We live in a busy world. We use our smartphones to answer emails, calls, and instant messages at all times of the day: in business meetings, at lunches, while waiting for the bus, in line at the grocery store and even during special occasions and family gatherings.
This behaviour reflects what research has already shown about how smartphones affect our lives. On the one hand, these devices give us greater discretion over when and where to work and how we stay connected with others. On the other, this constant connection extends our workdays and reduces our ability to detach. Many studies question whether we are in control of our devices or are controlled by them.
Our research , however, seeks to examine this phenomenon from a different angle. Rather than focusing on the consequences of excessive smartphone use, we aimed to find out if employees actually want to change these addictive habits. We asked: Do employees seek to control the amount of time spent on their smartphones? If they do, what strategies do they use, and with what specific goals in mind?
We analysed a corpus of public comments that LinkedIn users had written in response to an article describing the risks of excessive smartphone use in social interactions. The article challenged readers to avoid using their smartphones in the presence of others for 21 consecutive days (the time it said was needed to develop a new habit). In just a few months, the post received more than 168,000 views, 2,900 likes, and 941 comments. Through these comments, we aimed to identify behavioural patterns surrounding smartphone usage, as well as strategies people use to reduce the time spent on their smartphones and the motivations driving those strategies.
We found that individuals consciously disconnected from their smartphones for different reasons, and while having a strategy to limit smartphone use matters, making sure that strategy aligns with your values and motivations (and with those of important stakeholders in and outside of your workplace) is key in changing your behavior.
We classified these strategies into four categories:
Improving work or home role performance
About 25 per cent of the 941 commenters aimed to reduce the time spent on their phones in order to enhance their performance in a certain role, whether it be that of an employee, a spouse or a parent. Strategies included: Not having a phone at all. Not activating cellular data. Putting the phone on silent mode during meetings. Keeping the phone out of sight.
What strategy works the best? The majority who commented on the effectiveness of their strategies said keeping their phones out of sight provided them with the best results.
Establishing a personal digital philosophy
About 30 per cent of commenters wanted to reflect on and implement a personal digital philosophy about the role that technology should play in their lives. Many strategies in this category included symbolic decisions: Owning a simple phone with basic features. Using only the land line at work. Introducing strict rules to set the right example for colleagues, partners or children.
What strategy works the best? Setting rules had a tremendous impact for this group. As one commenter said, "My cellphone is a helpful business tool — I control it, it does not control me."
Minimising undesirable social behaviours
Around another 25 per cent of commenters wanted to avoid appearing rude in interpersonal relationships and limit the embarrassment of being publicly interrupted or distracted by their phones. Strategies included: Accessing emails through a web browser rather through an email application. Disabling push notifications to avoid being automatically notified at the arrival of every message. Introducing penalties if somebody is caught on their phone during social gatherings. This strategy was more strongly diffused among younger people.
What strategy works the best? No particular strategy was favoured in this category. However, disabling push notifications to avoid interruptions during business or social interactions was described as very effective. Commenters said that doing so increased their sense of control over their smartphones. In addition, commenters said the last strategy — introducing penalties for smartphone use — is a good way to generate fun and positive emotions among colleagues and friends.
Putting family and interpersonal relationships first
A little less than 20 per cent of commenters wanted to avoid losing the affection of friends, family and significant others as a result of their smartphone habits. Many people in this group were inspired to limit their phone usage in response to cues from family members, such as young children who wanted their parents to play with them rather than with their phones, or complaints from partners about the quality of time spent with their significant others. One person commented, "I have been accused several times of being married to my phone and not paying attention to others around me."
Strategies to achieve this goal included: Tracking personal connectivity behaviours in order to develop greater self-awareness around smartphone usage. Regularly reminding yourself what the most important priorities in life are, who needs the most attention in social interactions and what the risks associated with uncontrolled usage are. Sharing your thoughts surrounding smartphone usage with partners and teams, and looking for the most effective strategy together.
What strategy works the best? Commenters had divergent opinions about which strategies could be most effective in this category. Tracking personal connectivity behaviours was considered an effective way to gain greater self-awareness, which was then used as motivation to change unwanted behaviours. Similarly, reminding themselves of their life priorities was particularly helpful to commentators with a salient family identity.
Using smartphones is an easy thing to do but this does not mean that controlling them is. The above strategies were taken from one sample, but are simple behavioral changes that foster enormous benefits. Although not every strategy will work for every person, finding out which is right for you is the first step toward successfully limiting your phone use. If this is a goal, first ask yourself what the reasons driving your decision are — and then consider the best way forward.
Written by: Marcello Russo, Ariane Ollier-Malaterre and Gabriele Morandin
© 2019 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Licensing Group