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How to boss your phone and get productive again


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J.K. Rowling’s early writing ritual is a productivity legend. Every morning, she would take her seat in an Edinburgh cafe, settle her baby daughter down to sleep and put her ideas to paper. She was an unknown, unpublished writer with a dream. The year was 1995, before smartphones, notifications or tweets were things.

How might this ritual look today? What if, before composing her thoughts, J.K. Rowling checked her messages. Her coffee arrived and she shared the latte art on Instagram. Then she commented on a writer friend’s holiday story. 

She checked back for likes ten minutes later, and scrolled though Facebook while she was at it. She got sucked into a thread her sister had started, then felt guilty and put her phone down to concentrate. Minutes later, she was back on Instagram and wishing that was her on the beach in Thailand. Then her Twitter app pinged for her attention.

Amid these distractions, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone might not have materialised. No Harry, no Hagrid and no billion-dollar franchise of novels, films and merchandise.

I’ve struggled with the onslaught of pings and notifications. I’ve fretted over comments and follows, and I’ve quietly deleted posts when they didn’t get any likes. I’ve faffed around on my phone to distract myself from getting things done. And I’m fully aware that I’m not alone.

Many of us know that our phones are affecting our focus and creativity, and impacting how we see ourselves. How might your relationship with social media be hijacking your own billion-dollar potential?

Social apps are great for learning new ideas, connecting and promoting our work. But they are deliberately loaded with unpredictable rewards to keep us hooked. The little rush of dopamine that we get from shares, likes, follows and comments keeps us constantly connected.

Swiping down is like playing a slot machine. Maybe we’ll get a like, a photo, some breaking news or just an ad. It’s not always interesting or gratifying, and this is precisely why we keep coming back. Moment to moment, a random titbit of novelty or recognition feels more tantalising than the work in front of us.

Just like gambling, repetition of this process rewires our brains. Social media addiction isn’t just a creativity-suck; it has been linked to anxiety and depression. The overwhelming feeling of never being on top of things, constant comparisons with others and the FOMO phenomenon. The potential for adverse psychological impact cannot be underestimated.

I see this in my therapy practice all the time. When people talk to me about their anxieties, fears, doubts and confidence struggles, my information gathering usually includes asking about their relationship with social media. When it comes to setting goals for change, this is also very relevant.

It doesn’t have to be this way for any of us. Here are my tips for taking back control and purpose:

1. Make the itch less easy to scratch.

Delete apps from your phone, or turn off notifications for the apps you genuinely need. When you do check in at a time of your choosing, there’s more likelihood of something useful waiting for you.

2. Notice your triggers

When you feel the impulse to check your phone, pause to identify the core need or cue in that moment. What are you about to do? Take the opportunity to breathe, and notice what you are saying to yourself, how you feel in your mind and body.

3. Plan device time in advance.

Set aside 30 minutes later in the day for a social media catch up, and stick to it. This will be easier if you know which app you are going to use and for what purpose. When you consolidate your social media activity into a planned session, it feels refreshingly less spontaneous.

4. Check your intention.

What are you specifically going to share or look for? How will you know when you are finished? Will my activity make my life or anyone else’s life better? How does my intention fit with how I want to live? These checks might feel awkward at first, but they can soon become second nature.

5. Have better options.

When you deserve a break from your work, step outside for a while and look around you. Do some pushups, draw a picture, stroke the cat or call a friend. Pick up an interest or hobby that you used to enjoy, or discover a new one. Focus on what you want more of in your life, and direct yourself towards it.

6. Delay your sharing instinct.

If you feel the need to share or comment on something, stick it into a note or write it down. Then review 12 hours later and decide whether it’s worth sharing. Is it really useful or interesting to anyone?

7. Look after your mental nutrition.

Social platforms are riddled with fakery and gloss (I’m looking at you, Instagram), deliberately enraging articles (Facebook), trolling and negativity (Twitter), brain-melting video (YouTube) and relentless ads (every one of them). By engaging with these channels on your own terms, you’ll absorb less soul pollution.

8. Break away for a day.

Spend a full weekend day without your phone or tablet. Switch off your devices, put them in a drawer, get out and enjoy the mental freedom. Psychologists call this a pattern reset. If you generate lots of reasons why you need to be connected, just notice and gently question them. It’s only one day.

9. Revel in your new-found freedom and reward yourself.

A productive morning, a progressed project, a day free of social media? Acknowledge your achievements and reward yourself. You can give yourself a social media treat because that’s what it is: a deliberate reward rather than a time-sucking compulsion. Enjoy the feeling of your own volition.

By putting some space between ourselves and our devices, we get our focus back. At the heart of our digital cravings lie our innate needs for relationships, community connection, learning and finding meaning from life. We want to feel in control and maintain our privacy too.

Each of these components can be satisfied with other things beyond social media, and more effectively. When we take charge of them, apps and platforms become useful tools for pursuing our lives. We don’t need to be constantly tangled up in them.



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Wayne is a Nutrition coach & Personal Trainer specialising in the over 40's age group. Wayne also runs The Next 40-Mantor Project, an all male group helping men to alleviate stress and take control of their masculinity.


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