What would aliens think if they were to suddenly drop into the Earth’s atmosphere and peer out over our cities to try and discover what kind of creatures we are?
First, they may assume we’re some weird faceless animals, as all they can see is the back of our skulls and bent necks.
But on closer inspection, they may surmise that we are typical lifeforms that are, in fact, being passively controlled by little glowing rectangles that are seemingly permanently affixed to our hands.
“Shame”, one alien may say to another (in their own language). “Let’s keep searching for planets to visit, they won’t last long.”
Although the above scenario isn’t too likely to happen, more and more of us are ourselves experiencing an equally existential realisation as to how we’re wasting our days and passing our lives by on our phones.
Every day we make the commute on mass but spend it alone, heads down and eyes fixed to the screen.
Every day we consume so much information that we don’t know what to think or even what is real anymore.
Every day we get less able to spend even just a moment free from our devices without a huge wave of dread and anxiety rising over us.
But hold the phone. What’s that — the very same companies that made our beloved smartphones are now bringing out “digital wellbeing” tools to help beat smartphone addiction and “create healthy habits for the whole family”?
Humanity is saved. Come back, dear aliens, come back.
That’s one way of looking at it. Another way is that Google’s digital wellbeing initiative and Apple’s Screen Time app are desperate attempts to stay on our sides and keep the devices that they themselves have called “toxic” and said pose an “existential threat to humanity” planted firmly and deeply in our pockets.
As some of the largest for-profit corporations in the world that are built on product sales and data harvesting, not the health and wellbeing of the people, you can decide which one may really be the case.
But let’s stay objective here and remember the perspective of our all-seeing extraterrestrial friends. It’s clear something pretty significant in society has gone wrong. And it’s also clear that setting it right will take much more than a few addiction-management apps and new time tracking features.
When nothing is important, everything is important
Everyone thinks they know what is and isn’t important to them. We all have a central set of qualities and values that we consider as the defining principles of who we are.
The thing is, although this idea of ourselves can seem undisputedly true on the inside, it often fails to match up with what’s happening on the outside — in the way we actually live and spend our days.
Thus, whereas your list of what you think is important to you may look something like career, family, giving back to the community, etc., on the objective alien’s list, it may read something like buttock exercises, animal reactions to disappearing humans, kale recipes, a particularly strange human being called Donald Trump, followed by career, family, etc…
When we don’t definitively establish and wholeheartedly understand what is important to us, we leave ourselves at the whim of what’s deemed important by other people, businesses, the media, and society on the whole — no matter how trivial, harmful, or divisive it may be.
This is particularly problematic in today’s attention economy, in which our time is more valuable than any currency and, therefore, the goal of smartphone and social media companies is to keep you addicted, ahem, engaged for as long as possible. Fail to or simply remain too distracted to establish what’s important to you and thus where you should spend your time, and you can bet you’ll be exploited for every second you’re worth.
Firstly, then, before we can even see what’s truly important to us, we need to be able to properly stop and reflect.
This is no easy feat. We’ve become so chronically distracted and attuned to looking outward to find answers that we find it difficult to tune out, turn inward, and inquire and evaluate our own thoughts and feelings.
It’s also difficult because, as a consequence of the cherry-picked “perfect” impression of life that’s propagated by social media, we’ve come to believe that it’s possible to have everything we want, be anyone we want, and accomplish anything we could ever dream of.
This is where all the practical advice for beating smartphone addiction comes in — getting a cheap alarm clock for the bedroom, setting time boundaries, turning on aeroplane mode, deleting email and social media apps from your phone.
You could do all that, or you could try out your phone’s built-in digital wellness feature by using the often forgotten function of the button on the side, and turning it off.
So, with all the distractions out of the way, now we can get to it. Set a timer for five minutes, grab a pen and paper, and start writing down what’s important to you. Take more time if you need it.
When you’re done, cut the list down to around five or ten things, keeping what’s actually important to you and binning anything that just should or might be important to you.
It’s one thing to know what you want, it’s another to understand why
You should now have a solid list of important things. But as mentioned above, merely knowing what’s important to you is not enough. We also need to have a clear and wholehearted understanding of why.
When we ask why something is important and thus why we should spend our time on it, we can uncover the real values behind our beliefs. We can also see through modern artificial values like “connections”, “Likes”, and “followers”, that all too often taint our behaviour and water down the meaning and value we attribute to things.
The result is that we begin to pierce through superficial, wasteful, and often damaging pursuits that dominate our days — i.e. spending too much time on our smartphones — and start bridging the gap between our inner idea of ourselves and how that manifests in the external world.
With all that in mind, for every one of the points that you’re left with, you want to ask yourself the question, “Why is this important to me?” No time limit.
With your answers ready, let’s look at a few examples to help encourage the process further.
Let’s say one of the things you wrote down as being important to you was “keeping in touch with family”. But on the surface, as you have an active family group on Whatsapp, you talk to your grandma often on Skype, and you regularly send your dad and other relatives emails, it may seem like you’re already living up to this value.
But why do you want to keep in touch with them? Is it merely to keep up appearances, or is it because you value your relationship with your sister, because you value the little time you have left to spend with your grandma, and because you value the love and support you’ve received from your parents.
If the latter is the case, you may realise you should drastically change how you interact and communicate with them so that your relationships are, at least mostly, based in real life, rather than via a mobile computer.
Another example may be if you wrote down “friendships”. Okay, so you already have a thousand Facebook friends and too many people to talk to on Whatsapp, so again it seems you’re doing well. But what is it exactly about your friendships that you value? Do you value quantity and attaining more casual acquaintances, or do you value offering a shoulder in someone’s time of need, sharing experiences together, and nurturing meaningful and lasting bonds?
Of course, the examples above don’t even touch on all the other things you may value in your life that have no relation to your phone and that you’ve for some reason long pushed aside, despite having time to play Candy Crush and organise your Evernote notebooks a hundred times over.
Know what’s important to you and what you value, and soon you won’t be thinking about how to beat smartphone addiction, but how you can use your phone to help further your goals and really improve your life.
If you haven’t now thrown it away in place of a dumb phone like me, that is.
Joseph Pennington is a freelance writer and long-term traveller from the North of England. Follow him on LinkedIn or Medium or check out another one of his recent articles, A Diary of A Smartphone Addict.