How Your Phone Can Teach You Mindfulness

Every time you feel the urge to check your phone is an opportunity to pause, get curious about your experience, and practice present-moment awareness.

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Believe it or not, we are checking our phones an average 344 times every day. This might seem almost unfathomable until you bring mindful attention to how often you’re eyeballing your email, Twitter, TikTok, finances—the list goes on and on. One moment we’re scrolling our Instagram feed, then the next we’re buying something online. Before you know it, you’ve distracted yourself from your life’s purpose hundreds of times during the day (and perhaps even spent a lot of money). Moreover, that frequency of distraction can’t be good for cultivating a balanced mind.

There might be a healthy number of times to divert attention to our phones, but clearly we’ve moved beyond what serves us. James Clear, author of the bestseller Atomic Habits, says that our autopilot checking of technology is an example of a “system of habits” that leads to less health and happiness. The checking also activates our comparing mind and that can lead to more stress, anxiety, and emotionally charged actions. For example, if you see photos of friends on a luxury vacation in Tahiti, you might spend more than you budget for your next family vacation.

Why We Scroll

For most of us, including myself, it’s to escape feeling boredom and other challenging emotions. Social media, for example, offers temporary relief, but more importantly, we’re overlooking what we might gain from exploring those emotions. Some meditation teachers might add that when we try to camouflage our challenging emotions, we’re strengthening them.

The good news is that given the current autopilot behavior of many of us, including myself, we have a very accessible way to gain awareness and moderate this untethered and unproductive habit. When boredom or discomfort leads us to check our phones, we have perhaps 344 opportunities per day to be mindful and strengthen our practice. We have to recognize that we’re wired to not want discomfort; it feels like a threat to our survival. 

So, is it possible to get comfortable being uncomfortable?  

It’s powerful to know we can do this; it builds confidence, and lessens our grasping tendencies.

Yes, and mindfulness training is a great technique for doing this. Many people meditate without an intention, but if you meditate to get comfortable being uncomfortable, you’re more likely, in my experience, to see results.

I suggest that we start with baby steps. As Mark Twain wrote, “Habit is habit, and not to be flung out the window by any man, but coaxed downstairs a step at a time.” Begin by paying attention. Get curious about the feeling (the boredom, frustration, etc.) right before you want to check your phone, commit to welcoming this feeling and don’t try to eliminate it. This is counterintuitive, but it works. You’re saying to yourself “I’m experiencing and noting the sensations of stress or boredom,” rather than saying “I am stressed.” 

I have experienced so much freedom in these moments of awareness when I didn’t resort to my habitual behavior. It’s powerful to know we can do this; it builds confidence, and lessens our grasping tendencies. Imagine the spaciousness and freedom that results from pausing, sensing your impulsive desire, and then listening and acting from your wisdom instead.

Three Ways to Cultivate Healthier Phone Habits

  1. Track how often you look at your phone. If you have an iPhone, you can launch Settings, then tap Screen Time and activate, then click on See All Activity, scroll down to the section titled Pickups to find out how many times you checked your phone each day. Remember, the goal is to reduce your pickups, not to eliminate your pickups.
  1. Before purchasing anything on your phone, wait three days. This pause will give your prefrontal cortex enough time to decide if you really need it. 
  1. Know that you are not alone. Find an ally on your journey, a friend who is neutral.  Sharing your goals, intentions, and struggles and holding each other accountable has proven to be successful for many.

What if you view your phone as your venerable mindfulness teacher? How might you use the time freed up from checking your phone less? Could all this lead to more joy? I think so!

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