I first came up with the idea to do some kind of piece about my behavior on my phone when I realized how often I pick up my phone to do one thing and end up doing another thing altogether. The idea was that I would track everything I did on my phone for a day and reveal it in a sort of diary-like entry here. After seeing a woman stare intently at a fellow stranger’s screen as they browsed during our morning commute, I thought, we all have a natural curiosity about each other’s phones. Part of this idea was also selfish— I hoped that it would somehow shame me into changing my phone habits for the better.

As I tracked my phone activity, though, I started to realize that the things I do on my phone are really not very interesting and that our inherent nosiness about others’ phone behavior may be just that— nosiness. So I won’t be sharing the minute-by-minute timeline of my phone activity of that day here, since it’s just an endless cycle between texts, email, social media, and writing stuff down in my Notes app, which doesn’t make for scintillating content.

If I were to guess, I’d say my time on my phone is split 50/50 between productive activities (replying to texts, checking things in Notes, answering emails) and decidedly unproductive ones (social networking, watching television or Youtube, playing Boggle with Friends). Looking back on the day that I tracked everything, it seems like a lot of the time, I pick up my phone to do a productive thing and quickly become distracted by unproductive notifications. I also tend to use my phone as a social crutch in uncomfortable or unfamiliar situations. This is all old news. Our smartphones depend on us depending on them. But the fact that I had to write down everything I was doing made me acutely self-conscious about how much time I seemed to waste.

A rundown of that day on my phone, March 5, 2020:

Total time: 3 hours 47 minutes

Entertainment: 42 minutes
Texting: 41 minutes
Social Networking: 38 minutes
Productivity: 24 minutes
Other: 82 minutes
“Other” category included browsing Zillow to look at apartments, Kayak to look through flights, and online shopping apps.

Total pickups: 105
Most pickups for text messages, then social notifications. I have email notifications turned off because I receive too many per day. Also important to note that my weekly average for pickups is quite a bit higher than this at ~130. I think the fact that I had to document every time I picked my phone up shamed me into not doing it as much.

Getting caught between the productivity index and the need for down time

There’s so much discourse out there about how we’re all slaves to our phones, how our phones control us, how they police us, and on and on. This may very well all be true, but I think at the core of my relationship with my phone is confusion between its dual purposes as a tool and as entertainment. People always say not to mix business with pleasure, but the phone as an instrument does exactly this. I picked up my phone in the morning of “tracking day” to answer a work message from my side gig (which is based in Hong Kong, which means I get all their messages in the middle of the night) and, immediately after, began to browse through Twitter. The lack of barrier between work and leisure on my phone creates an odd dichotomy where I feel the need to be instantly accessible and responsive to work-related things while also having unrestricted access to easy amusement gratification. This then makes me feel unfocused while being productive and on edge when I relax, creating an aura of self-guilting every time I use my phone. All leisure activities on the phone then begin to feel like time-wasters that only serve to diminish my value on the productivity index.

Because of this mental struggle to reconcile the two uses of my phone, I decided a week before tracking day to delete all social media apps off my phone. I was convinced that my time spent on social media had become a no-value exchange, and that I would be better off spending that time doing additional “productive” things. I had begun to find myself watching people’s stories for no reason or scrolling through someone’s page without really caring what was on it at all, which made me annoyed that I had then wasted that time. The easy access of social media stimulation made it so that instead of spending my down time in ways that I actually enjoyed, I went for the quickest option to make myself feel occupied.

Deleting those apps was also fueled by my growing social media fatigue, which seems to be fairly common these days, with people announcing hiatuses or just disappearing every now and then. I often wonder if it’s because we now feel beholden to our friends and followers, as if we owe people our attention and approval. In a way, keeping up with social media starts to feel like a job of its own.

Without social media, I began to spend more time away from screens, reading and writing more. But as soon as I redownloaded those apps for this experiment, it became clear that old habits die hard. When everything – work, distraction, leisure – is on a single mobile device, it’s hard to peel yourself away and disconnect. Another thing I noticed was that the constant stimulation that phones provide only builds on itself, to the point where I felt like I needed to have something playing in the background, or multiple screens of various content, to feel engaged and not alone. This is especially relevant in our current time of self-isolation because of the COVID-19 pandemic, where our homes feel closed off and our phones seem like the only way to reach out. But tracking my phone use throughout an entire day made me realize that leisure shouldn’t be draining, and perhaps stepping away entirely from my phone is the only way to properly decompress. I still use my phone, and get distracted, and waste time. Even so, I’m trying to take the time to put it away, slow down, and rediscover old interests, things I did as a child, before I had a phone like this. They may take longer to get tuned into. They may not even do what they used to anymore. But they deserve a chance. The phone can wait.