How I Beat My Phone Addiction With Grayscale Rehman Ata - December 7 2017 7 Minute Read
Going gray: The Numbers
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Earlier this year, I started to become more conscious of how much time I was spending on my phone. More importantly, conscious of what I was doing on my phone. I started reading more Cal Newport and Tristan Harris. Constant distractions eroding our ability to focus? Social media is like slot machine gambling? Companies are optimizing apps to get us addicted? These were heavy implications, but i've always had a feeling we’re not entirely sure of what smartphones are doing to us 1,2,3,4. Have you ever noticed your hand reaching for your phone when you're reading a book or talking to a friend? Were you even aware of that? And next thing you know you're on Instagram scrolling through your feed? I know i'm not the only one that has experienced that. That has to mean something and science is usually slow to catch up, especially with the rate that technology advances these days. It’s likely why cigarettes were so common in the 50's and 60's, before we learned what they were doing to us. Science is slow – it has always been slow.
The scientist in me was itching. I sensed an experiment. How did I use my phone? How much time did I spend on it? What apps occupied most of my time? The only way to find out was to measure it. There are many apps that track your phone usage, I used App Usage (iPhone users, check out Moment).
Phone use before grayscale: 4 hours 8 minutes (June 11 - July 21, 2017)
Phone use after grayscale: 2 hours 14 minutes (July 22 - November 22, 2017)
With app usage tracking enabled, first I needed to set my baseline. I used my phone normally for 21 days, from May 21 to June 10 2017. In those weeks, my average phone use was 4 hours and 50 minutes. Recent research shows that the average american spends 5 hours a day on their phone 5. So i'm no better. That's almost a half a work day, and only 2 hours less than the 7 hours of sleep you're supposed to get a night. What the hell was I doing on my phone?! I looked closer and my top 5 apps in that period were:
Ah. Aside from Chrome (which could be productive or not... hard to say), I was doing a whole lot of nothing for close to 5 hours a day on my phone. After this realization began the attempts to reduce my phone usage. The following 6 weeks is best compared to a rollercoaster, literally. The graph looks that of a drug addict. With the high-highs, the low-lows, and aggressive swings almost everyday. A tactic I used was leaving my phone in my room all day – most of the low points you see in the graph. Unfortunately, I would binge use my phone in the days right after. Notice that the highest phone usage came in the days that followed a very low point in the graph.
My average phone use in this 6 week period was 4 hours and 8 minutes. Remember, this was me consciously trying to reduce my phone use and I barely shaved off 40 minutes.
Thankfully, on July 22nd, I found grayscale mode. I still remember that day - nothing special about it in particular but Google Now was recommending me articles and videos about phone addiction. Tristan Harris was a regular presence. Google knew I was trying to overcome a phone addiction.
One article mentioned that some phones have grayscale mode, which may help reduce phone addiction. It didn't really mention anything more - just an innocuous one liner about grayscale. At that point in time with barely a scratch in phone use, I was willing to try anything.
I don't know how else to say it, other than the difference was night and day. My phone was hideous and boring to look at. But adjectives aside, what did the numbers say?
Let’s remind you of my phone use on July 21, pre-grayscale: 4 hours and 4 minutes. Day one of grayscale? 1 hour 30 minutes. Interesting… but that could be a fluke. How about a week? 1 hour and 54 minutes. Interesting. The full month with grayscale, my average was phone use was 2 hours and 4 minutes. Take a look at the graph with the previous 9 weeks before grayscale.
That’s HUGE. Phone use pre-grayscale was 4 hours and 8 minutes. After a month of grayscale, it was 2 hours and 4 minutes. Was it really as simple as turning my phone screen gray? It's hard to say definitively, but I think a couple things happened here. Did my hand still unconsciously drift towards my phone? Initially, yes. Grayscale didn't magically turn off that reflex. But what happened after I unlocked my phone was different post-grayscale. Everything on my screen was gray and muted: my brain had associated certain colours with certain apps (yellow: Snapchat, pink-orange: Instagram, orange: Reddit), which allowed me to fall into those apps easily. Without colour, I had to actively search for apps on my screen – albiet muscle memory did make things easier. That was the first barrier grayscale added: opening an app required searching for it on my screen, which gave me enough time to realize what I was doing.
The second barrier, if I did find myself on social media, was that nothing stood out. I've made this point several times throughout this post, but that's because of how important it is. Videos and photos without colour were terribly boring and unappealing. As a human, you have a natural aversion for things that are unappealing to you. The last barrier was a mental trigger: a gray screen reminded me to put my phone down and look up at the world. Any task I wanted to do on my phone, I could still do, but the difference was that, with a gray screen I was using my phone as a tool. Consciously. It wasn’t an unconscious hand crawling to unlock a phone. It wasn’t a crutch to escape from small talk with that sort-of-friend at work. It wasn’t my escape in uncomfortable social situations.
I've never been a fan of “dumb phones" as a solution for phone addiction. Smartphones are meant to be a tool to make our lives better – not worse. Pretending it's 2004 is not a solution. Google maps is incredible. Uber and Lyft are SUPER convenient. So is texting (or typing on a qwerty keyboard for that matter). You can send a message to anyone anywhere in the world, for free? How is that not amazing? Dumb phones do more harm than good and chances are you’ll likely binge use your phone as soon as you get it back (like my "leave phone at home" trick). In my opinion, this is no different than a person trying to lose weight by dieting. Diets don’t work because the secret is to establish habits that are sustainable in the long-term. I think grayscale can be that sustainable habit. It works really well.
Where I think going gray excels at is in killing the craving. If your favourite ice cream began to taste like your least favourite vegetable (), you wouldn’t want dessert. Going gray turns the sugary allure of smartphones into a bland dull paste they serve in prison: it looks and tastes horrible, but it gets the job done. And who's to say we all can’t have some dessert every now and then? I turn off grayscale for a few minutes when I want to watch an entertaining YouTube video. This is a habit that is sustainable for me. I don’t feel that I’ve lost something in my life by going gray – I’ve gained a couple hours in fact.
I give my friends full attention when they speak to me now that my phone isn't a quick glance away. I’m more present with the people I care about. I've started to see the colour in the world again, instead of in my phone.
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Learn how to turn your phone screen grayscale, click here
Latest stats (up to November 22, 2017)
1) Montag, C., Kannen, C., Lachmann, B., Sariyska, R., Duke, É., Reuter, M., & Markowetz, A. (2015). The importance of analogue zeitgebers to reduce digital addictive tendencies in the 21st century. Addictive Behaviors Reports, 2, 23–27. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.abrep.2015.04.002
2) Choi, H.-S., Lee, H.-K., & Ha, J.-C. (2012). The influence of smartphone addiction on mental health, campus life and personal relations - Focusing on K university students. Journal of the Korean Data and Information Science Society, 23(5), 1005–1015. https://doi.org/10.7465/jkdi.2012.23.5.1005
3) Kwon, M., Lee, J. Y., Won, W. Y., Park, J. W., Min, J. A., Hahn, C., Kim, D. J. (2013). Development and Validation of a Smartphone Addiction Scale (SAS). PLoS ONE, 8(2). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0056936
4 King, R. C. (2017). The impact of smartphone on young adults. 8(4), 342–350.
5) Andrews S., Ellis, D.A, Shaw, H., Piwek, L (2015) Beyond Self-Report: Tools to Compare Estimated and Real-World Smartphone Use
6) Phone stare via Karen Creative Commons