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The Real Reason You’re Always Checking Your Phone

Have you ever noticed that no one looks up while crossing the street anymore? Most people are too busy responding to text messages or scrolling through social media to pay attention to their surroundings.

Truth be told, I’m guilty of this myself. But nevertheless, it defies all logic. Why do we risk our safety to check if someone liked our latest Facebook update? Can’t it wait for later, say, maybe when you’re not near oncoming traffic?

It’s a fact of modern-day life: we can’t live without our devices. In fact, a recent Gallup poll revealed that the average adults checks their smartphone hourly, if not every few minutes. Americans’ attachment to their phones is so strong that 63 percent of people actually sleep with their phone right next to them.

While technology has tremendous upsides, it becomes a problem if you use it to procrastinate, numb out, or run from problems.

Changing your digital habits starts with understanding how technology changes your brain and behavior.

The Psychology of Smartphone Obsession

It’s no secret that technology has the ability to hook us with endless opportunities to play, learn and connect. But why do we go too far? Why do we spend hours starring at our phones, browsing social media or answering emails?

It comes down to understanding operant conditioning, which describes how our behavior is shaped by consequences. What we do depends on the rewards or punishments associated with an action. Put simply, if something feels good or benefits us, we do more of it.

One of the most surprising findings of operant conditioning is that if you want to train an animal to do something, rewarding them consistently is not the best way to do it. What’s more effective is to give the animal a reward sometimes, and at random intervals — what’s known as intermittent reinforcement.

Intermittent reinforcement is at the root of technology obsession. It’s the behavioral undercurrent that keeps you compulsively checking your device.

For example, when you refresh your inbox, sometimes (but not every time) you have a new message. You never know for sure when a new message will come in (the reward), so the habit of checking all the time is reinforced. Same goes for getting new notifications or updates on social media.

Intermittent reinforcement also explains how you end up wasting hours on your phone. Every reward gives you a boost to the pleasure centers of the brain that reinforce the behavior and keep you going further down the rabbit hole.

Break The Cycle

If you want to spend less time on your phone and more time living your life, here are some tips to try.

1. Spot your triggers

Take notice of the mental and emotional states that drive you to compulsively reach for your phone. Are you bored? Procrastinating on starting a hard project? Avoiding an uncomfortable feeling of awkwardness at a tense dinner?

Research shows high-intensity emotions like anger and frustration can lead to distraction, so pay attention to what situations or people trigger you the most.

Armed with this self-awareness consider other ways you respond or deal with the situation besides burying your head in your device. Your goal isn’t to eliminate the emotions, rather brainstorm alternative ways of acting that better serve you.

2. Check-in with yourself

Ask yourself these three questions:

  • Is this the best use of my time?
  • What am I missing out on by doing this right now?
  • How is this positively contributing to my goals?

Asking yourself these questions can help you identify whether your technology habits are leading you to success or holding you back.

3. Create better boundaries

Defining new boundaries around technology is the final step in freeing yourself from the cycle of smartphone obsession. For example, you may choose to not check email after 6 pm. However if your job requires you to be on-call, you might instead create a boundary by removing social media apps from your phone so you don’t get distracted.

By creating proactive guidelines that explicitly spell out when, how, and why you will (or will not) engage with your device, you are accepting personal responsibility for bringing your goals and priorities to life, instead of being bossed around by your phone.

The Real Reason You’re Always Checking Your Phone

Melody Wilding, LMSW

Melody Wilding, LMSW is a performance coach, licensed social worker, and has a Masters from Columbia. She helps established and rising managers and executives advance in their careers. Her clients work at companies like Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, HP, and Deloitte. She also helps entrepreneurs take bold steps to grow their businesses. Melody has helped over 10,000 smart, self-aware people like you. Her coaching gives you actionable strategies to reach your goals. You get concrete steps to overcome the complex struggles of success. Melody loves arming ambitious people with tools and tactics to boost their confidence. She can teach you skills for assertiveness and influence. Her specialties include better managing your emotions at work. Melody also teaches Human Behavior at CUNY Hunter College in NYC. She writes about psychology and careers for Inc., Forbes, Fast Company, and more. Click here and grab the FREE COURSE to go from insecure to unstoppable confidence 5 DAYS TO FREEDOM FROM SELF-DOUBT..

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APA Reference
Wilding, M. (2018). The Real Reason You’re Always Checking Your Phone. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 26, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 18 Apr 2018)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.