Even though I have an awareness of my relationship to my phone, even though I take measures to limit my use, even though I have strong boundaries with my kids around their usage, if you asked me whether I feel like I have a handle on my relationship to it, I’d give you an unequivocal NO!

The more I talk to people about their relationship to their tech, the greater sense of belonging I feel. For most people, every time they see someone reach for their phone there’s a bell that goes off in the mind that creates an urge to grab their phone. Every time they’re slowing down or waiting anywhere, the idea or urge to check the phone arises. Like an addiction, I know this is unhealthy and yet with all my mindfulness and with all the techniques out there, I struggle with this too.

At last I’m beginning to understand what this is all about and what to do about it.

There are many theories why most people today feel this obsessive connection with their phones. Some say it’s an addiction and explain it neurologically as a surge of dopamine that pulls us toward an object like drugs or alcohol. Others describe it closer to an anxiety disorder where there’s this FOMO (fear of missing out) effect and so we feel this obsessive need to check our messages, social media, and news.

If I don’t check my phone frequently, I’m going to be buried in a stockpile of messages to sift through for urgency and importance. As a result, my brain quickly makes the decision: “Oh, blinking light, you should check it.”

I can see credibility in all of these theories, but for me, I see it as a current that I’m caught in where there are so many avenues of messages coming in now (email, text, social media, and all the app notifications) that if I don’t check it frequently, I’m going to be buried in a stockpile of messages to sift through for urgency and importance. As a result, my brain quickly makes the decision: “Oh, blinking light, you should check it.”

There’s a sense that if I just let it go for a while, I simply won’t be able to keep up, thus the acronym FOKU (fear of keeping up).

The reality is, over 80% of the time (or more maybe), the message is not something that needs to be responded to in that moment—it’s not urgent. It’s also not something that would have mattered if I missed it. However, the brain says, “If I can just knock it out right now, I’ll curb the stockpile.”

There are a lot of efficiency theories that say, if you can get something done in under two minutes just get it done then and there. If it will take over two minutes, put it off until you have more time. But this theory, combined with the way tech works today can keep you living like a monkey swinging from branch to branch.

The other trap is, the more messages you respond to, the more you receive back in return and then you begin to understand deeply how this is an issue with modern humanity in general right now. Some say the answer to this is to just stop sending messages out, there’s some truth to this, but the reality is many of these messages require a response.

So, what’s the solution here to not be so enslaved by FOMO and FOKU?

There are all kinds of short-term life hacks such as:

  1. Interrupt the habit: Take a day away from your phone to interrupt the habit (although this can increase FOKU if it’s overwhelming when you get back).
  2. There’s an app for that: Apply apps like Forest that grow trees while you’re off your app or Twilight that changes the hue of your phone depending on time of day which can remind you that it’s not work time.
  3. Play the social game: You can cut down socially by playing the game with your friends at dinner where you stack phones and the first one to pick it up pays the bill.
  4. Put it where you can’t get it: Or get extreme and while you’re driving put your phone in your trunk.

However, for a longer term impact and to really gain more confidence and help loosen the FOMO and FOKU.

  1. Remember, we’re all in this together: The first step for me that’s been helpful is understanding I’m not alone in this and beginning to have conversations with people about it.
  2. Name it to tame it: The next step has been to practice naming it when it arises three times in my mind. My friend Dan Siegel coined the phrase, “Name it to tame it,” and that is exactly what’s happening here. Naming it allows you to naturally settle into that mindful space between stimulus and response where perspective and choice lies.
  3. Relax the body: The fight, flight, freeze response has been activated so we can shift that by relaxing the body.
  4. Make it social: This is the most important point here, keep talking with family and friends about the awareness you notice about feeling overconnected or pulled toward your tech. Making it relational embeds the awareness deeper within you and will make it easier for you to feel in control.
  5. Forgive and InviteBeing mindful of your relationship to your phone is going against the grain right now. Therefore, you’re going to be totally imperfect (as in most things in life) and so when you find yourself falling into an unhealthy relationship that doesn’t feel good, congratulate yourself for waking up. Then forgive yourself for the time gone by and with this renewed awareness, invite yourself to begin again.

All of these things have been incredibly helpful to me in having a healthier relationship with my FOKU and perhaps most importantly is just to be curious about what you’d like to see the relationship look like and when you get pulled away from that intention.

Allow this to be a playful endeavor as this will be a marriage that will last a lifetime.

Adapted from Mindfulness & Psychotherapy
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Elisha Goldstein

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and conducts a private practice in West Los Angeles. He is author of Uncovering Happiness: Overcoming Depression with Mindfulness and Self-Compassion (Atria Books, 2015), The Now Effect (Atria Books, 2012), Mindfulness Meditations for the Anxious Traveler (Atria Books, 2013), and co-author of A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook (New Harbinger, 2010).


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