When Was the Last Time You Left Home Without Your Phone?


It’s 3 am, I can’t sleep, I take my phone from under my pillow (it has already left my bedside table to come even closer to me), and I check how many teams have registered on the Well-being Challenge platform I am responsible for. I quickly email a colleague in Australia to ensure he has completed the team’s registration on the server.

This may sound like your reality. That is, never spending a minute without your phone and never switching it off; it was mine for a year. The watchword from our management was simple: we had to respond to all emails and all inquiries as quickly as possible, weekends included.

I understand my story can make some of you smile, especially millennials, as, according to Harvard Business Review, 80% of them sleep with their phones. But for me, while responsiveness is important, it shouldn’t come at the expense of my health, especially not in the long run.

The use of technology creates the perception that we need to be ‘always on’; otherwise, we risk losing a customer, a market, a friend or critical information. This hyper-reactivity comes at the expense of our wellbeing, blurring the lines between work and home. It leads to high expectations in terms of availability and the perception, often self-imposed, that we must be connected and available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. We have become addicted to our phones and their countless potential.

Statistics on Phone Addiction

  • 73% of people experience anxiety and panic attacks when they’ve misplaced their phone.
  • Every 4.2 minutes we check our phone, which equals a whopping 220 times per day (220 times spread over 16 hours [as we hopefully sleep 7-8 hours a night] equates to every 4.2 minutes—TechMark study, 2016).
  • One hour on screens before bedtime delays the release of melatonin by 3 hours which at its peak, will be 50% lower than normal and might affect the quality of our sleep (Matthew Walker, Why We sleep, 2018).
  • The more connected we become, the more likely we are to feel lonely or put differently, the more connected you are, the less you are connecting.

So how about you? When was the last time you left home without your phone, consciously or by mistake? How did it make you feel? Did you experience any withdrawal symptoms, such as anxiety, anger or irritability, high-stress levels, restlessness, cravings or even depression? Smartphone addiction, also referred by psychologists, sociologists, and medical experts as “nomophobia” (short for “no mobile phobia”), is caused by having no access to a mobile phone. According to a systematic review on nomophobia, prevalence (published 2021), 79% of the participants showed signs of nomophobia, with a higher prevalence in the younger generation.

Let’s start with the ‘ugly’ before discussing what can be done to reduce phone consumption.

What Happens When We Overuse Our Phones

  • Reduced sleep. 47% of adults find it difficult to fall asleep or have disturbed sleep due to excessive internet use.
  • Increased stress and anxiety. Here we could argue that being without our phone could create even more stress than using it all the time. Indeed, according to a study by the University of Southern California, millennials regard not being around their smartphones as a major anxiety trigger. However, we know that digital overload dramatically increases stress and anxiety.
  • Reduced brain space and time to think (Gloria Mark, The cost of interrupted work).
  • Reduced time to do what really matters to us (Anastasia Dedyukhina, TedTalk, Could you live without a smartphone?
  • Reduced attention, memory and problem-solving ability. This happens with the mere presence of a phone near us, even on silent mode.
  • Reduced productivity. Digital overload reduces our productivity by 40%.
  • Reduced eyesight. This phenomenon is called Digital Eye Strain or Computer Vision Syndrome. Digital Eye Strain describes eye and vision related problems that result from prolonged use of mobile phones, computer screens, and tablets. This syndrome is one of the leading occupational health hazards of the 21st century, with symptoms including headache, blurred vision, neck and shoulder pain, and dry eyes. 
  • Increased obesity and a sedentary lifestyle. Screens have a negative impact on physical activity and movement.
  • Increased multitasking, which increases inefficiency. Only 2% of people can switch from one task to the other without wasting energy and time (Gloria Mark, The cost of interrupted work). That leaves 98% of us, myself included, who actually can’t do two things simultaneously without reducing efficiency, meaning we are 50% more likely to commit errors.

Even though most of us know the risks of overusing our devices, we still find it hard to reduce our consumption. Why is that? It’s a bit like cigarette smokers, fully aware of what burned tobacco does to their health but still choosing to inhale it. 

Our behaviour is linked to dopamine (also called the 'happy hormone'), which is the neurotransmitter linked with reward and recognition. Activities like spending time on social media, browsing the web, messaging friends, and playing games all trigger a dopamine release and make us crave more. Indeed, dopamine is a happy hormone with a highly addictive potential. It triggers a part of our brain linked with addiction; the more we have it, the more we want it, and the more we need it (tune into The Social Dilemma documentary). So, the key here is to not rely solely on willpower to reduce your consumption. As we know, willpower can’t do much against addictive behaviour.

9 Strategies That Could Help You Take Back Control Over Your Phone Consumption

  1. Measure how much time you spend online Why? We tend to underestimate the time we spend on our devices. And what gets measured gets done.
  2. Communicate to others how and when you are available (out-of-office messages, etc). Why? Others will adjust accordingly.
  3. Create tech-free zones at home or work Why? Not seeing your device reduces pressure on willpower and temptation, and keeps you less distracted. Starting with the dinner table or the bathroom could be a great first step.
  4. Incorporate physical breaks into your tech routine Take a physical break every hour to move your body for at least 5 minutes. Even quick exercise can boost blood flow, oxygen, and brain chemicals that might help you not check your phone for a while.
  5. Slow down and take a pause Aim not to eat with your phone in your hand. Try not to reply immediately to a message or email. Breaking your automatic behaviour pattern creates a choice and restores your normal human rhythm, instead of a fast tech-driven rhythm.
  6. Disable notifications and information overload and clean up your smartphone, removing pictures and apps you don’t need. Why? You become more focused and minimise decision-making, which will help your brain be less distracted and more efficient.
  7. Remove colour filters from your phone so that you only keep shades of grey. Brightly coloured LCD screens stimulate parts of our brains that can trigger addiction. In nature, bright colours mean objects of interest, and our brains are drawn to bright colours. Try changing your phone’s settings to black and white, and you will see how this affects your usage time. 
  8. Practice staying present with a daily, completely undistracted, 15-minute meditation, mindfulness exercise, concentration activity or relaxation technique. Anything requiring full focus will help build attention and concentration, reduce stress, enhance your five senses, and strengthen self-control, memory and decision-making.
  9. Go (or look!) outside, ideally in nature! Attention Restoration Theory claims that being in nature is the best way to restore executive attention. A quick look at a natural landscape picture can help your brain recharge.

So yes, if you decide to practice a few, or even one of the above strategies, you may start experiencing nomophobia, FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), or even worse, the new and trendy FOBO (Fear of Being Offline). Start by accepting that by limiting your phone use, you will miss out on certain news, gossip, etc. Does it really matter? Will you remember it in a week's time? Accepting this fact can be liberating, leading you to look for your dopamine hit elsewhere. Often, we grab our phones because we feel bored or lonely. 

Instead, research a new hobby or an activity you would like to do to fill your time or simply embrace boredom. Even though research shows that some people would prefer to administer electroshock to themselves rather than feel bored (Wilson, T. Reinhard, D.A. Westgate, E.C. Gilbert, D.T. Ellerbeck, N. Hahn, C. Brown, C.L. Shaked, A., 2014, Just think: The challenges of the disengaged mind. Science: Vol. 345. Issue 6192, 2014), we also know that being bored can enhance productivity and increase creativity by stimulating divergent and convergent thinking, both important elements for the creative process. The more passive the boredom, the more creative one can be.

We are not encouraging you to bin your phone. We are instead suggesting and encouraging you to be more conscious of your consumption. Start with conscious minor changes in the reduction of your phone use and experience what it does to you. If lowering your usage is really too hard, seek out some professional help, as there are now digital wellbeing specialists (therapists, psychologists, coaches) who can assist you.

Technology and smartphones are inherently neither good nor bad. However, the key is to use them to support your goals, purpose and values, rather than being used by them.

Keep well.

Please note: This article is republished with the permission of Delphine Caprez from the Resilience Institute—our global research partner.

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