The Itch (Phone Addiction)
Something happened to me a while ago and I’m not sure what caused it.
I remember a time where I was not hopelessly addicted to my phone. I work at a job with a lot of 18-25 year olds. For a long time I was one of the few employees capable of going an hour or two without checking my notifications.
Maybe a year ago, I was drinking a lot at the time too (not sure if that’s related), my phone use rose precipitously. I became one of the zombies I would look down on. Also, I regret looking down on them, but I did.
Over time I developed this dependency where I would need to check my phone almost every five minutes. It became a subconscious thing, especially during uncomfortable situations. And yes, I’ve seen those memes about how hard life must’ve been before smartphones because when things get awkward, we have the ultimate escape. It’s not such a good thing, though.
In my younger years, pre-smartphone, I would only get this ‘Itch’ if I expected something important. Maybe I sent a vulnerable message to a girl I had a crush on. Well, I would be checking the phone every five minutes, but that wouldn’t happen very often.
With my iPhone, the whole game done changed playa. Text messages, at this point, are probably on the lower end of things which trigger the Itch. For example,
“I made a FaceBook event page for my upcoming comedy show. I need to see how many people RSVP’d. Yes, I know I just posted it six minutes ago. Shit, it only has one response so far. Oh, I know, I’ll take a screenshot and put it on my Instagram page. In FIVE MINUTES I will check the Instagram post. If it has less than six likes, I will delete it. Oh wait, I need to check Twitter first because I made a really snarky comeback to that guy. I bet he was completely at a loss of words! Damn, he hasn’t responded yet. But it’s already been ten minutes! What the hell is wrong with this guy? It’s been ten minutes for crying out loud. Is he okay? I hope he’s okay. I’ll check back in three minutes. Oh look a FaceBook notification! Awesome, I bet it’s another RSVP for my event! Huh? A friend request? Two mutual friends? Leave me alone, weirdo. What a buzzkill. Oh I bet the Twitter guy responded, let me check.”
I mean, I don’t even think that paragraph above is much of an exaggeration of my reality.
The strangest part of the addiction is the feeling when I don’t have my phone.
You know when you can’t find your phone and you think you lost it? The panic sets in…
Well, that’s one thing, and it’s kind of understandable on a higher level than simply phone addiction. Yes, you won’t be able to call or message and that could be rough. The part that is more understandable is that you just lost a very valuable thing. The addiction may not factor into that feeling very much. Most smartphones are several hundred dollars. Losing something that valuable will make you feel bad, doesn’t matter what it is.
The stranger part of the addiction is the feeling I get when I knowingly leave my phone in another room. Usually it’s because I want to get something done. Like right now, as I write this blog post, my phone is in another room. And that makes me uncomfortable. Which is weird, right?
I know the phone is okay. Nothing urgent is going on that I would need to respond to at a moment’s notice. If any important work-related email is sent to me, I’ll see it right here on my laptop.
And yet I still feel hollow. Like a part of me is missing. I’m a cyborg, the phone is an extension of my body. I’ve undergone an amputation.
I became increasingly aware of the severity of the issue once I started monitoring my screen time.
If you are in a good place in your life and you have never looked at your screen time, don’t look. However, if you feel like your life could use some improvements, go check it out.
If you are anything like me, when you see that number you will probably be filled with shame and despair. When I last checked it, I was at five hours of screen time per day. Five hours of screen time per day. Five hours of screen time per day.
It’s funny, I have been researching more about writing lately. My writing could use a lot of work, so I watch interviews with famous authors a lot. Some authors say they write 2,000 words per day. That’s pretty reasonable. For reference we are currently at 900 words in this article you are reading, but I’ve only been at it for 30 minutes or so. So I can do 2,000 words in maybe an hour or an hour and a half.
Now, there are other authors I’ve seen who target a particular number of hours writing instead of words. And some of them are crazy! Talking about how they wake up early and then write for eight hours. Every day. When I hear that I feel bad like I could never do that.
But why not? I can stare at my phone screen for five hours a day. If you told me a year ago that I’d be looking at my phone an average of five hours a day, I would say “No, I could never do that, that’s insane.” And what do I gain? A few followers if I use the right hashtag? You know what gains you a lot more followers? Creating something special. A book, a joke, a painting, whatever. But how do I create something special? It takes a lot of time.
I don’t write every day thinking I’ll make gold whenever I sit down. I write every day so in 6 months I’ll be a better writer. Once I’m a much better writer, the likelihood that I’ll create something great increases. Now compound that over time, you get the idea.
One last word on screen time. I’ll just do some simple math. Let’s just take the last 6 months where I’ve most likely averaged 5 hours of screen time a day. 6 months is 182 days. So 5 hours per day times 182 days...that’s 910 hours. We just figured out above that I write about 2,000 words per hour, but that’s under ideal circumstances when I’m really flowing. So let’s cut that in half and just say 1,000 words. Okay so, simple math, that’s 910,000 words I didn’t write over 6 months. Instead, I spent that time looking at my phone. A 200 page book is about 55,000 words. So that’s sixteen 200 page books.
Look, I know playing that out mathematically doesn’t make the most sense. Of course I can’t write sixteen 200 page books in 6 months. Maybe one. It’s more just to illustrate just how much I’m leaving on the table. Goggins would be ashamed.
This thought just came to me because I considered going and getting my phone. Even after writing that whole string of paragraphs above. As soon as my mind had an idle moment, my first thought was: I should go check my phone.
You are familiar with the Flow state, I assume. It is also referred to as being ‘in the zone’ (not AutoZone).
Life would be so beautiful if we could just get into a Flow whenever we want. It is not something I have conscious control over. The same may be true for you. Flow is when the best work happens.
The random nature of the Flow state means that probably the best strategy is quantity. In other words, there isn’t really a way to write that makes you more likely to Flow. So the best thing to do is to write a lot (in a quiet place with minimal distractions).
If you write every day, you are going to be in a Flow state a lot more than someone who writes once a week.
Perhaps the biggest enemy to finding the Flow is an interruption of any sort. What Flow really is, as far as I can tell, is a state of extreme focus. How are you going to achieve extreme focus if there are distractions all around you? And what’s more distracting than your phone? It even distracts me from another room…
Sometimes I make the mistake of putting my phone right next to the computer while I write. Every time the screen lights up, my focus is ruined. The screen lights up all the damn time. I can’t think of a better way to guarantee not achieving a Flow state.
As I mentioned in the first sentence, I’m not entirely sure what caused my phone use to go through the roof.
I think the obvious two answers are laziness and addiction.
Certainly both of those things help explain my situation. The phone is such an effortless form of media. I can go to YouTube and it will just show me videos. Whatever videos I want, about anything. If I don’t like it, I can just go to a different one. It’s a lazy person’s dream, similar to TV. Reading is a far better lazy activity, but it requires more focus. And reading a Tweet is much easier than reading a novel.
The addiction aspect of it is also a factor. Although, I have an unorthodox opinion on addiction...perhaps I’ll write about that another time.
Regardless, they clearly have utilized psychological tactics when it comes to these apps. It’s all about little hits of dopamine. When someone likes your picture, that makes you feel good. So when you post a picture, you’re going to be checking on it all day to see if you got more likes so you can feel even better.
I’m sure there are things we don’t even see at work as well. It’s like all those subconscious things that casinos do to get you to spend all your money. These social media companies engage in the same type of behavior.
Here’s the thing. Those two causes I listed above may be contributing to my phone abuse, but they don’t explain the whole story.
I don’t mind writing. In fact, I love it. It’s one of my favorite things to do. So why do I always stare at my phone screen for hours, when I could just as easily be writing? Even when I hear that voice in my head as I scroll through memes on Instagram. I hear that voice in my head, “Hey man, why don’t you write? This is a waste of time, don’t you think?” The answer is always: Yes...you’re right. And then I carry on scrolling, mindlessly.
This question has been bugging me for months now. Why do I avoid what I need to do, despite the fact that I like doing it? Isn’t that kinda funny? It’s not a situation where I dread those things I need to do. I like doing them! Yet I resist! Unbelievable...
I’ve speculated that it’s a fear of failure issue. Or fear of success maybe? I worry that if I really go all in and give my full effort, what happens if I fail? That means I can never kick it into a higher gear. Does that make sense? Because if I fail, but I wasn’t trying my hardest, I can feel better knowing I can try harder.
If I don’t write jokes for three days and then I go to an open mic and bomb, I can just blame the bomb on the fact that I didn’t write enough. If I write every day and then I bomb anyway, well that feels worse.
Does it though? I don’t even think that’s true. They both feel equally bad, a bomb is a bomb. But I just tell myself that the one where I don’t try as hard doesn’t feel as bad. See? This is getting all messy. When I investigate this stuff in my mind, I start to realize some of the lies I tell myself.
Here’s what I’ll do, I’ll write a different blog post specifically about fear of failure and fear of success and really try to uncover some of the truths I’ve been refusing to tell myself. Stay tuned for that.
The solution is clear, don’t you think? I’m going to use my phone less. I find that the only way I can actually do that is if the phone isn’t even near me.
If I put the phone in my pocket and tell myself I won’t look at it, I know that is a lie. When I’m at work, I put it in my car. It’s proven to be extremely effective. Right now, like I said, my phone is in another room and we’re at 1,630 words so I would say that’s a success, no?
Oh, and this one is a little more personal, I am a Twitter fiend. Lucky for me, I just had my second account banned forever. So I’m going to take this as a sign from a higher power that I need to stop using Twitter because it brings nothing to my life.
I deleted Snapchat. Barely even used it anyway, mostly just for thots.
FaceBook is for old people so I will only really need to keep the messenger. It’s the primary way for comedians to interact, or at least that’s true for me. I’ve never spent much time scrolling through messenger anyway.
And then there’s Instagram. I was about to try to justify keeping Instagram since I use it to promote my comedy, this website, and also to be funny in general. But you know what? I don’t need to justify it. I’ll keep Instagram, it’s the least harmful to my life. I am not under any illusions that I’ll just stop staring at my screen indefinitely as soon as I finish writing this essay. The bottom line is, five hours a day is too much. Two hours a day is probably too much, but it’s a number I can live with.
Here’s a question: Have smartphones made our lives better? Or just different?
I don’t know what the answer is. Instant communication has certainly improved our lives, but we already had that with regular old house-phones. I guess for me and other comedians, they help us try to create our own thing. But you don’t really need a smartphone for that. You need a computer, but not necessarily a smartphone.
It’s a harder question to answer than I thought. My knee-jerk response to it was yes. A resounding yes, of course smartphones make our lives better. After some investigation, my answer is: I guess? I don’t know.
At this particular moment in my life, where I am trying to create and to make something of myself, my phone is hurting me more than it's helping me. Which is my fault because I abuse it. So I’m going to use it less and I will check back in with you all to let you know how it goes. If you see more frequent blog posts that’s definitely a good sign that it’s working.
Hopefully the Itch will fade away over time.