Experiment #10 - Does phone use cause anxiety?
I like big round numbers. And when I created 'The 30 Day Experiment ' in 2019 I was wondering whether I had the willpower to get to Number 10. And I'm glad to say I made it! And it's been really enjoyable too.
For those catching up, '30 Day Experiment' is a personal project I created pre-lockdown to give me another focus from running a small change consultancy. I use it for continuous improvement. It's part challenge, part experimentation.
The pattern is as follows
I set a hypothesis.
I then do something daily related to that hypothesis, usually by changing one or two things
I write about it with 5 Key Learnings.
That's pretty much it.
And so here is the hypothesis for Experiment 10 - 'Does Phone Use Cause Anxiety?'
You may think the answer is obvious. Of course it does. Phone use and anxiety is widely documented. There was a documentary recently on the topic that went viral with 38 million views called 'The Social Dilemma'
However, my conclusions may have diverted from popular opinion. I hope you read on as I think this could be a conversation starter.
I have recently been suffering from anxiety. There. I've said it.
I don't mean I have been medically diagnosed. I just mean that I have noticed less creativity, less energy, less focus, more procrastination and generally feeling irritable. And I wanted to know whether my use of the phone was a cause.
It makes sense right? Use the phone less. Encounter fewer distractions. Become more focussed. And therefore less anxious.
And so emerged my hypothesis for Experiment 10.
For the detail conscious, I have an Iphone XR and it's Screen Time feature handily automates how much time I spend looking at the screen. Scrolling through the previous weeks, I noticed I was averaging over 6 hours a day. I'll let you judge whether that's freakishly high or not. Perhaps you may want to check your own data yourself. It's an eye opener.
The Continuous Improvement nerd in me needed a baseline and a target KPI. So I set one. 5 hours a day maximum and you can see the results here.
I barely managed to get below 5 hours more than a handful of times. However the journey through the experiment was more interesting than the data.
When I look at what I use my phone for, it breaks down into the following areas in order.
Social Media (Facebook, WhatsApp. I've all but stopped using Clubhouse)
Work (LinkedIn, Email, One Note, HubSpot)
Leisure (YouTube, Spotify and finally Podcasts - which I should classify as work given what I listen to)
Apart from being mindful of not checking my phone, I used several other tactics
Switching off notifications.
Introducing friction by hiding LinkedIn so it's not easily accessible on my phone. Thanks Tim Sismey for that one.
Not taking my phone to bed and keeping it in another room.
However whilst these were helpful at first. I found that if I really wanted to, I'd always find a way to check my emails. I'd always somehow manage to scroll past a few dozen apps to find LinkedIn, and if I really wanted to watch another acoustic cover version of a Bob Marley track, I'd stay up past 1.30am.
My anxiety I realised, was still ever present even if I was being strict in my use of screen time. So what else could be going on? I took another look at what the iphone offers in terms of data.
There is a data point called 'Pick Ups'. Now this was interesting. How often do we pick up the phone to check something. Could there be a correlation between how anxious I was and how many times I'd check for an email from a client from whom I'd sent a proposal? I tracked this daily too. Turns out the number of pick-ups was more telling than how long I spent on the phone.
The further I got into the experiment, the more I started to realise that time spent on the phone, in absolute terms was in fact not causal. And neither was it even directly correlated. By digging deeper, and remaining open to possibility, I found 5 key learnings.
Here is the first one.
Lesson 1: Watch the number of pick ups
Every time you pick up your phone, you are checking something. Who engaged with a post. Who returned (or more likely has not) returned your message. Who has accepted a LinkedIn connection. All of these, if you allow them, can become micro triggers for anxiety. By the end, I didn't learn a way to reduce number of pick ups significantly, but being mindful of what I was picking up the phone for and why gave me just enough time to make a different choice.
Lesson 2: Coach yourself by looking at the root cause
Root Cause Analysis is tremendously helpful in the field of Lean Thinking. It allows us to get behind the symptoms and investigate what's really driving the pain. In this case, identifying the phone as the source of anxiety was only addressing the symptoms.
A Lean technique called 5 Why's is simple but effective. Writing down Why at each stage of a symptom gets you closer and closer to one or many root causes. Take a look at the original flow chart I drew during this experiment and you'll see II arrived at one of the root causes for anxiety. Cashflow.
Learning to sell services B2B like many things requires going through a process. However unlike earning a salary, there is little to zero predictability of earnings. And for that reason, once I recognised the root cause of anxiety, I was able to make more focussed decisions to lessen it. Such as exploring alternative ways of earning revenue outside of winning clients directly.
Lesson 3 - Be honest with yourself
There is an old saying "What gets measured gets managed" There's another one that says "Lies, damned lies and statistics"
Look at this tracker here.
There's more Red, than Green. In fact I only managed to go under 5 hours, less than 5 times in 30 days. I could have gamed the system and stripped out that time I was using my phone for a zoom call for 90 minutes. Or when it was my birthday and I spent a fair bit of time on Whatsapp replying to messages. Ultimately there is little point lying to yourself. Furthermore, the link between phone use and anxiety was for me, disproved. There was little to no correlation.
Lesson 4 - Reframe the idea that the phone is evil
There's an idea that goes around that runs something like this. Social Media is the work of the devil. And we are prisoners to the tech giants that have created these ecosystems that grab and maintain our attention. And mentally, we are worse off for it. I have come to the conclusion that whilst phone addiction is real, what is just as real is our ability to make a choice. A choice to decide for ourselves what we use the phone for. There have been many times over the past 30 days, where I have picked up the phone to decompress. I've found myself playing games, watching football. If I allowed myself to feel guilty about using the phone for these things, I'd only induce even more anxiety into an already overwhelmed routine. It's about understanding that it's ok to use the phone for downtime and for work, and that the choice is ours on when, and how we use the technology. Which brings me on to my final lesson.
Lesson 5 - Daily Planning
If we are being intentional about where our time is spent, then it's worth considering what else we could do with the time that is not spent on the phone. For me, that meant using something called the Ivy Lee method. It's quite simple and involves daily planning.
The Ivy Lee method asks you to write down the 6 things that you want to complete the following day. By including things outside of work such as exercise, writing, helping my son with his school work, I'm able to build in time for things that are satisfying (for me) and also are high on the priority list but aren't related to "work". In this way, I can allocate 2 hours a day to things that otherwise wouldn't have got done.
In summary, Experiment 10 was for me at least partially disproved. A better experiment may have been to do a total digital detox and compare anxiety levels.
However in this imperfect world, there was seemingly little correlation between phone use and levels of anxiety. Further, lessening our use of technology doesn't require technical solutions, it requires cognitive ones.
To coin a well worn cliche, it's about 'mindset'. Developing a system such as turning notifications off are only tactics, what brings about lasting change is making a choice about when to use the phone and for what reason. I'm more comfortable now with that.
My anxiety has reduced through application of these 5 lessons and my advice to anyone looking to embark on a similar challenge is to look beyond the symptoms. For once, not all the answers are in your phone.
Experimentation is a wonderful way of self-coaching. Done correctly, you get to withhold judgement about yourself and remain curious about how you are wired and develop solutions that are bespoke to you and your life.
I want to say this is the last experiment I publish for a while. I have some really great ideas on what to do with this set of articles - one of which is to write a book. I 'm putting no pressure on myself to do it as I know that just stifles creativity. I'll get around to it when the time is right.
For now, happy experimenting!!
#30dayexperiment is a project I created to better myself, stay disciplined, whilst I pursue a long term goal of creating a business that I am passionate about.
It is now a programme available to anyone wanting to improve focus and discipline. Go to www.jigsawconsulting.co.uk/30day or message me to find out more.