How to keep your phone from eating your soul

I’m writing these words from the Seventh Circle of Hell.

Well, that’s what I call it. My kids call it Chuck E. Cheese’s, and they think it is heaven. Right now, they’re running around slapping buttons, whacking moles, spinning wheels, and shooting tiny basketballs into tiny hoops. I’m over here at the corner table eating cheap pizza and trying to write something intelligible. It isn’t easy to do amid the flashing lights, blaring games, and shrieking children. (Oh, and did I mention there’s a guy in a mouse costume running around high-fiving everyone?)

Pray for me in my hour of need.

As I sit here trying to concentrate, a thought occurs to me. The outside world is becoming more and more like this place. No, there aren’t people running around in giant mouse costumes. I’m talking about the distractions, the noise. Life has gotten louder, chaotic, and more disruptive. And just like at Chuck E. Cheese’s, a lot of the cacophony comes via screens.

There are the familiar diversions like TV, which, despite the advent of the Internet, Americans continue to watch on average for more than five hours a day.[1] Advertisements bombard us from every angle, more than at any other time in history. In addition to these distractions, the Internet has spawned a host of tools—like email, apps, social media, and online games—to grab even more of our time and attention. The average American now spends almost 11 hours a day staring at a screen.[2] Throw in eight hours of sleep (which we should be getting, but aren’t), and that leaves a paltry six hours in which we risk making eye contact with another human being.

A different distraction battle

In every generation Christians had to battle distraction, but today the battle is different. It now involves ignoring Internet trolls and not blowing money you don’t have on apps and one-click purchases. It means not frittering away hours scrolling through your Facebook feed or crushing digital candies on your phone. I’m not saying new media are all bad. They can enrich our lives when used properly and in moderation. But we’d be fooling ourselves if we didn’t recognize their drawbacks.

I wish I could lecture you on the dangers of new media from Mount Solitude, where I pass my days in silence and prayerful meditation. But alas, I live in the proverbial valley, immersed in the distracting technology that has become the hallmark of modern life. Recently I saw a report showing the average American house now has seven digitally connected devices.[3] I scoffed at the excess, then started counting the devices in my own home and came to a humbling realization: we have eight.

Every day I sign into three different email accounts, and I check them compulsively. And I usually do so on my smartphone, my ever-present help in times of boredom. It continually dings and buzzes and beeps, assuring me that I’m connected and popular and entertained. The other day I got stuck in line at Chipotle for 20 minutes and made a horrifying discovery: I didn’t have my phone with me. I grew uneasy. My hand kept searching my pockets in vain for the glowing device. I was shocked by just how hard it was for me to stand there with nothing to do. I got so desperate I almost resorted to talking to the people around me!

So how exactly can we fight back against the digital onslaught?

Structure Your Time

I doubt any of us sits down to plan the week and thinks, Hmm . . . I’m going to pencil in 35 hours for staring at my phone, 30 hours of TV, and seven hours of mindlessly surfing the web. Sounds ridiculous, right? We’d never plan to spend our time like this. Yet that’s what many of us do—week after week.

How do we bring sanity back to our schedules? By becoming intentional about the way we spend our time. Of course that doesn’t mean we say no more phones, TV, or computers. For most of us, that isn’t feasible. If I said no to email, I’d lose my job! But it does require applying wisdom to our online habits.

One tool I’ve found helpful comes from the author Brett McCracken. Playing off Maslow’s famous Hierarchy of Needs, McCracken came up with the “Wisdom Pyramid” to give internet-addicted Christians a way to think more fruitfully about the way they spend their time.[4]

McCracken puts social media and the Internet at the pinnacle of his pyramid—not because those are the best uses of your time, but because they’re the least important. He advises prioritizing Scripture-reading and spending time with your church family in order to keep your priorities balanced. This is great advice. When we make sure we’re spending time with God and each other, it helps us rein in our use of isolating technology.

Use Tech to Control Tech

A few months ago, I did something simple that reduced my tendency to waste time on my phone. I turned off all the notifications. Did I really need to be alerted every time someone liked one of my tweets or Facebook posts? Must I know each time CNN.com posts a new political story? Nope. Yet these dings and beeps were continually pulling me away from more important activities and sapping my ability to concentrate deeply. So I went into my settings and disabled all notifications. I haven’t missed them.

The second thing I did: install an app (called Moment) that tracks all the time I spend on my phone. It’s sobering to get an accurate understanding of just how much time you’re spending on your phone. Such tools help you prevent giving too much of your time and attention to the Internet.

There are also small steps you can take to curb your digital dependency. One is to disable color on your smartphone. The former Design Ethicist at Google, Tristan Harris, explains that opting for the “grayscale” option makes the apps on your phone far less addictive.[5]

Draw Bright Lines

Most of us know we have to handle technology better. But often we pursue this goal with vague aspirations, like “I’m going to try to look at my phone less.” Of course, objectives like this rarely work because they’re so ambiguous. “Bright lines” are hard-and-fast rules that help you avoid unwanted behavior. The term came from the legal system to describe clearly defined courtroom rulings, but researchers found the idea helpful for controlling conduct.

These rules may sound difficult, but they actually preserve your willpower. You know certain behaviors at certain times are off limits, so you don’t have to wrestle with a decision. You don’t even have to think about it. Bright lines are especially crucial for breaking bad digital habits. Make hard-and-fast rules like “No email after 6:00 p.m.,” or “No Internet on weekends,” or  “No phones at the dinner table.” These bright lines are like levees, strategically placed in your life to guard against the flood of digital distractions that threaten to overwhelm your soul.

Make Your Sabbath Tech-Free

A couple years ago, our family started giving our Sabbath a low-tech twist. We forbade the use of screens. We called it “No Screen Sundays.” It’s a little cheesy, but somehow the alliteration helped it stick. We don’t always observe it in our home (and usually Dad is the weak link), but we try. And when we do, it feels like a little slice of heaven. The kids aren’t zoned out watching cartoons, Mom isn’t texting, and maybe most refreshing of all, Dad isn’t glued to his phone checking email or Twitter. It’s a day to worship God, enjoy our church community, and to be together as a family. Really together. “The Sabbath prefers natural light to artificial light,” writes A. J. Swoboda.[6] We’ve found this to be true in our home. When we power down our devices and step outside into the natural light of God’s creation, our souls are restored.

This is just a sampling of strategies I’ve found useful. You may opt for different ones. The important thing is that we get intentional about freeing our minds from the tyranny of technology. Too much time in front of screens breeds impatience and impulsivity. It leaves us depressed and distracted and discontent. Compare those states of mind with the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and—self-control. The contrast could hardly be sharper. By limiting our time online, we give God the space in our lives to cultivate the virtues he longs for us to have.

This article is adapted from Your Future Self Will Thank You: Secrets to Self-Control from the Bible and Brain Science (Moody, 2019).