Got Writer’s Block? Ditch Your Smartphone!

November 2019

Image: GettyImages

Those who create content need their space, especially when suffering from writer’s block. Some need quiet. Some need motion. Some need deadlines. Some need extensions. Some need clutter. Some need clean. What they all need, though, to break a creative impasse is to ditch their smartphone.

Not permanently, of course. Just until you have a breakthrough.

Unlike cellphones of old, we now carry Internet-connected computers in our hands, so we can work or play online or offline at any time, any day. This convenience, however, comes at great cost. Paying more attention to your phone than your surroundings raises the risks of harm or injury from your inattention. It’s also prevents you from making short-term memories that lead to lasting ones. Not to mention when done at inappropriate times or places, your phone use reflects poorly on you, not those around you. Even your dog doesn’t want you on the phone all the time!

Of course, it isn’t all your fault, according to Catherine Price, the author of How to Break Up with Your Phone. Mobile applications are designed to trigger a dopamine release and exploit other human vulnerabilities. As a result, we currently live in a state of continuous partial attention—the exact opposite of deep work. We need to be able to gain insights into things that aren’t obvious when in creative mode. That can’t happen if you can’t stop looking at your Instagram feed or texts.

During a keynote address at last week’s (ISC)Security Congress, Price recommended tactics to part ways but remain on friendly terms with your phone.

Have a positive goal

Rather than focus on what you’re giving up, consider what you can do with the extra time now that your phone is out of the way. The possibilities are endless—which is, of course, the point.

Notice your habits

You can’t change a habit if you don’t know it is one. Notice what you’re doing and when, and how it makes you feel not just in that moment but later on. When you do pick up the phone, ask yourself: Why are you doing this? And why now?

Kill the slot machine

Those apps you use are designed intentionally to keep you coming back, much like a slot machine provides incremental rewards so you don’t realize it’s also taken most, if not all, of your money. App developers know the psychological pull of notifications, especially those tied to communications and social media. Those badges (the red circles indicating you’ve got new mail or texts or friends requests) also are there to keep you hooked. It’s called the human grooming instinct, according to Price, and it compels us to read all our messages, however impractical, just so the red badges go away on our phone screen.

To counter this very human reaction, make your phone as boring as possible. Remove all but the basic apps and turn off notifications and badges. The final count should fill less than one screen, which also should be changed to a boring black background. Don’t worry: If you are traveling and need to kill time playing games or watching Netflix, you can re-install the entertainment apps (then remove once done).

Reduce your FOMO

Most of us are familiar with FOMO, or the fear of missing out. We become anxious if we can’t regularly check our feeds or emails or texts, worried about not just what we’re missing but if someone is missing us. One way to control that impulse is through ample use of Out of Office or Do Not Disturb settings. That way, people know why you aren’t immediately responding, and you can ease up on yourself.

Embrace JOMO

Price recommends everyone turn FOMO into JOMO, or the joy of missing out. Think of all the things you can now experience, instead of stressing out about what you might be missing. True emergencies don’t happen as frequently as you think, and if they do in your case, you have bigger issues than breaking up with your phone.

Protect yourself

We need to put firewalls around our own lives. Establish no-phone zones at work and home. Put your phone in a drawer or purse or backpack while you work. It’s initially difficult, but when done consistently and evenly, violations go down and productive conversations and decisions go up.

We all need to create protected spaces for our own sanity. Start establishing yours today by adopting new smartphone habits and rules. You’ll be rewarded with deeper relationships, better quality work and a newfound realization that there’s so much more to life than what transpires on the small screen.

Thank you for reading this,

Anne Saita