I had the privilege of speaking to one of my favourite writers a few weeks ago, New York Times bestselling author, Greg McKeown. Greg got in touch after he stumbled across an article I wrote about my recovery from addiction. To say I was shocked was an understatement, but I managed to keep my excitement in check — I think. We had a fantastic chat and discussed many topics including living in the moment, self-observation, digital minimalism, and the hidden dangers of success.

We then moved onto smartphone use, and how many people today walk around in a trance-like state, glued to their phones. I’ve seen people walk into lampposts, bump into each other, and even cross the road, all whilst gazing at their phones. As our conversation progressed, unbeknownst to ourselves, we had painted a picture straight out of Doctor Who — people walking around like zombies staring at their phones.

What struck me most, however, I was guilty of the very same thing.

It’s fast becoming an epidemic.

Disturbing facts

The core issue of smartphone use is the highly addictive nature of social media, with some users displaying behaviors similar to substance abuse. This includes preoccupation with phones, excessive time spent on phones, and using phones in inappropriate places, such as driving. Symptoms of smartphone addiction are also comparable to substance abuse, including withdrawal, losing track of time, failed attempts to cut back on use, and using a phone as a coping mechanism.

As a former addict, and current PhD student studying addiction and online research, I dug deeper, and was astonished with what I found.

The number of mobile phone users worldwide is 5.1 billion, with 3.2 billionregularly using social media. With the current world population standing at 7.7 billion, these figures are alarming.

As I delved into the scientific literature, it got worse. Problematic smartphone phone use, which often develops into social media addiction, is related to impaired self-esteem, poor work performance, and relationship issues. Physical health and overall well-being are also compromised.

Other disturbing facts include:

  • 60% of U.S. college students consider themselves to have a smartphone addiction.
  • 35% of people think about their phones upon waking, whilst only 10% think of their significant other.
  • 71% of people sleep with (or next to) their smartphones.
  • 44% of 18–24 year old’s have fallen asleep with their phone in their hand.
  • Nearly 40% of people NEVER disconnect from their mobile devices.

These are shocking statistics, yet smartphone addiction is fast becoming the ‘norm’, rather than the problem. As I reflected on these issues, the words of Jiddu Krishnamurti never seemed more relevant: “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”

Aha moment

This brings me back to my Skype call with Greg, which had a profound impact on my thinking. I can’t remember the exact details, but during our conversation, I became fully aware of my problematic phone use — it was a true aha moment.

My own smartphone use is not straightforward. I’m passionate about writing and public speaking, so any future success is dependent on social media engagement. I don’t aimlessly browse social media; I only use it for work, so I thought I was immune from it’s seductive pull. But I was wrong, I was consumed — maybe even more so as it determined my future, or so I thought.

A core message from Greg’s book Essentialism involves eliminating non-essential things from your life. I thought of myself as an essentialist, but I wasn’t, not with my phone anyway. It was a major distraction, and the seeds of smartphone addiction were firmly planted. I was unfocused, distracted, and my lack of awareness on the issue was troubling.

We cannot change what we are not aware of, and once we are aware, we cannot help but change” — Sheryl Sandberg

How to beat smartphone addiction

With this realization, Greg reminded me about the “90-percent rule” — a tool from his book — and how it can be used to reduce smartphone use. The 90-percent rule provides a clear metric for deciding between “a yes, and a no.” You assign a numerical value to a decision, and anything less than 90 (even an 89) is a “no.”

When used in the service of problematic smartphone use, all apps get deleted, and in terms of value, they have to score over 90 to reclaim their spot. This might seem extreme, but as Greg says in his book: “we need to see the difference between things that are good and things that are exceptionally good… it’s an important distinction in a world exploding with options.”

I proceeded to delete every app off my phone, and over the next 2 days, I individually rated them on the value that they offered. Music and learning apps were no-brainers, and made it straight back in. So did WhatsApp, scoring over 90 due to its necessity and ability to connect. Instagram, where I like to post quotes, also made the cut. You can only do that from your phone — smart move — so it sneaked back in by default. Nothing else made the grade, with some scoring surprisingly low.

It’s been 28 days since my smartphone cleansing, and the absence of social media, especially FacebookLinkedIn and Twitter, has made an astonishing difference to my life. My focus, productivity, and decisiveness have drastically improved. All my social media engagement is now on my laptop, which has its own issues, but is far more manageable.

Take away message

  1. The reality of smartphone use is shocking, with 60% of students admitting to addiction, and 71% sleeping with their phones.
  2. You need to wake up to your addiction, and with greater self-awareness, you’ll get your aha moment; then you can’t help but change.
  3. To implement change, we need to be ruthless in a world exploding with options. I strongly recommend the 90-percent rule — it works, big time.

The picture above is the home screen of my new-look phone. Useful apps have been relegated to the second page — it feels cleaner. The quote is to remind me that I made the right choice, and the burning match points me towards the present moment, another core feature of essentialism.

It was a hard choice, but I will be a slave to my phone no more — it’s on my terms now, thanks Greg.

Do You FEAR Change?

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  • Brian Pennie

    Brian is a PhD candidate studying the neuroscience of mindfulness, a practice that provided him with the foundations to recover from long-term addiction.

    On October 8th 2013, Brian experienced his first day clean after 15 years of chronic heroin addiction. Instead of perceiving his addiction as a failure, he embraced a second chance at life and went to university to study the complexities of human life. He graduated with a degree in psychology in 2017 winning several awards, including a fully funded PhD scholarship in Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience. Since then, he has become a lecturer at University College Dublin, published academic writer, motivational speaker for mental health awareness, and personal development consultant in both commercial and private settings. With a relentless belief that we are what we think, his mission is to show people that change is possible, demonstrating actionable steps through a lived experience.