The Surprisingly Easy Trick That Can Help You Use Your Phone a Little Bit Less

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The first thing I do in the mornings is look at my phone. That’s mainly because my phone is my alarm clock, but once my eyes are open and that screen is lit up in my hands, it’s an awfully short trip to checking emails and perusing headlines. There’s no reason for me to be doing this. My emails that early in the morning are mainly junk, and the headlines won’t change much before I’ve brushed my teeth and poured a cup of coffee, right?

My wife says I’m addicted to my phone. I disagree, but I can definitely stand to spend less time looking at it. I’m not terribly active on social media, but I do enjoy me some idle scrolling. And, wow, do these tech companies know how to keep those thumbs constantly swiping up. We’ve got a toddler, and while I think we’re pretty good about limiting her screen time, it would seem that technology has had its hooks in me from the start. So, I decided to try loosening my phone’s grasp on my attention by switching the screen to black and white.

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Changing the display to black and white is very easy. In your iPhone’s settings, choose General, then Accessibility. Next choose Display Accommodations, then Color Filters. Tap the toggle on and a list of filters appears. Choose Grayscale and you’re all set.

But no one wants to go through all this every time they want to turn color back on to check out an Instagram story. Clearly, you’re not going to always want your screen to be black and white—after all, there will inevitably be photos to view and videos to share—which is what makes setting a shortcut integral. In the Accessibility menu, tap Accessibility Shortcut and choose Color Filters. Now, pressing the home button three times will toggle your display to color, then back with another three.

It seems counterintuitive, with screens boasting higher resolutions than ever, to actively negate one of your device’s primary selling points, but when you consider the subtle neurological factors at play, it’s a small—and easy—price to pay. Technology companies are aggressively competing for our attention. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings famously told Fast Company that his company’s biggest competitor was sleep (“And we’re winning!” he added). Think about that next time Netflix autoplays the next episode of your binge.

The Center for Humane Technology, founded by Tristan Harris, who previously served as Google’s in-house design ethicist, points out a number of more subtle tactics that tech companies use to keep you coming back to your phone. “Notifications appear in RED dots because red is a trigger color that instantly draws our attention,” according to its website. The Center argues that with just a few simple changes to your phone’s settings you can take back a portion of your time. “Colorful icons give our brains shiny rewards every time we unlock. Set your phone to grayscale to remove those positive reinforcements.”

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Saul Rosenthal, PhD, a psychologist who specializes in internet addiction and technology overuse, says that while switching to grayscale most likely won’t be a magic bullet, it’s a good start. “Making any change will have an initial impact on behavior because we notice differences,” he says. “However, for most apps, color is probably not a primary factor in user experience. Apps reinforce use by lots of other things—points for games and likes for posts are probably far more reinforcing than color.” A monochrome screen may make your favorite game less fun–and therefore less of a time vacuum–but you’ll still have to navigate the flurries of notifications and social feedback.

Altering color alone may not result in a personal digital revolution. “We’ve all planned to check our email and end up three hours later watching cat videos,” Rosenthal says. “That’s because technology provides very rapid but superficial reinforcement with the promise of more. Clicking on a link gives a quick little reinforcer. Well, there’s always another link to follow.”

But that doesn’t mean you have to toss your phone off a bridge either. The point is to use technology in the way that’s best for you; aside from going black and white, other small changes, like turning off notifications, arranging apps by importance, and deleting distracting ones, could help too.

If, like me, you want to curb potential overuse, Rosenthal has a few other tips. For starters, keep your phone out of your bedroom (I guess I’ll have to buy an alarm clock). You can also set up Restrictions. Doing so won’t stop you from using your phone, but having to enter a passcode to access certain apps can reduce impulsivity, because you’ll have to decide whether you really need to.

Rosenthal also recommends taking breaks—either by going tech-free for a day or two or working in “micro-breaks” throughout the day. “Sit in your chair with your arms away from the keyboard, close your eyes, and take three slow breaths, low in the abdomen. It takes 30 seconds,” he says. Behaviors that might signal it’s time to take digital detox action include getting less sleep because you’re on your phone later and later and missing or forgetting deadlines, Rosenthal adds.

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Within a couple of days of setting my phone to grayscale, I was unlocking it a bit less. I no longer felt antsy about checking it. I’d open it when I got a notification, but I rarely went looking for them. In fact, there were times when the switch back to color was almost jarring.

But, confirming Rosenthal’s theory that it’s just a good start, it was very easy to backslide. For example, there were times when I’d switch to color for a specific reason in the morning but forget to switch back, and I’d catch myself scrolling brightly colored news pages at lunch. Honestly, I doubt I’ll keep my phone black and white in the long run, but it is nice to know that if I feel the tug on my attention getting a little too strong, I’m only three taps away from a respite.

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