Turning Off Your Phone Is an Underrated Behavioral Intervention

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Photo: Kutay Tanir

This past weekend my dad was in town, so my brother and I did what you’re supposed to do when you live in New York and have family visiting: We took advantage of the cultural offerings we ignore the rest of the time. In this case, we went to the Museum of Modern Art.

About an hour into the trip, I realized I was spending a lot of time on Twitter via my phone. There was no good reason for this. I wasn’t bored or otherwise in need of distraction; in fact, the exhibits, particularly this one about migrants traveling ridiculous distances, were mostly wonderful. But still, I couldn’t stop — couldn’t stop tweeting a series of increasingly unfunny jokes, couldn’t temporarily back away from a couple of debates that were stalemated anyway.

All of a sudden, it hit me: Just turn your phone off. The phone died with a resigned buzz and I slid it back into my pocket. At first, I continued to get phone tingles, that urge to check to make sure you aren’t missing anything important online (spoiler: you aren’t). But within, say, ten minutes, the tingles had almost entirely abated. I was temporarily free, and I was able to focus on a strange, appropriately disturbing 1970s-era German mockumentary about the manufacturing of napalm.

It was so obvious, and yet I can’t say for sure I had ever done it before (setting aside extreme situations like funerals). Thinking about it through a behavioral lens, I realized I was making one of the most common mistakes humans make: I was overestimating my willpower, and I was making it too easy to let that willpower be defeated. Behavioral economists know that if your plan for resisting a given behavior is “I’ll try really, really hard,” you’re probably going to fail. They also know that every small extra step you can put between yourself and the behavior in question helps; that’s why they’re into “nudges” like making desserts a bit harder to access in cafeteria lines.

Food really is the best equivalent here: If you’re trying to stop eating corn chips and you have bags and bags of them at home, you’re not going to stop eating corn chips; temporary moments of stress- or anxiety-fueled hunger will get the best of you. But if when those hunger pangs arise you realize you’ll have to go all the way to the store, the cooler, more rational part of your brain will get to chime in and plead for chip abstinence. You’ll be less likely to eat the chips.

So it is with phones: If you are really into Instagram or Facebook or Twitter, and, like me, go through weird spells where you can’t stop hitting that refresh button, having these social-media services three quick button presses away will make it almost impossible to ignore them. As simple and obvious an intervention as this may sound like, knowing you’ll have to turn your phone on really does make a difference. At the very least, it forces you to ask, Is the thing I was going to check or post really worth the effort? It’s a wonder we don’t all just turn our phones off more.