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How to have a healthier relationship with your phone

By Abi Jackson

Remember when people used to return from holiday aglow with tales of unbelievable sunshine and food? Now, there's a new type of holiday bliss guaranteed to be met with jaw-drops of admiration - a break from phones.

Resort didn't have wi-fi? Joy! Phone got locked in the hotel safe? The dream! With so many of us now craving breaks from our 'always on' culture, a digital detox has become the ultimate holiday treat.

But we can't always be on holiday, so could healthier day-to-day phone boundaries bring us that longed-for injection of mindfulness and calm?

What are healthy phone boundaries?

Phones clearly have some important uses and benefits. But they can also be a major distraction, hindering our ability to focus or be in the moment, which largely comes down to how we use them. No surprise really - they're designed to trigger addiction-driving dopamine spikes - and it's all too easy to find ourselves compulsively scrolling and checking messages.

Creating boundaries is about recognising these patterns and our own role in them. Your boundaries might be rigidly structured - like turning notifications off between certain hours, no email at weekends, removing Instagram for a few days a week. Or you might just want to become a bit more measured with your phone use.

Life coach Palma Michel (palmamichel.com), author of The Authority Guide To Mindful Leadership, calls this learning how to "consciously connect and disconnect" with your device. "It's a balancing act, because the outcome cannot be that we totally disconnect from our phones," she says. "But from a mindfulness and mental health perspective, it's about bringing more awareness to the process."

Why are you looking at your phone right now?

This awareness is vital, as it often forms the foundation for any behaviour change. "Something I include in my book on phone addiction are work sheets for readers to track their phone use and to enable them to identify what their triggers are," says psychotherapist and couples counsellor Hilda Burke, author of The Phone Addiction Workbook (hildaburke.co.uk).

"So if you're feeling lonely, sad, stressed and find yourself thinking, 'Oh I'll just get on my phone and numb out, even if you can't fight the urge to get off your phone, start to notice the emotional triggers: 'OK, the reason I'm going on my phone now is because I'm really angry or really stressed'."

Doing this "slows things down", Burke adds, "so you're not reaching for your phone so mindlessly", and over time you can start to think about other things you could do to manage that trigger instead. "Do I need to have a conversation with someone, go for a run, have a bath? So we're starting to be aware and think about managing our emotions," she explains.

Michel agrees this mental interruption can be transformative. It's about "breaking through that autopilot type behaviour", she says. "When you notice you're about to check your phone, take a few deep breaths to just interrupt that automaticity."

Much of our habits are driven by cues (stress or boredom, for example) and perceived rewards (the buzz of a WhatsApp exchange or Instagram likes). It's easy for our brains to get hooked on these rewards - but "once you break that habit and remove the dopamine spike, you notice it's not actually that rewarding at all", Michel points out.

In fact, breaking the cycle can open us up to more soul-pleasing, genuine rewards. For example, spending less time messaging might encourage more actual conversations - which might do far more for your happiness and sense of connection, even if it happens far less frequently. Quality over quantity, says Burke.

Finding the balance
With any kind of behaviour shift, there's a temptation to go cold turkey - but this is "generally unsuccessful", says Burke. "I think a more successful approach is a more steady one, a kind of gradual exposure therapy in a way, that starts to diarise time when you will not have your phone," says Burke - who has helped a numerous clients build healthier relationships with their smartphones, and worked on her own phone habits.

"When I first started to reduce my phone use, which is a couple of years ago now, the first thing I did was [think], 'OK, I take my dog for a walk for an hour a day - I don't need to have my phone with me for that time, it's only an hour, I'm not working, I don't need to be available so I'll leave it a home'.

"I noticed my walk was a lot more enjoyable, more pleasant, I noticed more things, I was more sociable," Burke recalls. "And it was kind of like, 'OK, well that was easy - why don't I do that when I go to the cinema with a friend', that's two or three hours without my phone."

Taking steps like this can help you "build that muscle for being comfortable without your phone", she says. At home, you could start with switching it off and putting it in a drawer while you're doing housework or watching Netflix, for example.

"I think a phone-free day a week is great, although I wouldn't necessarily advise that right away for someone who is really addicted because they'll probably get a few hours in, get twitchy and get back on it and think, 'What's the point?'" says Burke.

"It's like saying, 'Take up running, it's good for you' - you're not going to tell someone, 'OK, run a marathon'. You're going to say start with 10 minutes, work up to 15. I advocate a similar approach with diminishing your phone use."

Small changes, big rewards
Even implementing seemingly small boundaries could potentially bring significant boons for mood and mindset. One thing Michel often suggests is "not looking at your phone in the morning". Instead of instantly reaching for your phone when your eyes open, leave it until after you've showered, had a bit of a bedroom boogie and enjoyed your coffee.

This isn't just a question of time management but "managing your energy", says Michel. "Let's say you start your morning and already you're engaging with the news or social media or email - you feel more negative about the day.

You've read the news (and we don't need to talk about how uplifting that is!) and then social media - there are lots of studies that show you feel worse about yourself [after scrolling social media], and you're kind of already slightly disconnected." Work wise, opening your email right away means "your day will probably go according to other people's priorities rather than your own, so you're already kind of on the back foot", Michel adds.
(PA)