Putting down your smartphone for your New Year’s resolution? It’s harder than you think

Posted at 4:25 PM, Jan 02, 2015
and last updated 2015-01-02 16:25:10-05

(CNN) — As smartphones bleed into all parts of our life, a common New Year’s resolution for 2015 will be to cut down on phone usage and be more present in the moment.

It’s harder than it sounds.

Know why you look

Some people can easily turn off or ignore their phones. But many have the urge to compulsively “just check,” no matter what conversations and activities are going on around them.

That’s because each notification, like and communication is a stimulant that acts as a pleasure hit to the brain, according to Dr. Catherine Steiner-Adair, a clinical psychologist and author of “The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age.” It creates an instant sense of excitement and being needed.

The irresistible urge to look at a smartphone screen also can stem from a fear of missing out and compulsive and addictive behaviors.

If you lie and say you’re checking your phone for work when you’re not, or wake up in the middle of the night and have the urge to look at your smartphone, it might be time to cut back.

Agree on ground rules

Phone checking is contagious. One person picks up their device, then everyone else in the room takes it as a cue to check theirs.

At home, this makes it hard for one person to change their behavior without the help of their family. It’s easy to justify scanning Twitter when everyone else around you has already tuned out.

Come up with an understanding of how you’re allowed to use technology at home. Set aside specific times for smartphones, such as everyone can check for 15 minutes after dinner. Create screen-free zones in your home, by designating rooms where nobody is allowed to check their smartphones or tablets.

Start with the bedroom, where fewer glowing screens can improve your sleep and maybe your love life. Buy an old-fashioned alarm clock and leave the phone in another room, or just have a ban on phones for one hour before bed.

Listen to your kids

Parents are increasingly absorbed in their smartphones while with their kids, whether it’s at the playground, in a restaurant or at home. Steiner-Adair says she often sees children who are frustrated and fatigued from trying to get their parents’ attention.

“At a certain point, children feel like being at the park and pushing me on the swing must not be that much fun to you because you’re talking to somebody else,” she said.

Look for cues from kids that you’re too absorbed in your devices. Younger children might throw away or hide a phone, or throw tantrums to get attention. Older kids might tell you directly or withdraw into their own devices.

There is the argument that smartphones allow us to be more flexible about when and where we work, allowing for more time physically spend with families. But always being just semi-present can have a negative impact on kids.

“Kids often feel like you’re not really here, you’re not paying attention,” says Steiner-Adair.

Replace the phone time with something real

Levi Felix is the founder of Digital Detox, which arranges retreats where people pay to hand over their screens and spend time in nature, talking face-to-face with people, and reconnecting with the real world.

He suggests replacing the times you’re checking your phone with real-world experiences. Take a step back and ask yourself why you reach for your phone. Are you looking for a connection or are in search of a community? Does the constant archiving of your life stem out of a fear of dying? Or is it just boredom?

Make a list of things you want to accomplish and keep that piece of paper on you. When you feel the urge to check creeping in, take out the paper instead of your phone.

Instead of automatically Instagraming or tweeting about a good experience, try something more analog.

“Document it in different ways that ingrain you more in the experience, like drawing or writing about it,” said Felix.

Use technology to limit technology

Many phones already have built-in tools that can help you create boundaries.

First, turn off notifications. Use filters to make any necessary exemptions so that your boss or grandmother can always get through. Use away messages to let people know you won’t be responding to their emails. Set expectations about when you are working and stick to them.

Parental controls are a great way to self-discipline. Set timers for yourself, turn off access to distracting apps during certain hours.

There’s even an app called Moment for tracking your phone usage like calories. Perhaps a little reality check about how much you pick up your device will help motivate you to put it away.

Learn to be bored and uncomfortable

One casualty of smartphones is quiet time. The brain needs a break from constant input and stimulation to rest.

“If you feel anxious or bored and you turn to a screen every time you’ve got free time, that’s a sign you’ve lost some essential ways of being with yourself,” said Steiner-Adair.

Devices can also be a quick escape from an awkward in a social situation or a way to avoid interacting with someone when you’re mad or upset.

Instead of disappearing in a device, force yourself to spend time in the messy, mind-numbingly dull, or unpleasant real-world situations around you. It might give you something good to tweet about.