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Why Are You Letting Your Smartphone Control Your Life? 6 Tips to Get it Back

We’re at an odd place in our relationship with the ever-increasing amount of technology around us. Some people seem to get along fine with it, using it as a helpful tool to enhance their lives.

But too many of us seem to have adapted our lives to cater to technology — which is exactly the opposite of the way it should be. And I’m not just talking about those with a deep-seated smartphone addiction.

Are you a slave to your smartphone? If so, why are you letting technology dictate to you how to interact with it?

I’m sitting at a cafe with a group of friends, we’re all about the same age, enjoying our beverages, laughing, talking. Then someone’s phone makes that bell sound. The immediate, Pavlovian-like response is for the owner to pick it up to check to see what it was notifying them of.

Pavlov — and Skinner — must be laughing in their graves.

We’ve become a society enslaved to our smartphone’s notifications. Because they promise something. The something is often an empty reminder that some random person whom you probably don’t even know has just liked your post. Or you’ve gotten another heart on your Instagram photo. Or JohnSmith79 just started following you on Twitter.

In real life, we’d never let a bunch of random reminders interfere with our work flow or concentration. Yet today, we’ve given the power of our mindfulness and sanity over to a piece of technology meant to enhance our lives, not diminish their meaning.

Don’t get me wrong. I love technology and the power it has to enable us to be closer to the ones we love, our friends, and our far-away family.

But I hate how too many of us have stopped to think about how we should choose to use that technology in our lives. Do we let it dictate to us, or do we dictate to it?

Using Your Smartphone Smartly

Here’s how to get some semblance of your life back from your iPhone or smartphone.

1. How many notifications are you receiving?

Start by becoming conscious of the amount of interruptions you’re allowing technology to make in your life. Most people receive at least a dozen notifications from their phone a day. If you have a lot of apps installed and set to default notifications, you may be receiving dozens — or even hundreds! That’s way too many for most people’s brains to readily handle (even if you think you’re an outlier and have a super brain!).

When your smartphone alerts you to something, it takes away from your attention. Even if you think “it’s just for a moment,” it has effectively reset your concentration and negatively impacts your cognitive performance (Stothart et al., 2015). If you feel dumber because of your smartphone, this is likely one of the reasons why.┬áTrack your daily notifications for a few days to get a handle on how big a problem it really is. You’ll likely be surprised.

2. Turn off all notifications from all apps.

While most app developers want your default to always be “Allow all notifications, always, for everything!” your psychology expert is telling you to just the opposite. Most apps don’t need that much access to your attention span.

A notification is, at its heart, an interruption in your life. What kind interruptions are so important that you want them to stop you from you’re doing at that very moment in your actual life to attend to it? A mom giving birth is the kind of thing I’m thinking of. Everything else? Not important enough to take me out of my actual living moment.

3. Choose your notifications wisely, sparsely.

Okay, so maybe there are some apps you want to allow you to give you some notifications. Choose such apps and notifications wisely. Consciously. And if the app still is sending you too many notifications or doesn’t give you the level of control you want, dump the app. Developers need to understand that the more control they give their users about how they’re contacted by the app, the happier (and more loyal) their users will ultimately be.

4. You are not a dog, so stop acting like one.

Pavlov's dogPavlov’s historic experiment where he could get a dog to salivate to the sound of a metronome1 in the expectation of food is an apt and prescient analogy for some people’s relationship with their smartphone. If every time your phone makes a sound, you respond to it almost immediately — no matter what the time or circumstance you find yourself in — you’re acting more like a dog than a rational human being. And such checking behavior could lead to “smartphone addiction,” according to van Deursen et al., 2015): “Automatic urges in which the smartphone is unlocked to check for notifications increase the chance to develop addictive behaviors.”

You are not a dog, so stop acting like one. Interact with your phone on your own time, and in a manner consistent with not being rude to those around you or whose company you’re in.

In a conversation and your phone chimes at you? Wait until the conversation is over to check it. Unless you’re a world-renowned heart surgeon, nothing life or death (or frankly, better) is waiting for you on your phone.

5. Are you choosing your phone over your relationship?

Some people are making some really odd choices in their lives. These people apparently believe that whatever their smartphone is telling them is more important than the person sitting right there, next to them, who is asking for their attention. What could be better than real-life, social interaction? That is the very nature of human beings — we are social creatures.

So enjoy the social experience you’re having right now, with a friend or loved one. Again, there is nothing better waiting for you on your smartphone.2

Some people want to check their phones for fear of missing out, or FOMO. The irony is that people who appear to check their phone more often for social networking — like Facebook or Instagram — may be at greater risk for “smartphone addiction” (Salehan & Negahban, 2013). So while you’re trying to keep in touch with your social circle online, you may be missing out alright — on what’s happening in your actual, real life.

6. Remember, your smartphone is a tool, not a chain.

The way some people interact with their phones leads me to believe they are chained to it — like a ball and chain — rather than using it like a chef who uses a well-honed knife in their craft. Would you rather be the kind of person who is control of the way you use technology, or allow technology to tell you how to live your life? Most of us would rather be the former, so start using your smartphone like the wildly versatile, miniature, always-connected computer it is. Use it in ways that enhance your life and make you feel better about the life you’re living. Pick it up when you choose to interact with it — not when it tells you to.

Only you can decide to take back control of your life from your smartphone. It’s a decision only you can make consciously for yourself. I encourage you to give it a try today.



Salehan, M. & Negahban, A. (2013). Social networking on smartphones: When mobile phones become addictive. Computers in Human Behavior, 29.

Stothart, C., Mitchum, A. & Yehnert, C. (2015). The Attentional Cost of Receiving a Cell Phone Notification. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance.

van Deursen, et al. (2015). Modeling habitual and addictive smartphone behavior The role of smartphone usage types, emotional intelligence, social stress, self-regulation, age, and gender. Computers in Human Behavior, 45.

Why Are You Letting Your Smartphone Control Your Life? 6 Tips to Get it Back


  1. Pavlov never used a bell, a popular misconception. He did use an electric buzzer, which some referred to as a “bell,” likely starting the myth. []
  2. In the rare case that I’m wrong, so be it. Life is all about a series of hits and misses. Your belief that you can be there for every possible “hit” is irrational and can’t be sustained long-term. []

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder of Psych Central. He is a psychologist, author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.

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APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2018). Why Are You Letting Your Smartphone Control Your Life? 6 Tips to Get it Back. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 23, 2020, from
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Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 25 Feb 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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