7 ways to build healthier habits with your phone


Have you successfully cut down on screen time by putting your phone in a drawer for an hour, having a one-week Instagramless social cleanse, or simply putting yourself on do not disturb in hopes your boss lays off after hours? 

We know screen time doesn’t always serve us, and yet, we still jump out of our seats when we hear an intriguing ding notification. 

And the pandemic has further grayed the area between work and home life—people’s online green dots stay lit long after hours.

All this excess screen time has collectively harmed people’s mental health

“We cannot sit still any longer. We cannot sit idle. We cannot be bored,” Jennifer Kelman, a licensed social worker and mental health expert with JustAnswer, tells Fortune. “We instantly grab the phone.” 

Being online today also revolves around checking the growing list of social media feeds. Research shows that while social media has allowed people to connect, it has also perpetuated mental health issues, low feelings of self-worth and self-esteem, cyberbullying, FOMO, and suicidality, particularly for teenage girls

While younger adults may struggle from negative social comparison, older adults can struggle with low productivity or weakened social ties due to screen time, says Carl Marci, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and author of Rewired: Protecting Your Brain in the Digital Age

Still, nearly three-quarters of U.S. adults and over 90% of teens use social media, according to research from the Pew Research Center

It’s not too late to reassess your screen habits, and taking stock of our routines can improve our lives, Marci says. 

“If I told you that you could increase your productivity, improve the quality of your relationships and decrease your risk of depression and anxiety, would you want that?” Marci asks. “That is the benefit of unplugging and finding tech-life balance.” 

So how can we create healthier habits around our screens? 

Locking your phone in another room or deleting an app might not have done the trick because it lacks an intention you believe, Kelman says. Instead of making harsh restrictions on yourself, first, think about what you have been missing when your head is busy in your phone. Often, it’s a genuine connection with the people we enjoy. 

“We are so willing to sacrifice that time and those relationships,” she says. “There is healing and growth in connection.” 

Prioritize your connections 

It’s easy to put our relationships on the back burner in return for instant gratification. 

“We’ve lost the art of interpersonal communication,” Kelman says. And we can get it back by making plans with friends and family who energize us. 

Walk with a friend, stroll to your favorite coffee shop, or enjoy screen-less reading time alongside family. 

Make eye contact. Keep your phone in your pocket. Listen. 

It is a small activity that can instill joy in the moment and help replace the satisfaction of the screen.  

It takes being intentional about how you spend your time and when you want to be present, Kelman says. But it shouldn’t go without saying that there’s an inherent privilege in being able to disconnect. If you’re a caregiver, for example, being close to your phone can be imperative. In these cases, Kelman suggests finding those times when the kids are at home and when putting your phone away won’t cause as much worry. 

Take stock of your social media presence  

If deleting an app didn’t last you long, consider assessing how you feel when scrolling through people’s lives on social media. Are there platforms that bring you energy and others that instill a sense of jealousy and make you feel downright bad after you engage? The latter may signal to your brain that certain content does not serve you mentally. 

“​If that’s the case, why do we keep going back for more?” Kelman says. 

To combat this, consider forgoing time on the now classified depleting apps or at least limiting time spent on them to a particular time of day. (for example: say you won’t look at a certain platform after 7 p.m.). Make flexible rules; don’t berate yourself if you subconsciously break them. Remind yourself habits are hard to break, but you would rather be enhanced than depleted. 

Do you really need to respond right now? 

It can feel tempting when seeing a text pop up during work to respond right away. Yes, there are times when matters are urgent. But often, waiting until we have a moment to breathe and be more attentive can serve us long-term and improve our relationship with our phones. It can also calm our stress levels and improve our focus when we don’t switch gears at every text. 

Consider asking yourself: Can this text wait? 

Turn off notifications 

Due to the immediate jolt we get when we hear our phones go off, Kelman says to silence all notifications on social media apps, if feasible. 

This way, when you do check your phone, it isn’t every time it beeps (which is far too often to count per day). 

If you feel phone withdrawal, swap out that time scrolling with a hobby 

Instead of worrying about what is on your phone, dedicate yourself to something new. Try spending some time outdoors or starting a hobby.

Hobbies can boost our confidence, self-esteem and make us feel pride in accomplishing a task. Being outdoors is also the key to improving our well-being and breaking the stress cycle. 

Practice the pomodoro method at work 

Multitasking can hurt our productivity, and screen time is the culprit. A way to help is through an age-old method called the pomodoro technique, where you oscillate intentionally between deep focus time and break time. At work, focus intently on a task you must get done for 25 minutes, take a 5-minute break, and work again for another 25 minutes, for example. 

This method can help you stop mindlessly checking your devices when an urgent task at work looms. 

Put devices away before you sleep 

While this may seem like old news, prioritizing sleep is incredibly important. Screen time has been linked to poorer sleep quality, especially when people use devices before bed. 

Engage in a calming activity 30 minutes before you sleep, like reading, taking a warm shower, talking to a friend, or meditating to replace the time spent mindlessly scrolling. 

It’s harder than it seems to disrupt screen habits that have become staples in our days. However, implementing even one of these tips can propel you in the right direction and help you prioritize the things in your life that give you that sense of energy.

“We are all so willing to give up our mental health, our family time, our friendship time,” Kelman says. “For what? To the detriment of oneself.” 

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