“Simple living doesn’t solve all my problems, it just removes distractions.” ~Melissa Camara Wilkins
At times it’s felt like my phone was my only access to the outside world. A place to connect in the middle of the night. The means to stay in touch with friends and family on the other side of the globe. It was a lifeline.
Until it wasn’t.
Improved sleep, reduced stress, and a mindful relationship with technology—they were high on my wellness “should have achieved by now” list.
I’m not sure which was bothering me more, the actual stress of not having a mindful relationship with technology or the fact that I had not been able to achieve a mindful relationship with my smartphone.
It was a cycle in my mind I just couldn’t stop. And I was struggling. All the tips and current trends to “digital detox” were not making my life easier. In fact, they were making it much harder.
Being unable to successfully follow advice for my health made me feel like a failure, especially as it was connected to my mental health. Did that mean I didn’t care about my well-being? Was I a fraud?
My phone was disrupting my sleep and worsening my anxiety. But all it took was one small change to break my bad habits and create a new, more mindful relationship with technology.
Where It All Began
Growing up I was a self-proclaimed night owl. As a child and young adult, I stayed up late reading. In university I would study late into the night.
As I got older, falling asleep was always a struggle. I decided I was a night person and would use that time to get ahead of my to-do list for the next day. I figured the more I got done the night before, the easier the next day would be.
When my first child was born, I was introduced to the late-night social media scroll. I was up feeding the baby in the middle of the night, trying not to fall asleep in my chair. And it turned out there was something that would keep me awake and entertained, but not disrupt my son: the blue screen of my phone. I knew it wasn’t ideal, but the thing is, it worked.
Even after the late-night feedings ended, the screen still kept me awake. I would go to bed with the intention of reading a downloaded book or an article on my phone. It was so convenient to have all in one place!
But inevitably a notification would distract me. An email. Or an update on social media. A message from my parents.
To this day I’m a bit ashamed to admit I was guilty of not turning off my work email notifications, even though I was on maternity leave!
What’s funny in hindsight is that at the time, those notifications annoyed me. It bothered me that I was still getting work emails. But I didn’t turn them off.
I wondered who would send me a message in the middle of the night. I would check, knowing it was likely from someone in a different time zone, not expecting me to check my messages until the morning. But I looked anyway.
I found myself often unable to sleep. Remembering the advice I’d received to “get up and do something different” if sleep didn’t come, I figured I’d found a solution: I could take a break from trying to sleep without leaving my bed, by using the endless options available on my phone. Located conveniently next to my bed, charging.
And there I would be, hours later. Still awake, exhausted, and unable to fall asleep.
I Needed to Make a Change
I knew I needed to make a change. The demands of working and having young children were starting to make an impact on my health. I was tired, and not getting the sleep I needed.
I decided that if my phone was keeping me up, and I was pretty sure it was, then I’d remove it from my room. That’s what the influencers and thought leaders were recommending! Or so it appeared as I researched the topic on my phone, late at night, in bed!
The irony is not lost on me.
My Mistake Was Following Influencer Advice
On the very first night I failed. My son woke up, and I scrambled to find what time it was, but my phone wasn’t next to my bed. I crashed into several things trying to get to his room in the dark because my flashlight was an app on my phone. While this was happening, my son woke up my daughter.
Insert several curse words that my children probably didn’t need to hear.
By the time I got them both back to sleep, I was very much awake, alert, and a bit annoyed. Mostly at myself. What was I thinking? Why was I trying to follow this ridiculous Internet advice?
And then I turned on myself.
Why couldn’t I follow this ridiculous Internet advice? If it was working for everyone else, why couldn’t I do it? Was I just generally failing at adulting?
Heading back to bed, the annoyance shifted into worry.
Would I wake up with my phone alarm in the other room? What if I didn’t wake up to get everyone where they needed to go on time in the morning? Would I hear my alarm from the other room? Wait, the alarm won’t work, the phone’s off!
Logically, I knew I was being a bit silly. I would get used to having my phone in another room.
But I was tired. And time poor. And so frustrated. I wanted simplicity, and this was making my life more complicated.
Why Did I Have So Much Resistance?
Reading this, you might be thinking, “You could have just…” And yes, you’re right. I could have done several things differently. I could have made it work, having my phone overnight in another room.
But here’s the thing: For changes to stick, I needed to start by making my situation easier, not harder. Sustainable change was what I was looking for.
So, the first step couldn’t be too big or too hard. I was making the common mistake of trying to jump from one extreme to another. If I’m already tired, and my goal is to be less tired, then the first step has got to help with that.
If the barriers are too many, if it’s just too hard, then there will be too much resistance. Then I’m probably not going to stick to it.
There was a second reason I was not comfortable with having my phone off and in another room at night: We don’t have a landline, which is pretty common here in Australia. My family lives overseas. I want them to be able to reach me. At crazy hours if necessary.
A solution that involves them not being able to do so will not help me sleep. Not at all.
At the same time, I agree with the arguments for having digital devices out of the bedroom. And I did feel the phone was impacting my ability to fall and stay asleep. Was there an alternative?
Sometimes being “best practice” doesn’t mean it’s going to fit into every person’s lifestyle. Nor should it. A healthy lifestyle is about finding the right fit and sticking to it.
I needed to find an alternative. And I did.
Focus on the Desired Outcome, Not the Popular Steps to Get There
Instead of focusing on the rule, or the advice, I decided I needed to be realistic. Forget what the influencers were saying!
What really was my problem? It wasn’t about the phone. What was I trying to achieve? Less stress and more energy, which meant I needed better sleep. And fewer distractions and interference from digital devices. Including my phone.
Keeping that in mind, the rules didn’t matter as much. Rules that put me into a success v. failure mindset.
Focusing on the outcome, or the goal, I didn’t have to engage with rules. Like where specifically the phone needed to be. Instead, I could address the changes I needed to get me where I wanted to be.
To get there, I needed to change my habits and how I interacted with my phone at night. To get better sleep.
Once I started thinking about it that way, everything became a lot simpler.
The Change That Worked Was the One I Could Commit To
Instead of turning off my phone or putting it in another room, I did something else. I turned it back into a phone, every night. A phone with no Internet access! And a blue light filter set to a timer, which now comes built into many mobile devices.
Every night at 8:00pm, regardless of where I was or what I was doing, my screen changed to night mode to lessen the blue light interference.
I considered putting my phone into flight mode. And if this is a possibility for others, I highly recommend it. Flight mode allows access to many frequently used features.
But it does create the potential issue of completely barring communication. That didn’t work for me, so I made an adjustment. Instead of flight mode, I turned off the WiFi and data instead. A two-click solution.
And it worked.
For me, I find the best solutions when I’m realistic about where I’m at. If the barriers are too great, even if they’re perceived barriers, change probably isn’t going to happen. And even if it does, it’s probably not going to stick.
What can I do instead? Focus on the goal. Create a series of low barrier changes guiding toward that goal. For me, this is the answer to sustainable lifestyle changes.
The First Step Improved My Sleep, the Second Was for My Mental Health
Every morning I wait an hour from when I wake up before I reconnect my digital devices. I don’t turn back on WiFi or data for at least an hour. Every morning.
When I implemented my original habit I found that some days, I forgot to turn the data and WiFi back on. Those mornings were wonderful! I was more present with my children, and I was significantly less stressed about what I had on my to-do list.
And when I did reconnect, it was my choice. The notifications started rolling in, and it didn’t bother me. Emails didn’t get me feeling overwhelmed. I stopped falling victim to “compareitis” while scrolling social media. My phone stopped impacting my mood.
At first, I didn’t understand the connection.
But on the days when I woke up and immediately reconnected, it was the opposite. I was inundated with notifications. And, I usually checked them. It was overwhelming, and I was only barely awake. It made me stressed before I even got out of bed, and it set the tone for my entire day.
It was hard for me to accept, but my mood was influenced by notifications and what I saw social media. This bothered me because I felt like I should be better than that. As if just by knowing that it could be a negative influence, I should have been able to rise above it.
Why Does My Morning Habit Matter?
First thing in the morning I’m a lot less resilient. I’m more likely to react emotionally to what I see, hear, and read. And my early morning choices can set my mindset and mood for the rest of the day.
So basically, my mood was being set by whatever popped up first on my social media feed. Or whatever was at the top of my inbox. By doing turning to technology immediately, I was handing control of my mood over to my phone.
By delaying my digital start to the day, I found I was more mindful. And completely in control—of what I did first, what I saw, and how I reacted. I had taken control back of my mindset and how I would approach the day. I stopped allowing my mood to be dictated by whatever happened to pop up first on my mobile phone.
The Lesson I Learned Was Simple but Powerful
There are three key actions that help me be more mindful of my relationship with my phone and digital technology.
My reality is that I don’t want to simply discard my smartphone. It makes my life simpler and allows me to spend more time doing things that matter. But only if I keep my relationship with it balanced in a way that suits me and my lifestyle.
While I might not always be able to do them all, these are still my goals. In addition to improving my sleep, this strategy had improved my mood and mindset.
My Top Three Tips for a More Mindful Relationship with Your Phone
- Disconnect your phone from the Internet at night, using flight mode or turning off the WiFi and data.
- Keep your phone disconnected from the Internet for at least an hour in the morning.
- Disconnect periodically during the day when you want to be present and mindfully engaged in an activity.
The biggest thing I learned is to worry less about the tools and rules, and more about what works for me. The best changes are the ones you can stick to because they’re the only ones that will become habits. Once something becomes a habit, it doesn’t require much thought to keep doing it. There are many different paths to reach the same outcome. Find yours and follow it.