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InternetMay 25, 2023

Help Me Hera: How do I get off my phone?

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I’m addicted to my phone, and not in a productive way.

Want Hera’s help? Email your problem to helpme@thespinoff.co.nz

Help me Hera

Do you have advice on how to stop reaching for my phone first thing in the morning? Check texts, check emails, check weather, check Instagram, check horoscope, compulsively complete a strange puzzle (called Star Battle Go). By this point I’ve forgotten my dream that I was going to write down and have a headache. 

I know I could use an actual alarm clock instead of my phone to wake me up. That would probably help. 

Some root causes are probably loneliness, dissatisfaction with areas of my life, indecision. Like, I keep going from sublet to sublet in a big city every few months because I can’t fully commit to moving here. Or I say yes to jobs I feel neutral about while not pursuing the things I might actually want.

I think I am scared and unsure and am trying to distract myself / have fallen to compulsive behavior for comfort. I also don’t like that being addicted to my phone is oh so unoriginal and of my time lol.

(except for Star Battle Go – I don’t know anyone else who plays it… yet!)

Sincerely,

I Need a Better Compulsion!!!

A line of dark blue card suit symbols – hearts, clubs, diamonds and spades

Did a rottweiler write this

Are you a real person, or is this targeted advertising for puzzle game Star Battle Go? If so, your marketing strategy is WORKING. The only promotional emails I read are the monthly Health Pride newsletter, one of the most beautiful and intriguing mail order catalogues of 21st century Australasia. But after reading your letter I immediately downloaded Star Battle Go, and have played it for many consecutive hours. It’s like sudoku, without all the horrible numbers. It’s like minesweeper, without the mines. It’s soothing and purple and intuitive. I love it and will play it forever. 

Nobody is immune from the tyranny of contemporary phone ownership. Little did Alexander Graham Bell know his bold new invention would one day exceed its humble origins and leave generations of depressed adults addicted to planting virtual turnips. When I was a teenager, my mobile phone was roughly the size and weight of a Presbyterian bakesale fruitcake. It had an extendable antenna and was only for use in emergencies. Now I can look up Jim Carrey’s birthchart (sun AND venus in Capricorn)  or the entire text of Paradise Lost in under 10 seconds. We are living in the dawn of a new biosphere which is creating its own future possibilities of becoming. We have no idea what is possible, let alone likely. One day, worrying about the addictive qualities of strategy puzzle games and weather apps will seem unbearably quaint, like a Victorian patriarch complaining about the corrupting effects of paperback novels. But the singularity is still a long way off. If you don’t believe me, try using literally any government website on mobile. 

You say you want to spend less time on your phone – but the more relevant question is what would you prefer to be doing? 

Is endlessly surfing your phone getting in the way of accomplishing a specific goal? Is it preventing you from doing your laundry, or cracking an ancient syllable-based codex? Or do you have aspirations towards a Quaker lifestyle: eating luxurious oats and bathing your ears in God’s bountiful silence? Maybe you’ve spent so long on your phone you don’t know what your life would be like without it, and are interested in finding out. 

Personally I don’t think there’s anything wrong with compulsively checking the weather. But if you really want to quit something, it’s usually a good idea to have a substitute activity, whether that’s silent meditation, or solving linear A.  

There are easy things you can do to limit how interesting your phone is. Mute all but essential notifications. Make everything grayscale. Kill every potential source of dopamine. You could get an alarm clock, or even better, a clock radio. You could charge your phone in another room. You could swap your phone for a fax machine. You could swap that fax machine for a water blaster, and comprehensively clean all your walkways. 

But it doesn’t really sound like your phone is the problem here. Your letter makes it seem like you’re stuck in a holding pattern, and are using your cellphone as a way of distracting yourself. You’re unsure about your job, where you want to live, and are feeling lonely. No wonder you’re taking refuge in strategy-based Android puzzle games! What are these potential job opportunities you’re not pursuing? Why are you on the fence about moving cities? Do you know many people where you live, or are most of your friendships sim-card based? 

There’s no easy way to get out of an existential rut. If you try confiscating your phone from yourself without any corresponding positive actions, I worry it will only feel like a punishment. It sounds like you need something in your life to be excited about. 

But there’s also no harm in taking an intentional break. There’s definitely something to be said for the generative power of boredom. Sometimes the best ideas come from staring at a wall for seven hours. Writer Steve Hely was on the money when he said: 

“Now that TV’s so good and the internet is an endless forest of distraction, [writing a novel] is damn near impossible. Somebody like Charles Dickens, for example, who had nothing better to do except eat mutton and attend public hangings, should get very little credit.” 

I should admit I’m no technological purist. As I write this to you, an old season of Survivor is playing in the background, and I stop every 15 minutes to make a cup of tea and check my phone. It’s not the most efficient or prestigious way to work, but I honestly feel like I concentrate better when there are people doing purpose-built obstacle courses in the background.

If there’s something specific you want to achieve, and you find yourself compulsively checking your horoscope instead of working on your thesis, that’s a different problem. One of the impossible things about giving advice on a subject like this is there’s no universal solution. One of the great skills of adulthood is growing to understand your own torturous mental processes and motivating factors, and then using them against yourself. Some people can only quit things by going cold turkey. Other people do better tapering off. Some of us have the sly, lazy mentality of an elderly golden retriever, and have to force action through reward-based motivation. Only you will know what works best for you. 

Don’t be too hard on yourself. It sounds like you’re struggling with some pretty major life decisions and could use a break. If you’re going to consciously try and limit your phone use, I suggest trying to find a morning routine that’s even more enjoyable, whatever that means to you. But don’t forget to add a little carrot to the existential stick. Life is hard enough as it is. 

Best of luck,

Hera

Want Hera’s help? Email your problem to helpme@thespinoff.co.nz

Keep going!