A guide to spending less time on your phone

    I recently read Ryan Holiday’s post A Radical Guide to Spending Less Time on Your Phone. The post is full of great advice to help reduce your phone use and well worth a read. Holiday is spot on — our phones have become an instant escape, and a constant burden. We find it easier to whip them out in moments of idleness than be alone with our thoughts. We feel compelled to find out what the latest ping was irrespective of what we’re doing in the moment. This behaviour becomes compulsive. We reach for our phones without thinking, reinforcing those neural pathways that keep us from being fully present with our friends, family, children… our lives.

    What struck me most about the post was how evolved my own phone reduction habits have become. I have already implemented most of what Holiday suggests, and in some instances pushed the boundaries even further.

    With this in mind I thought I would follow up with my own strategies to reduce the time I spend on my phone. Some of these overlap with Ryan Holiday’s strategies, some have spawned from Cal Newport’s blog and book Digital Minimalism, while others I’ve devised on my own by simply becoming more aware of my behaviour. I have much healthier, productive relationship with my phone as a result.


    Gaining wisdom and saving £50,000

    This post started out with the title How a Book Saved Me £50,000. Part way through writing it, however, I realised it was a specific example of a more general, more valuable concept: how we can improve ourselves and our lives by applying the knowledge — the wisdom — that others have worked hard to acquire.

    Employ your time in improving yourself by other men’s writings, so that you should gain easily what others have laboured hard for. — Socrates

    I wish I’d read Early Retirement Extreme (ERE) 9 years ago when I first added it to my reading list. Had I done so I might well be financially independent already. I’m glad I read it when I did, though, because in doing so I avoided ploughing myself into another £50,000 of debt, and years of work required to pay it off. It was a close call though. I had my finger on the button. I was hours away from picking up the phone, firstly to try and negotiate the quote we’d been given, but ultimately to give the go ahead.

    As fate would have it I had also started reading ERE in the days prior. On page 4 I underlined a sentence, “…with tens of thousands being spent on marginal increases in functionality.” The note was marked with an asterix, and at the bottom of the page I wrote some marginalia: Currently pondering a £50,000 extension and garage conversion. In the days and pages that followed my outlook was completely transformed.

    ERE marginalia



    In my early thirties I watched a TED talk about the power of time off in which the speaker, Stefan Sagmeister, presents an infographic showing a typical, modern-day working life: 25 years for learning, 40 years for working, and 15 years for retirement.

    Typical working life

    He then cuts 5 years from the retirement section and intersperses them throughout the working section.

    Working life rethought

    The audience laughs and applauds; it seems they think the idea is as novel as I do. Such a simple idea, but for me, profound.

    The idea stayed with me, and in the years that followed I dreamed of taking my first sabbatical. I was never sure it would be possible financially, or whether I would have the guts follow through, so for a long time it remained only a dream. But I continued to speak about the TED Talk with friends and family and in doing so fanned the flames of the dream. I worked hard, caught a few lucky breaks, and in my late thirties, when the possibility of a sabbatical somehow seemed more realistic, I tentatively began telling people about my ‘plans’. One friend commented “If it were anyone else I wouldn’t believe them, but I reckon you will.” I still wasn’t sure.


    Implementing Atomic Habits

    This year I’ve been using Jerry Seinfeld’s Don’t Break the Chain method to try and exercise every day. Each day I exercise I put an X in my Bullet Journal monthly spread. If I miss a day I get a big blank spot and a broken chain. The idea is that motivation comes from not wanting to break the streak of Xs you’ve built up. Seinfeld used the method to ensure he was writing jokes every day. My experiment is working well; I’ve exercised on 53 of a possible 59 days to date. However there is always room for improvement, 6 out of 59 days worth of improvement.

    The motivation I get from wanting to keep my streak alive is significant. On a number of occasions I’ve been ready to get into bed before remembering I hadn’t exercised that day, so I’ve busted out a few sets of max push-ups beside the bed in my pyjamas, just to keep the streak alive. But I’ve learned that I can’t always rely on Don’t break the chain motivation, or my memory, to get me over the line. Enter habit stacking and temptation bundling, two techniques I learned recently from a book called Atomic Habits (see my book notes here).

    Habit stacking + temptation bundling

    The habit stacking technique is outlined in Atomic Habits in the section called 1st Law of Behaviour Change: Make it Obvious

    One of the best ways to to build a new habit is to identify a current habit you already do each day and then stack your new behaviour on top.

    The habit stacking formula is:

    After [CURRENT HABIT], I will [NEW HABIT].

    Temptation bundling is described in 2nd Law of Behaviour Change: Make it Attractive:

    Temptation bundling works by linking an action you want to do with an action you need to do.

    Habit stacking and temptation bundling combine to form a powerful formula for behaviour change. The habit stacking + temptation bundling formula is:

    1. After [CURRENT HABIT], I will [HABIT I NEED].
    2. After [HABIT I NEED], I will [HABIT I WANT].

    So the idea is that you choose a habit that is already engrained and stack a habit you need (but is not yet a habit) on top. To make the habit you need more attractive, you add a habit you really want on the end. When you’ve completed the habit you need you’re free to enjoy the habit you want.

    My implementation

    My goal was to eliminate days where I was forgetting to exercise until the last minute. I decided my morning coffee was the ideal current habit to latch onto. I love my morning coffee, the smell of the grounds as I spoon them into the Bialetti coffee maker I set out the night before. The process has become a daily ritual, and is therefore a perfect candidate to build upon.

    Using the habit stacking + temptation bundling formula I created this implementation intention:

    1. After I prepare my morning coffee but before I switch it on, I will do at least one set of exercise (push-ups, pull-ups, pistol squats or yoga).
    2. After at least one set of exercise, I will finish making my coffee and sit down to enjoy it.

    It’s early days — I’ve only completed 9 days of this routine thus far — but it is working so well that I can’t see myself stumbling. I’m unlikely to forget making my morning coffee because it’s typically the first thing I do in the morning (obvious). Sitting down to enjoy it is something I really enjoy (attractive). By sandwiching a habit I need (daily exercise) between the two I dramatically increase the likelihood my streak of Xs remains unbroken.


    The Bullet Journal Method

    Starting a Bullet Journal in 2019 has been the single most impactful thing I’ve done this year. It has transformed the way I organise my life and forced me to spend more time offline. It has integrated journaling, from which I already derive greate value, with the power of a simple organisational system. I feel more in control, less overwhelmed, and clearer than I ever have. It is still early days, but I get the feeling my Bullet Journal is here to stay.

    My problem with digital

    Digital organisational tools don’t work because of their very digital nature: they’re online, which means distraction. Temptation to check email, blogs, Hacker News, actual news. For example, the moment I clear my email inbox or digital task list my thought process goes something like this:

    “It won’t hurt if you spend 5 minutes scanning the first page or two of Hacker News! What’s the big deal? Live a little… weirdo.”

    My pleasure driven brain kicks in, and in that moment it’s in complete control. Like when I’ve got my wife’s Lindt chocolate on my mind; there’s no way that chocolate is not going to be eaten. My rational, pre-planning brain is nowhere to be seen. In my online example, 5 minutes turns into 30 down rabbit holes chasing new ideas and rubbish news. I end up with more on the shelves of my cluttered brain than when I started.

    Simplicity and reflection

    What I like most about the Bullet Journal method is its simplicity. So many digital organisation tools have come and gone from my life because of their complexity or rigidness. With the Bullet Journal, all you need is a pen and a notebook. Once you understand the basic signifiers, collections, and migrations, you’re good to go. And from personal experience, simple things are more likely to stand the test of time.

    The Bullet Journal method encourages you to extract yourself from the whirlwind of daily life; to stop and think. As the strapline states “Track the Past, Order the Present, Design the Future.” I find there is no better way to do this type of reflection than on paper.

    I’ve been journaling for years. I love the clarity it brings to my life. But ideas spawned from my journal remain lost on those pages, possibly never to be looked at again. I didn’t have a mechanism to migrate those ideas into a planning or organisation system, and to then act on them. The Bullet Journal method is the missing link between free-form journaling (reflection) and a system to plan and put those ideas into action.

    My Bullet Journal has become my single source of truth.

    Benefits I’ve noticed

    The changes I’ve noticed since starting Bullet Journaling have been remarkable.

    I’ve removed so much — A marathon, a two-day SQL conference, a time-draining side project. These are just a few of the things that have bitten the dust after Bullet Journaling for only a month. The method prompts you to ask tough questions about what’s essential, and to remove what is not.

    I’m getting way more done — Things don’t slip through the cracks anymore. Daily reflection means I’m working on the most important things and nothing gets missed.

    I’m sleeping better — I close out the day by reviewing what I’ve done, and what still needs to be done. I make notes about what happened that day, and what’s on my mind. Then I close my journal with a clear mind and generally sleep like a baby.

    I feel clearer — For all of the above reasons I feel much clearer, and less overwhelmed. I feel just a little bit lighter.

    If you find yourself feeling a littler overwhelmed grab a pen and some paper and jot down everything on your mind. Then grab yourself a copy of the The Bullet Journal Method and an empty notebook and get to work. It might just change your life.

    See my book notes from The Bullet Journal Method here.