, yet feeling busier and sometimes more stressed than pre-retirement.
  • Putting myself at risk. One time, on a dog walk, I literally stepped right over a rattlesnake, because I had my head in my phone and thought it was a stick (it wasn’t!).

At times it really feels like my cell phone is my precious. It feels like a real addiction…

But at least Gollum’s Precious had magical powers! Cell phones certainly do not.

Is cell phone addiction real?

Jay and Sara from Playtirement described their similar Dopamine Dilemma after they joined Twitter:

The real danger of our online ecosystem comes in the form of external motivation. Likes, clicks, shares, retweets, comments, validation, and praise. Even if much of this feedback is genuine, so much of it acts like a drug.

Playtirement – More Lessons From A Money-Twitter Noob

While there is debate as to whether cell phone addiction is a really a thing, there is no doubt in my mind that natural selection surely didn’t have cell phones and apps in mind when our brains developed:

Your brain releases a chemical called dopamine when it feels rewarded.

Some phone apps are designed in a way to keep you coming back again and again for positive social reinforcements that can trigger the release of dopamine in your brain

Rebecca Joy Stanborough – Healthline

The struggle is real, and it is not just me. We are all battling releases of dopamine in our brain while our phones constantly buzz, notify, and gamify ways to keep us wanting more.

Healthline notes the similarities between cell phone overuse and behavioral addictions like compulsive gambling. But PsychCentral goes one step further and calls it an addiction. I tend to agree.

Our phones are really useful and amazing pieces of technology, but as I noted above, I was struggling to be the husband, father and person that I strive to be. I was violating my own personal Life Mantras.

And I needed to do something about it.

What to do about my cell phone habits?

As a recent reader of James Clear’s Atomic Habits (book review), I was armed with some new methods for creating new habits and deleting the bad ones.

“If you are having trouble changing your habits, the problem isn’t you. The problem is your system.

– James ClearAtomic Habits

My system was clearly broken. I have no system for dealing with something like an addiction to my phone. And I need one.

James Clear’s rules for How to Break a Bad Habit are:

  1. Make it invisible
  2. Make it unattractive
  3. Make it difficult
  4. Make it unsatisfying

Now, I could continue to try to remove the phone from the room (making it invisible), but that doesn’t always work. I simply walk into the room and grab it when I really need it for something.

I needed to take it a step further than that.

I had to make it difficult.

Sometimes success is less about making good habits easy and more about making bad habits hard.

– James Clear, Atomic Habits

The best thing that I could think of to make a bad habit like this really hard, plus to get me to mentally commit to it, was to lock my phone away for an extended period of time.

I decided on 24 hours.

By doing this, I was able to both make it invisible as well as make it difficult.

24 hours without a cell phone

With my decision made, and my wife on board, I locked my phone in the safe for 24 hours.

And I am serious, I locked that thing up tight.

I wish I could tell you that what happened next was the most blissful and carefree 24 hours of my life. Nope.

Within the first hour, I needed my phone to log into something on my computer using 2-Factor Authentication. Classic rookie mistake.

But after that initial hiccup, it turned out to be overall, a very beneficial 24 hours.

I’ll go into the positives in just a sec, but I do first want to point out, that cell phones actually do serve a purpose.

Cell phones turn out to be pretty useful for such things as 2fa, quickly checking email, staying in touch with your friends/family, getting quick scores of games, checking weather, etc.

I see why we enjoy them so much! And this is also why I don’t think I ever could go back to an analog phone.

For me, this 24 hour period was about figuring out a way to live more comfortably with my cell phone long-term.

The positives from the 24 hour lockup

While it was a bit of a hassle to check things on my computer, it was nice because I was able to do what I needed and then leave the device behind. It was definitely more freeing than I thought.

Overall, locking my phone away did actually solve for the issues I was trying to solve for in the first place:

  • I spent much more free time with my kids where I was fully present in the moment.
  • I enjoyed walking the dog, while actively paying attention to my surroundings (though I didn’t see any snakes).
  • I was able to fully enjoy TV and sporting events distraction free.
  • My kids didn’t ask me to get off my phone, because there was no phone.
  • While I did still have the itch to check social media, I mostly got into the groove and didn’t feel the need to constantly be in-the-know.

Overall, it felt really good, and some of the things that I was constantly distracting myself with, sort of melted away.

I was able to forget about many of the distractions and enjoy life, much like I do on a vacation.

I was able to ignore the urge, and enjoy each moment just a little bit more.

And by the end of the 24 hours, I didn’t feel the need to constantly check Twitter, or email, or sports scores.

I couldn’t get my dopamine hit, but I realized I didn’t NEED it.

The long-term solution to manage cell phone usage

Locking my cell phone away for 24 hours was a worthwhile experience, and I highly recommend that you give it a go if you are suffering from some of the same issues that I struggled with.

But it is not a long-term solution. Unless I am willing to switch back to an analog phone (which I am not), then locking it away was just a temporary experiment that I’ll likely forget about real soon.

I don’t want that.

So here is what I am going to do to continue to work to break my cell phone obsession:

  1. Leave my phone out of sight – I’ll continue to leave my phone in another room when I don’t want to be on it. But I want to make it harder this time. I will put it in a drawer or other similar “locked away” type situation.
  2. Lock it in the safe if #1 fails – I’ll consider locking it in the safe for shorter periods if putting it in a drawer isn’t enough.
  3. Delete Apps on Weekends – I will delete apps from my phone for the day or even full weekends that are causing me major distractions (Twitter, email, web browser, etc.)
  4. Leave my phone at home – While running errands for an hour or so (especially if my wife is with me and has a phone), I’ll just leave it at home.
  5. Limit Screen Time – I’ll continue to limit screen time, and try to put some stricter policies in place that I’ll adhere to.

I hope that some combination of these will really help me to find better balance in my phone usage.

I want to continue to enjoy the moments with my kids, while also being able to utilize this great tool that we all have in our pockets.

Overall, my 24 hour experiment was a success. I hope that if you are struggling like I did to find balance with your cell phone usage, that you’ll consider locking it up too.

I am curious though, what do you do to help limit your cell phone usage?

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  1. I don’t have any social media on my iphone, no FB, Twitter, Snapchat or Youtube.
    No email. (I read them on the ipad or computer), no Netflix.
    A few as possible apps at my home screen (A few for the kids school/other activity, calendar, weather, spotify, phone, sms, my car and smart house/sound system)
    Time limit on Safari ++
    I’m also using greyscale color filter. (Highly recommend it!)
    Shortcuts turn off Wi-Fi, BT and mobile data every day at 22:00
    Yes I do have more apps in App library but they are for the few times I need 2FA, Maps, translate or other things.
    I also use Apple Pay so no completely dumb phone for me.
    My iPhone is a tool, not a time consuming device.

    facebook is only on computer at work. Twitter and mail

  2. Not easy! I don’t have any alerts on my phone, and that has helped.

    “ Being told I use my phone too much by my six year old.”

    My kid told me this, I will throw my phone in the trash! No better motivator than kids to tell us the truth when they are young.

    1. Yeah it is a truly sad state of affairs when your child is telling you to get off your phone. And I don’t think I use my phone THAT much…certainly less than my wife, but I am perhaps more careless about getting sucked into anything from Twitter to sports to reading an article, etc.

      Good call on the notifications. I have them mostly limited, but I think have let things creep back up a bit too much, and should audit that and my email accounts.

  3. Like the others said, I took social media off my phone, and killed the accounts. If I need to find something on Facebook I’ll ask my wife. But I do get a lot of emails and because even in retirement I’m board chair on a couple of large nonprofits that sometimes need access to me on short notice, a few consulting gigs that happen at odd hours and with grown kids living hundreds of miles away I’m not comfortable turning off my phone for long periods in case something critical happens and someone needs me. It doesn’t happen often but it happens.

    1. Social media is a relatively new use problem for me as I build the AR twitter account. Traditionally email has been my biggest weakness. With AR, I have managed to subscribe to so many great blogs out there, but in my attempt to keep up and get a feel for everything out there, I have managed to give myself a rather large daily email intake. So that is another problem that I need to take on, is filtering better and just leaving the inbox be.

  4. Same as the commenter above – no social media. That keeps my usage to pretty basic stuff like the weather, email, maps. And I try to keep lots of self-improvement stuff like audiobooks and language-learning apps on there so that my phone time is educational rather than passive entertainment.

    1. That is the way to do it! Get rid of the time wasters and make sure that anything you are doing is educational. I try to do that as well, but need to get into a better habit about it. Sometimes I’ll listen to podcasts when my kids are playing at the park, rather than drifting off into endless scrolling.

  5. Another suggestion that I read in Digital Minimalism is to remove Social Media apps from your phone (I’ve done this). You can still check social media, but you need to take the time to log onto your PC and check, which makes it a bit more difficult and unattractive. In doing this, you can plan to check social media once or twice a week (there is rarely anything so urgent on social media that it requires more than this).

    1. Yeah I think this is a great approach as well. I think I actually may do this on weekends and on trips. Usually on trips though, I tend to get out of the normal modes that cause me to check my phone.

      My biggest issue is that even if I was to delete an app, I might replace say Twitter with reading more articles online, checking my email more, etc. But I think deleting will help bring more balance. So that will be the next step.

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