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Ode to Being Phoneless (Part 2 - The Strategies)

If you haven’t read the original story about my phone being stolen, you may wish to read Part 1 of Ode to Being Phoneless first. Quick recap: My phone was stolen by pickpockets in Rome and I had the privilege of living phoneless for 10+ days. The first blog post describes what I learned about emotions, presence, and habit change by living phoneless. This blog post offers five practical strategies to changing your own tech behavior without the expense and inconvenience of having your phone stolen.

If you are looking for ways to change your own tech behavior, might I suggest taking in the strategies below the way you might approach selecting a meal from an extensive menu. Below, is a wide range of research-backed strategies that I’ve curated for you, not all of them will be palatable or appropriate for you. Habit change is insidiously difficult. Unless you plan to go cold turkey like I did, choose one thing, at most two, to try. As Stanford researcher and habit change guru, BJ Fogg, recommends: set the bar low. Accept that you’re human and thus you’ll mess up. But that’s all part of the learning experience. Once you’re regularly clearing that first bar, raise the bar higher.

You got this.

Strategy 1: Investigate your habit.

Behavior researchers talk about behaviors as a set of linked components: a trigger, a need waiting to be satisfied, and a response. What starts off as perfectly rational, intentional use of really awesome technology to complete a necessary task (“Wow! I can conveniently respond to an employee’s question right here from this device in my pocket.”) turns into a preprogrammed habit that’s trigger → response on autopilot. Often the original need (being helpful) isn’t even being satisfied anymore, certainly not in a deep meaningful way.

The companies that make your phone and all its apps are actively engineering them to make your tech super easy to use, inherently rewarding, and convenient. Why? Because the more time you spend with your tech, the more money they make. Companies literally hack your dopamine system, the same system hijacked by addictive drugs, to make your tech more rewarding. Tech is literally designed to exploit the learning, reward, and motivation networks in your brain.

But you are a creative, resourceful, intelligent human. Investigate your behavior. Identify your trigger(s), your underlying need(s), and your response(s). Every person is different. What triggers you to pick up your phone or check your email or peruse social media? When do you get twitchy? What need are you trying to satisfy? Is that need actually being satisfied? What does your habitual response look like?

For me, my trigger is either an incoming call ("ping!") or it’s boredom/downtime. As long as I’m not in a meeting or with my family, I’ll typically answer a "ping". When I get bored or when I just finished one task and haven’t yet picked up another, I pick up my phone.

My trigger = "ping", boredom or downtime

My needs are revealed by my inner dialogue “I’m checking my todo list,” or “Who’s trying to reach me,” or “I wonder if so-and-so responded yet.” The inner dialogue reveals the underlying need. There’s generally one or more of three underlying needs at the bottom of it for me and my clients.

  1. Productivity: Whenever I had little gaps of time between tasks, I’d grab my phone or open email on my computer to get that miniscule dopamine burst which comes with feeling “productive” and “busy”.

  2. To be helpful: Whenever there was a “ping”, I’d check my tech for fear of not being right there when someone on my team or someone I love needed me.

  3. Belonging: When I put something out there in the world (an idea in an email, a post on social media, a text), I wonder how it was received and how people might judge me. This is where FOMO (the fear of missing out), fear of failure, and fear of not being good enough plays out.

  4. Other needs include security/safety, autonomy/control, status/achievement, appreciation/attention, and finding meaning/purpose.

My need = productivity, service, or belonging

I then pick up the phone, check my todos or messages, then do a “quick” scan of social media and news. It’s amazing to me just how preprogrammed my scrolling pattern was once I investigated. It always started with todos or messages, but without ever really thinking consciously about it, I’d scroll over to social media and news. Ten or thirty or sixty minutes later, I’m deep into an article on how adorable Chinese mice can echolocate (it’s true!) or feeling outraged by the latest news.

My response = pick up phone → check messages or todo list → check social media or news → fall down rabbit hole without really getting my needs met

The point is… your behaviors become conditioned. Just like Pavlov's dogs, when I hear a "ping" the response pattern follows unconsciously in a preprogrammed way. So know thyself. Don’t let the companies steal your brain in addition to your money.

Strategy 2: Satisfy the underlying need in a healthier way.

Now that you know what the underlying need is, see if you can get your need met in a deeper, more truly satisfying way. Get creative. I won’t say much more here because every person is unique. This is sometimes where deep coaching can really help you understand your needs and try experiments to satisfy your needs in healthy ways.

Pause. Do any of you have a little voice in your head saying, “How can I find time for coaching or experiments about woo woo stuff like a “need for belonging”. I’m way too busy for that.” If that touches a nerve, then run, don’t walk to get some support to get your needs met. (Contact me today. Seriously.) Laura Vanderkam says in this wonderful TED talk on time management: “Time will stretch to accommodate what you choose to put into it… Even if we are busy, we have time for what matters. And when we focus on what matters, we can build the lives we want in the time we've got.” What will you choose to put into the time you have on this Earth?

Strategy 3: Break the bad habit.

To break a bad habit, do as James Clear recommends in Atomic Habits: make your triggers invisible. Make your typical responses hard and unsatisfying. Treat yourself like a teenager with a phone addiction. Guess what I’m doing now. I’ve begun keeping my new phone charging in the kitchen or zipped in my bag as much as possible. Now, when I’m bored or there’s downtime (my trigger), my phone is invisible. Picking up my phone (my response) is slightly harder to do compared to other healthier and more need-satisfying downtime things I could be doing -- reading, connecting with my kids, making a cup of tea, going outside for a breath of fresh air.

Choose one or all of the following hacks:

  • Turn off all notifications except from your most important contacts.

  • Keep your phone in a drawer, zipped in a bag, or better yet, in another room.

  • Remove the problem apps from your homescreen so you actually have to scroll and search for them. If you’re really really brave, delete apps from your phone entirely. I had heart palpitations when I deleted the email app off my phone but am soooooo grateful that I took that brave step months ago.

  • Learn to use the Focus setting on your phone. (Did you even know many phones have a Focus setting? I didn’t either until I started researching this post for you.)

  • Use apps to your advantage! There’s an app called Forest on my phone that I love. I set a timer for however long I want to focus, say 2 hours, and it plants a virtual tree. Over the 2 hours, the tree grows. If I pick up my phone to try and use my other apps, the tree dies. It’s just a virtual tree, but it helps me stay intentional and avoid getting off track.

  • Use the Screen Time setting to limit how many minutes a day you can access certain apps.

  • Use the Do Not Disturb and/or Down Time feature(s) to limit access to your apps to specific situations or specific hours.

  • Make a pact with your assistant or spouse or teenager. Have them keep your phone when you really want to focus and offer to do the same for them. Often having a buddy makes all the difference in the world.

Strategy 4: Make it intentional.

Eliminate unintentional breaks and unintentional phone use. When it’s time to take a break, take a real brain break. When it’s time to respond to emails or return phone calls and messages, do it all in one go, with intention. Neuroscience and psychology research shows that switching tasks places a huge drain on your mental resources. It takes more time to do. You make worse decisions.

Instead, batch the little things (like communications) and actually schedule time in your day to take care of it. Personally, I have two ways to check messages -- a 5 minute scan or a 60 minute communications block.

  • With a scan, I quickly scan email subject lines or text/voice message notifications for anything urgent, and only read those things that might shift my day -- a fire that needs putting out, a cancelled meeting, something with the kids. 5 minutes tops. I am not allowed to delete or file away email messages. I am not allowed to read or respond to anything that’s not code red or orange. Then I close my email browser and zip my phone away in my bag or leave it charging in the kitchen. I try to scan no more than four times a day.

  • With a communications block, I catch up on voice/text messages then follow my routine (below) for handling all my email. When I was in leadership roles I needed two communications blocks. Now I'm down to one a day.

Strategy 5: Set up good habits.

Consider using this routine to create a “good habit” that can help triage your email workflow. I’ve shared before about the 5Ds and the 5 questions to ask yourself before putting something on your todo list. It’s just as relevant for email. As you go through your inbox ask yourself:

  • What if I didn’t? (As in didn’t respond or do anything at all with this message.) If the answer is not much, then DUMP it. Send it to trash or junk mail and move on quickly.

  • Does it have to be me? Is it really my responsibility? If not, then DELEGATE. Forward it to the person it really belongs to.

  • Does it have to be now? If it can wait, put a DATE on it -- tomorrow’s communication hour perhaps? Or if it’s a longer task, actually schedule time on your calendar..

  • Does it enhance or drain your energy? If it’s an energy enhancer, DO it right away. If it’s an energy drain, re-DEFINE it, then DO it. For email, my rule of thumb is that if a reply would be longer than 5 sentences, consider responding with a phone call, voice, or video message instead. That re-DEFINEs a draining email response into deeper connection with a person. Get creative. Get strategic.

Another way to create a good habit is to disrupt your pattern. Fortunately, it’s the holidays! No work is going to get done over Thanksgiving weekend or between Christmas and New Years. Going on vacation is another great time to establish new, better habits. In all these situations, you’re out of your routine already so try switching things up even more. Try leaving your phone on airplane mode for the first day, or two, or three of a break. Try leaving your phone in its charging station rather than in your pocket for the entire holiday week. Try a phone-free Thanksgiving Day for the entire family. See what lessons you learn.

You can also disrupt your pattern with a new device. I have now replaced my stolen phone with TWO devices. Yes, you read that correctly. Two. I have a new iPhone mini and a Supernote A6X — a slick electronic notepad that is meant for just two purposes, reading and taking notes by hand. I’ve always been a note-taker and journaler. I love the feel of pen on paper and remember things better if I write it down. But the number of notebooks I have filled with scribbles is getting a bit cumbersome. I’d been looking for a digital notepad like Supernote for a while. It also offers a distraction free way to read. While investigating my own habits, I noticed that when I read ebooks on my phone, I long to write notes all over them, but can’t. Moreover, I get distracted by all the other apps calling out for my attention, just a quick swipe away. When my attention wanders from my ebook, I inevitably “take a break” by checking messages → news/social media → down the rabbit hole I go. My hope is that if I read on a Supernote that lacks any other apps, I will just read or write. And when I want a break, I’ll actually take a real, intentional, break by getting up, stretching, and making myself a cup of tea.

My Supernote arrives Tuesday. Just in time for an unplugged, no Internet, no cell phone Thanksgiving with friends. I can’t wait.

Read More

I keep referring people to James Clear’s Atomic Habits because it’s truly the most practical, evidence based book out there on habit change. I also love BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits. Read one. Read both. They’re great.

For neuroscience geeks, I highly recommend this blog piece by Trevor Haynes on how smart phones hack your brain or this recent National geographic article about the science of addiction. I had the great honor of collaborating with some of the researchers named in that National Geographic article when I was a grad student.

And if you feel panic about being separated from your phone, have trouble meeting your responsibilities, and/or hide your smart phone use from friends and family, you may have have a more serious cell phone problem. Consider seeking professional help.

Going Further

Next week (yippee!) I'll release an online course to offer leaders the content nobody teaches you in university, training programs, or even while being mentored by the person you’re replacing. Stuff like:

  • Self management to avoid overwhelm and burnout.

  • Streamlining your workflow, delegating, and setting boundaries for peak performance.

  • How to quiet your inner monsters, get unstuck, and navigate uncertainty and risk.

  • How to deal with the hard stuff: difficult conversations, big challenges, and moving your dreams forward.

The course will be offered via short 20 minute videos delivered to your inbox every Monday from January to June 2022. There’ll be a live monthly hand-on practice session, discussion forums, and other support. Best of all, the first 2 months of "Leadership Boot Camp" focusing on the topics in this post (habit change, time management, email workflow, etc.) will be completely FREE! Subscribe to this blog or send your email to me at and you’ll be the first to hear about the course once the sign up page launches.

Some leaders need something more -- a group to soar with. Leadership can be really lonely. For leaders seeking connection with other visionary change makers, I’m offering a facilitated mastermind group called Synergy. Synergy is an opportunity to join an authentic, deep, like-minded community within which you will be valued, seen, supported, and embraced for the human you are and the gifts you give to the world. In each group call, you will receive support on whatever challenge or wish is most alive for you. It’ll be a really small, intimate group and there’s only 5 spots left. Apply ASAP. We begin in January 2022.

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