Trying to live in the moment (and not on the phone)

Written by New York Times | Updated: Oct 26 2014, 06:57am hrs
Theres a scene in the movie Her, a love story between a lonely writer and an artificially intelligent software program, that shows dozens of people riding the subway, deeply absorbed in their smartphones, oblivious to the world around them. They all seem much more comfortable interacting with their devices than with one another. That scene was disturbingly familiarand seeing it from afar cast it in an unsettling light.

Since seeing the film, Ive been more attuned to how often I use my phone. But its hard for me to tell whether Im using it too much. True, its usually the first thing I reach for in the morning and the last thing I use before bed, but I also make a point of putting it away during meals and while hanging out with friends.

My phone has transformed my life for the better. It has made me a more efficient worker, enabled a healthy and loving long-distance relationship and allowed me to keep up with friends.

Even so, Im as guilty as anyone of using my phone as a crutch, either to avoid talking to people I dont know at a party, or to stave off boredom while waiting for a friend in a bar. Im also easily distracted by the various pings and vibrations coming from my iPhone, and often find myself drawn into an endless loop of checking alerts, reading my social media streams and replying to non-urgent email and text messages. Often, I cant resist sneaking a peek at the screen during movies or other outings. And as much as I hate to admit it, Ive occasionally been so preoccupied by a text message that Ive almost bumped into someone on the street.

There is evidence that resisting the pull of your device can lead to healthier living. For example, a recent study by researchers at Kent State University found that students who were heavy cellphone users tended to report higher anxiety levels and dissatisfaction with life than their peers who used their phones less often. Another study, from the University of Worcester, found a correlation between stress levels and an endless barrage of alerts and notifications.

Given my concerns, when I heard about a couple of new applications that let you monitor your mobile phone use, I immediately downloaded them.

These applications are part of a much larger genre of activity trackers that aim to help people collect data and information about their lives, analyse it and, in theory, change it. I already track my exercise habits as well as my menstrual and sleep cycles in an effort to know more about my body and how my behaviour affects it. It seemed to follow that I could do the same for my digital behaviour.

One application, called Moment, keeps tabs on how many minutes of screen time you are using and pings you occasionally to let you know how much time youve spent on your phone each day.

Kevin Holesh, a programmer living in Pittsburgh, decided to build the application after seeing technology chip away at the time he spent with his wife. We would spend our evenings on our phones, and distracted in some way from interaction, he says. I just wanted to be more in the moment.

Holesh says most people didnt realise how much time they spent on their phones, and that while he didnt build the app to call anyone an addict, he believes that having access to data about phone use can help people adjust their habits.

It seems to be working. After installing the application, he says, Moment users spend 25 minutes less on their phone per day than before: an average of 71 minutes on their phone over all and mostly in the evening after 6pm.

The application, released in June, now has hundreds of thousands of users, he says. Originally it was free, but Holesh recently started charging $4.99 for it.

I also downloaded an application called Checky, created by Alex Tew and a team in San Francisco. Checky, which keeps tabs on the number of times your phone is opened each day, has had almost a quarter of a million downloads in a few weeks, Tew says. The application is free, like his companys other flagship product, Calm.com, a site that promotes relaxation. The company also offers meditation seminars and classes aimed at people looking to de-stress and de-connect. Theres an irony in using a smartphone app to check how often you check your smartphone, Tew says. But it brings your attention to your usage, and that alone can help you make changes.

On a recent Saturday, I learned from the applications that I had checked my smartphone 70 times during the day and spent more than 180 minutes on it.

It was hard to know whether those numbers should feel high or low, especially because I was rushing around the city, meeting friends for lunch and a screening of Gone Girl, which meant that I looked at my phone more often than normal. But realising that Id spent part of a gorgeous fall day obsessively staring at my phone was certainly illuminating.

So far, the data from Checky and Moment has been difficult to parse, largely because I use my phone for so many things. The applications arent able to differentiate between time spent reading, shopping or texting. Nor do they provide much insight into what time of day various activities occur, making it tricky to understand the intricacies of my behaviour.

But the first step in understanding our relationship to technology is to become aware of it, says Michael Harris, author of The End of Absence, about life before and after the Internet. Our dependence on technology is so ubiquitous and omnipresent and theres no getting out of it, he says. The point is that you cant escape it; you can only try to see it clearly for what it is.

Using Moment and Checky has helped me realise just how often I reach for my phone and how long I stare at it. I will probably have to go beyond these applications if I want to change my habitsperhaps by taking more drastic measures like deleting certain time-consuming applications from my phone, for example, which Im not quite yet ready to do.

Still, I feel that I have taken an important step towards balance, and towards introspection about how I use my devices and why.

Jenna Wortham