How to Get Your Life Back from Your Smartphone

Silhouette of man with head replaced by iPhone.Many of us have love/hate relationships with our smartphones.

On the one hand, it’s amazing to have so much media and so many gadgets and connections at our fingertips – news, sports, weather, blog feeds, photos, videos, music, calculators, voice recognition, encyclopedias, dictionaries, rhyming dictionaries, Twitter, Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn… and of course, email.

On the other hand, these things are fiendishly addictive, so it can be a bit wearing to have so much media and so many gadgets and connections at our fingertips. Especially email.

Photo by inottawa

If you’re not careful, you can end up repeatedly checking social networks, email and news feeds. At the weekend. At three in the morning. In bed! And feeling seriously frazzled as a result.

So assuming you’re not about to put your brand-new iPhone on Freecycle, how can you get the pros without the cons? Here are some tips from my own experience, and from working with coaching clients – feel free to add your own in the comments.

Notice how it affects you

Don’t follow the tips in this article just because I say so – pay attention to your own experience, and notice whether they make a positive difference for you.

Begin by noticing how you are currently using your smartphone, and how this makes you feel.

Do you find yourself checking it compulsively, without any clear intention of what you want from it?

If so, how does this make you feel?

Do you take it out automatically to kill time while travelling or waiting?

Is it the last thing you touch at night, and the first thing you touch in the morning?

Do you get fidgety without your phone?

When was the last time you spent several hours – or even days – without touching your phone? How did you feel?

Has anyone ever called you out for playing with your phone instead of paying attention to them?

If you’re comfortable with the answers to all of these questions, there’s no need to read the rest of this article.

But if you feel like your phone is starting to take over your life, and you’d like to set some boundaries, experiment with the following tips – and notice how they make you feel. Pay particular attention to the sensations in your body – they are a much better guide to what’s good for you than ideas in your head (or tips in a blog post).

Disable email on your phone

One reason I resisted getting an iPhone for so long was I didn’t want to find myself checking email at weekends or evenings, and start bringing work issues into time with friends and family. But eventually I decided the benefits outweighed the risk, and resolved to use my willpower to stop checking email outside of working hours.

I’m sure you can guess how successful that was.

As usual with willpower, it worked fine for a short while, or when I wasn’t waiting for any particularly exciting or important news. Or until I got tired or distracted and found my thumb automatically pressing the magic email button.

It only takes a moment to check your email. And it only takes one email with an unexpected problem to spoil a nice afternoon out. The last straw was the night I found myself checking my email as I was getting into bed, and downloading a problem that kept me awake for several hours.

Then I found freedom from portable email.

Disable the email account on your phone. Don’t delete it entirely – just disable it. On the iPhone, I need to flip through five different screens before I get to the ‘Mail – on/off’ button. That means it’s impossible for me to check it on impulse – I have to go through the slightly clunky and annoying process of switching on the email account first. I can still access email if it’s important, but this little barrier makes me think twice before doing it.

The instant I did disabled the email account, my body breathed a sigh of relief. No prizes for guessing what it was telling me.

Don’t use it in social situations

You know how annoying it is when someone is right in front of you, but miles away, talking to their inbox, or Twitter, or whoever. You’ve noticed their anxious, fidgety movements, and felt mild pity for them.

Don’t be that person. Pay attention to the people around you. Look them in the eye and smile. Notice how much better that feels.

Put it in another room

If you find yourself constantly fiddling with your phone at home in the evenings, or in the office when you’re supposed to be working, then put some distance between you and temptation.

Put the phone in another room. If you’re nervous about missing an important call, turn the volume up and leave the door open.

If you find yourself twitchy and reaching for the phone, this is a sure sign that you are doing exactly the right thing by leaving the phone alone. Give it 20 minutes, and the fidgeting will probably disappear – and you’ll feel much calmer.

Never check email in bed

Your bed should be a sacred space, for sleeping, relaxing or other pleasurable pursuits. When your head hits the pillow you want to feel calm, secure and serene.

So why on earth would you want to suddenly download an email from your boss/client/that jerk from accounts, telling you about a work-related problem? Because every time you touch the magic email button, that’s the risk you take.

Do this too often, and your unconscious mind will start to associate the bed with email, customer service complaints, next quarter’s financial projections, offers to put you on the front page of Google and all the other gunk that lands in your inbox. If that happens, where are you going to go for a good night’s sleep?

Get an alarm clock

If you can’t keep your hands off your phone while you’re in bed, then switch it off at night and put it at the opposite end of the house/apartment to your bedroom.

Worried about not waking up on time in the mornings? Get an alarm clock. Or a rooster. Or have children.

Have something decent to read

If your smartphone media diet consists mainly of Facebook, Angry Birds, the news or other trivial pursuits, get yourself an eReader app and load it up with some good books.

Personally I love my Kindle iPhone app, which syncs perfectly with the Kindle itself. So if I’m on the Tube or in a waiting room, I always have something great to read in my pocket. Not only is it more productive than Twitter, it gives me a feeling of pleasurable absorption, instead of low-grade anxiety – the acid test.

How do you tame your smartphone?

Do you ever feel your smartphone is taking over your life?

If so, what are you doing about it?

About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a creative business coach and the co-author of the Creative Money Manual, a plain English guide to money matters for creative entrepreneurs.

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Responses to this Post


  1. I turned my iPhone and iPad into portable, digital studios that I use primarily for taking and making photos, capturing thoughts and birdsong with voice memos, and finger-painting.

    When my devices were new, I deliberately made an attempt to create separate, different digital spaces, so they don’t replicate my computer environment (which has email, social media and other communication and administration related tools). This way, I’ve got a creative tool in my pocket, and instead of flitting round Facebook and checking email, I find many more pockets of creative time throughout the day.

    I LOVE this approach and recommend it warmly to anyone who thinks it sounds interesting. If you need to be able to receive email and social media messages, you can always disable the notifications, and make an effort to only check when you really need to.

  2. Dear Mark,

    Thank you, Thank you, Thank you. It was about time that someone wrote this piece black on white. I do have a smartphone but without internet connection in order to keep me away from all those time consuming little things.

    So, now I need to share your article with the world!

    Thanks again,


    • My pleasure Gaby. I’m not quite so hardcore as to get rid of the internet connection, but fortunately Orange has a knack of doing that for me fairly often!

  3. Rosanne Bachman says:

    Absolutely Fabulous! It’s so easy to get pulled in by the iPhone& iPad. Great tools but they can’t replace human contact!

    • For me the best thing they do is put us in touch with each other when we’re not face-to-face. So it kind of defeats the point if we’re focused on them when we are face-to-face.

  4. I’ve found that consciously setting time to check emails is the best way to avoid wanting to do it at other times, e.g. at set times each day. If I pull out my phone I have a pretty reliable loop that asks if I am expecting something urgent, or if it is time to check emails. If neither is the case I put it back away.

    Requires a bit of training, but it works for me.

    Noting that I don’t have a work/life divide as I don’t have a day job, so ‘not checking email outside of work’ is a bit of a misnomer. The strategy works During work time as well, if that applies.

    • I have a pretty reliable loop that asks if I am expecting something urgent, or if it is time to check emails.

      Sounds like a great loop to have in your mind! How did you train yourself to do it?

  5. I hate when I power down my work PC and less than 30 yards away at the elevator, I check email again. I’ve been leaving the thing in my car when I get home until the kids go to sleep and after my wife and I eat dinner (sometimes, since we have very little ones, my wife eat after the 7p bedtime so we can have a little peace).

    I’ll check my phone if my wife checks hers. We do this after dinner-kind of like the new, more lung friendly after dinner smoke.

    • Heh, I’ve been saying mobile phones are the new cigarettes for a while (antisocial, addictive etc). Hadn’t realised the analogy extended to the after dinner smoke. πŸ™‚