How I used my phone to spend less time on … my phone

I love New Year’s resolutions (the kind you'll stick to by the time January 30th rolls around). The opportunity to improve, feel happier, do more and do better is core to how I want to live. But my real life takes over when holiday break ends, and “do it better” is trumped by “get it done.”

Between work and kids and loved ones and packing lunch and checking homework and ordering birthday presents and making dinner and finding a clean red shirt for Red Shirt Day at school, it seems like there’s no time to work on my resolutions. I'm trying to do more exercising, sleeping and reading (and less ordering in), and my most important goal is being present for my kids. But to make all of this happen, I needed to do the impossible. I needed to find more time in the day.

I started my quest by using some of Android’s digital wellbeing tools last month. I’m relying on a few in particular to help me put my phone down. But to get the most out of these tools, I had to be really honest about how much time I spend on my phone.

I love my phone. It’s an indispensable tool, helping me tackle everything from grocery shopping to playdates to writing this blog post. But it’s also the enabler of what I call “empty” time: time spent too long on an app, site or video that I could have closed 20 minutes earlier than I did. Those are 20 minutes when I could have had a thoughtful chat with my daughter, played a game with my son (he likes Life), done a 10-minute workout, Marie Kondo-ed my sock drawer, chatted with a friend or gone to sleep before midnight.

App timers and Wind Down to the rescue

I’m a former editor and reporter and still a bit of a newshound, so I’m always looking at The New York Times, USA Today, the Daily Mail (for celebrity news and photos), plus a few social media apps. Instead of putting my phone down an hour before bed, I typically look at it one last time, leading me to stay up 15 minutes later than I’d like.

Based on these habits, I set app timers, which force the apps you’ve selected to pause after a period of time, and Wind Down, which turns your screen black and white after a certain time.

Wind Down GIF

I left The New York Times and USA Today timer-free, but went cold turkey and put a five-minute timer on the Daily Mail and a 15-minute timer on my social media apps. I also put a 30-minute timer on Google Play Movies, so I’ll no longer be staying up past midnight on a Wednesday watching “Bridesmaids” for the 51st time.

Minimizing multitasking in the morning

My day starts with the Sunrise Alarm on my Pixel Stand. It mimics the colors of a sunrise to gently nudge you awake, and that’s great for someone who doesn’t get quite enough sleep, like me. I quickly scan the news and email, then put my phone down and get the kids up, dressed, fed and out the door. There’s no time for phone browsing during the morning, though I’ll admit I sometimes peek at social media before I hop in the shower—a major time waster that can lead to a stressful rush out the door.

sunrise alarm gif

On the subway, I do the mini New York Times crossword, scan my apps and read news, and then multitask sending personal texts and pressing work emails. Once I’m done and have an extra 10 minutes, I used to go back to my apps—but not anymore. Now that I have a timer on social media and the Daily Mail, I know I’ve got limited time for the rest of the day, so I do something else—which this month has been reading Michelle Obama’s “Becoming.” (Much better choice.) I’ll admit I nearly relapsed the morning after the Golden Globes, when I had only five minutes to look at red carpet fashion, but I persevered.

Focusing on family in the evening

Despite my best efforts to wrap up emails on my evening commute, I usually spend a little time on my phone right when I get home. Here’s where the app timers kick into night duty. If I decide to check out one of my time waster apps, I usually have about 1-5 minutes left on them, so now I put down my phone to start dinner, which means my kids also put down their devices to help me.

After dinner, I begin winding down, letting the kids do what they want while I tidy up, chat with a friend or do laundry. They’re night owls like their mom, so once they’re in bed, I have time to myself, but not much. This is where app timers and Grayscale come to the rescue as a power duo. With Google Play Movies set at 30 minutes, I’m cut off after one episode of “Broad City.” If I’m watching after 11:00 p.m, Wind Down starts, making the phone much less appealing to use. Do I give myself an extra 30 minutes sometimes? Yes. But most of the time, I put the phone in its charger and turn out the light.

New habits for the year ahead

About two months of using these tools, I’m still not exercising. But I am going to bed earlier and reading more. When I find myself checking out a new app that’s becoming a time waster (this week, it was Reddit), I set a timer.

The time I have with my children is the best prize of all. While I still haven’t committed to an entire game of Life (it’s long!), we’ve played many hands of Uno, a few rounds of Jenga, and all hung out together reading our respective books (my kids are into “Sad Animal Facts” and “Galactic Hot Dogs”).

But we’re still in the heat of awards season, so wish me luck staying away from celebrity news.