Sometimes smartphones are a little too smart. If you're like many people, you probably love your smartphone, yet somehow over the course of time, you may have also become its slave.
You may not be exactly sure when it happened, but you probably remember a moment when realized you had become more attuned to the presence of that little blinking red light, alerting you to a new message, than you were to whatever it was you were doing.
Now, you can be in a meeting, talking with friends, watching TV or trying to finish a project on the computer, and the call of that smartphone wins every time. You have to check or the thoughts, urges and anxiety running through your head won't ever leave. And, truth be told, you probably like the small rush you get whenever that little light or chime goes off - somehow it feels like a reward no matter what the results are.
What started off as a useful tool somehow has taken over your attention and usurped hours of your workday. Checking your phone about every 5-10 minutes means you're looking at it more than 50 times a day. Granted, checking for new messages doesn't feel like it takes up all that much time, but the cumulative effect clearly is profound. What's worse, the constant distraction of checking your phone in all likelihood makes you less efficient and less productive.
Your Brain's "Addiction"
Caught in something of an obsession, repeatedly checking your messages causes a few things to happen your the brain. By focusing your attention over and over on that phone, you are unwittingly teaching your brain that this action is a priority. Even more concerning, the more you repeatedly check, the stronger the pathways in your brain become. As this happens, your brain begins to take over in a rather automatic and unconscious way. It begins to deluge you with all kinds of automatic and unhelpful thoughts, urges and impulses. Check now! There might be something new and you're missing it! Compelled in those moments to comply with the overpowering messages and urges your brain is sending you, you give in a check once again. You may not even be aware this is occurring. All you experience is a gnawing sense that you need to check your phone immediately.
No longer in control, with your efficiency waning and frustration mounting, your first tactic might be to hide the smartphone, just put it away for hours at a time. Clearly, this is not a realistic approach since you do need to check your phone for messages throughout the day, just not every 5 minutes. Caught in a Catch-22, you need to ask yourself: How can I change this scenario in a true-to-life and lasting way?
We offer a four-step approach that teaches you how to enhance your awareness and focus your attention in the ways you want to, while simultaneously changing your brain in positive and healthy ways.
You Are Not Your Brain (or its impulses)
The scientific premise behind our approach is that your brain, in an attempt to be efficient, can learn to act in ways that are not helpful to you. If you think about this, it intuitively makes sense. How many times have you begun a habit only to find that it is difficult to break once started? The reason this happens is because there is a special place in the brain, which we call the Habit Center, that is easily 'trained' by how we focus our attention and what we do. What happens is simple: by repeatedly focusing your attention on the phone, you unwittingly teach your brain that checking the smartphone and email all day is useful and important. You make it a priority in your brain simply because you focus your attention on it. This causes your brain to create strong neural pathways that then compel you to repeat that unhelpful action (i.e., checking the phone over and over) precisely because you taught it to do so.
The good new is that what you've taught your brain to do can be undone. This is why we often tell people You Are Not Your Brain! Similar to OCD obsessions and compulsions, repetitive habits like smartphone-checking can benefit from our Four Step approach. For simplicity's sake and to reflect the fact that these brain-based, false missives are not representative of your goals or you (i.e., you are not your brain or its false impulses!), we cal these "obsessions" and their associated desires, urges and impulses "deceptive brain messages."
The Four Steps
Armed with this knowledge, you can use the Four Steps every day whenever the urge to check your smartphone arises.
- Step 1: Relabel to increase your awareness of what's going on. Say to yourself, "I am having the urge to check email again." Simply say what's happening as it happens.
- Step 2: Reframe to explain to yourself why this keeps happening and remind yourself that you don't have to respond to these deceptive brain messages. Tell yourself that you have the urge to check your email again because it gives you a rush and decreases your anxiety that you might be missing something. It is nothing more than a deceptive brain message. Remember: You are not your brain and you do not have to respond to every impulse your brain generates.
- Step 3: Refocus to place your attention on something that matters to you and is important at that time. It might be paying attention to the people in your meeting, finishing the document you started, or realizing that you're stressed, stepping back and asking yourself: Is what I am about to do aligned with what I want to accomplish in the big picture? Whatever it is, the goal is to let the urge to check your phone or email be there, but not give it credence or give in to it. Employ our 15 minute rule - make yourself wait at least 15 minutes before checking your smartphone again. With time and a lot of practice…
- Step 4: Revalue naturally falls into place. As the urge to check your smartphone surfaces, immediately recognize this as nothing more than the feeling of a deceptive brain message and move on with your day, checking your phone about once an hour.
Consistently use the Four Steps for a few weeks and you'll see your smartphone obsession abate and those strong urges to constantly check it disappear. The key to success is practice. Keep using the Four Steps over and over whenever the thoughts, urges or impulses arise. Become more aware of what's happening, learn to Refocus your attention in healthier and productive ways whenever the urge to check your phone emerges, and you'll teach your brain new responses that are beneficial to you. You'll be in control and can place your attention where you want it to go, not where your smartphone beckons you to follow.
Click here to view the original article in Forbes.
Rebecca Gladding and Jeffrey M. Schwartz are the authors of the new book You Are Not Your Brain: The 4-Step Solution for Changing Bad Habits, Ending Unhealthy Thinking, and Taking Control of Your Life.
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Jeffrey M. Schwartz, M.D. is a Research Psychiatrist at UCLA School of Medicine and a seminal thinker and researcher in the field of self-directed neuroplasticity. He is the author of over 100 scientific publications in the fields of neuroscience and psychiatry, and several popular books including The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force and Brain Lock: Free Yourself from Obsessive-Compulsive Behavior.
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