Sometimes it can feel like the everything is in particularly bad shape. A fast-spreading virus shocked the entire world, keeping us stuck in our homes for months. And that somehow perfectly aligned with huge protests and demonstrations — which are absolutely gripping to watch develop, for those who aren't participating themselves. It's been a tough year for most of us, some much more than others. But in a time of so much strife and negativity, one thing we can all benefit from is just a little time away from our phones.
Last year, there was a big movement toward quantifying, and ultimately limiting, how much we use technology in order to help find a better balance and improve mental health. An incredible number of studies have shown for a decade now the negative effects of excessive phone use. We know it's not a great idea to spend a ton of time on our phones — but that's the thing about addiction, you can be aware of the bad effects and still do it anyway. Google and Apple both leaned hard into operating system-level controls for managing screen time, various forced lockout "focus" modes have rolled out to phones, and Android now has incredible per-app controls for managing notifications.
But this year, and particularly in recent weeks, it feels like we're mostly ignoring those limits and spending more time than ever on our phones. I recognize it's mostly been for good reason — lately our phones (and computers) are the only way we can communicate with people that matter most in our lives, and the only way we can work. Even still, I'm here to remind you that it's still worth taking stock of your device usage, just like we were doing back when things were "normal" last year. It's okay to put down your phone for a little while.
It seems counterintuitive to specifically take a step away from technology when it's the tool that keeps us connected to everyone and everything in a time where we're physically separated. But I'm not advocating that you power down your phone for a week — I'm saying you should continue to be mindful of device usage, even right now. And that means taking breaks, perhaps just an hour or so a day, to separate yourself from everything happening right now. I assure you that when you pick back up your phone after an hour, everything will still be there. You won't miss anything in realtime that you can't see later instead — but that hour away from a phone will have a huge positive effect on your mental state.
Even if you don't go all in with a full shutdown for a specific period, there are little changes you can make to cut down on overall phone usage. I've used Digital Wellbeing (available starting in Android 9) to limit Twitter, Instagram and Google News usage to 30 minutes per day each. (Pro tip: don't use Twitter's in-app browser, because reading a long article will eat up your time!). I stopped using the Facebook app a long time ago, and don't have Reddit installed. I make all of these apps either send me no notifications, or silent ones that I check on my terms.
Obviously you can change or remove these limits at any time, but the point is that all it takes is this little barrier, this small reminder that you're using the apps too much, to get yourself to stop for the day. Some people (quite smartly) advocate for not having social media apps on you phone at all, but honestly right now I am absolutely getting useful information from Twitter and Google News. These are go-to resources for seeing what's happening in the world, all the way down to my neighborhood. I find setting a limit on app usage to be an appropriate balance.
I also encourage you to use whatever phone-free time you allot to get outside. Invariably, no matter how strict your lockdown orders are in your city or state still, there is an exemption for going outside for mental and physical health. It doesn't matter how worried you may be about the coronavirus, you need to get outside for the sake of your mind and body. There are plenty of ways to get outside while staying completely safe.
I live in New York City, so my options for doing something outside are still incredibly limited, but I know just how important it is to get out into fresh air and (hopefully) sunshine, and so I get out every day — whether it's for a short walk, long run or couple hours in the park. There's also an important mental importance to leaving the building entirely, versus just going to a backyard or common space of an apartment building.
Go for a walk around your neighborhood. Go for a hike, run or bike ride. Walk or drive to a park and just sit on a bench or the grass. And when you do, the best thing you can do is put your phone on Do Not Disturb, or even airplane mode. We're all spending a vast majority of our time inside, there's no reason to take for granted the minimal time we do get out. Do yourself a favor and put away the phone for a bit.
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Andrew was an Executive Editor, U.S. at Android Central between 2012 and 2020.