I’ve been busy on Instagram: I posted a short get-to-know-me via leopard print and my self-care tips were featured on the Self-Care in Grad School page.

I’ve been allocating some of my podcast minutes to learn how other creatives and coaches are using Instagram to boost and grow hobbies or businesses. 

Alongside recommendations to batch posts and write creative captions, I kept hearing podcasters preach one piece of advice that felt absolutely insidious to me: turn off your phone. The thought of disconnecting completely from my phone made me feel ill. In fact, it prompted the same kind of panic that I used to feel when I smoked cigarettes and worried about when I would get to take my next smoke break.

But, am I really addicted to my phone? Further, am I really addicted to social media, to Instagram, or am I addicted to what they symbolize: the idea that I should be available at all times. In typical The Tending Year fashion, I spent last week researching and practicing the act of bringing intention and awareness to my social media and phone usage. In what follows, I share the tools that enabled me to softly detox from social media and I offer three takeaways that will help you to make purposeful changes in your relationship to social media and your phone. 


Addiction and Being Available

I’ve talked about being a recovering alcoholic and addict on The Tending Year before. I quit smoking cigarettes in January 2017 ago after spending about half my life as a smoker. I quit drinking alcohol on March 17, 2013 after being a binge drinker since my teens. In addition to having a wonderful support system, I think a key component of my sobriety is my dedication to bringing intention and awareness to my short- and long-term choices. 

It is very important to me to maintain healthy habits that contribute to sustainable positive change. This requires me to intentionally remove or cut down on the things that don’t line up with my values or serve the path I’m building for myself. 

Because I value meaningful change, I was a little surprised that I freaked out so much when podcasters and authors suggested that I completely take a break from my phone (i.e., literally hold down the OFF button and do not turn it back on for a while). I know that the act of disconnecting lines up with my values of mindfulness and serves a path of dedicating myself to creative work. However… as I said before the jump, I do not believe my resistance is because I really love Instagram that much, but rather one repetitive and addictive fear: what will happen if I’m not perpetually available. 

These were the fears that came into my mind when I thought about disconnecting from my phone: 

What if something horrible happens to someone I love and I’m not there to get the call? What if one of my bosses needs me to remind them of the password to our XYZ account? What if my best friend locks herself out of her apartment in the rain and needs somewhere to warm up? In terms of social media, what if I’m not posting enough interesting posts? Should I be networking or commenting more? What about the algorithm?

Except, I wasn’t spending the majority of with-phone experience in time-sensitive communication with my boss, friends, or even my best friends or my Sweetie. I was wasting a ton of hours on Instagram without intention or awareness. In response, I practiced three specific actions to bring more of both to the forefront as my guides.


Screen Time Function

I truly had been clocking way too much Instagram time for my liking. My breakdown for the last three week’s time spent on the Instagram app on my phone is:

  • The week of November 5th-November 11th: 8.42 hours, or 1.14 hours per day
  • The week of November 12th-November 19th: 9.2 hours or 1.31 hours per day
  • Last week, as of noon on Sunday 11/25: 5.35 hours, or 47 minutes per day.

That’s a decrease of around 42% from week two to week three!

In order to achieve such a drastic drop, I used the iPhone’s Screen Time function to limit my Instagram usage to one hour/day. I liked using the function because it served as an external, measurable goal. When I got close to my one hour limit, my phone gave me a five minute warning, and it showed me the message below when I hit my limit:


As you can see, the cut off screen gave me the option to “Ignore Limit,” but I proudly chose to just cut myself off (being a habit researcher, I want to start building up my CUE –> ROUTINE –> REWARD paths). If you’re worried that you will ignore your set limit, you can connect it to a passcode (ask a friend to set a code for you!) that you need to enter if you want to override the limit. 

Results and reflections

I quickly noticed that having only 60 minutes would allow me to either engage intentionally (and thus slowly and deeply) with Instagram a few times a day or rapidly check it in short bursts throughout the day. Because a big part of my love for Instagram is engaging with my friends and learning what fellow bloggers/podcasters are thinking and trying, I want to do more of the first option (depth) than the second one (breadth). 

I have more awareness now, and I am setting an intention: I aim for depth and intention versus rapid fire, surface level engagement. 

Ways to achieve this goal might include scheduling set times to use Instagram, making sure I comment on my friends’ posts every time I use it, setting a timer for 10-20 minutes each time I open the app, and also just allowing myself to mindlessly scroll, if that ends up being what I have energy and interest for at the time. 


Phone Box 

I praised Marlee Grace’s How to Not Always be Working: a Toolkit for Creativity and Radical Self-Care in my post “What is Work & Why it Matters,” but I want to return to it here to mention something new: the concept of the phone box. Grace describes the phone box in her Mind Body Green article, “3 Creative Ways To Redefine Your Phone Habits & Combat The Mindless Scroll”:   

This is an idea borrowed from my incredible friend and publisher Caroline Paquita. Get a box. It can be really simple. A shoe box works, but it’s fun to get like a really beautiful wooden box or a plain box that you collage or paint or something. Make it a temple. Not a temple for the phone but a temple for your spirit, which will have a lighter load upon using the phone box.

You decide how long you’d like to not look at your phone. I like to go longer than feels comfortable. Let’s start with three hours. It’s OK if you’ve literally never gone three hours without looking at your phone. Let’s try it.

Put the phone in the phone box. Now go do something: work, write, walk, all of the above. Whatever makes you feel alive. Use it as a break from talking to people. You don’t have to have a real or deep or meaningful reason for using the phone box. When it’s time, it’s time. Or when it doesn’t feel like it’s time, this could also be a really great time.

Stick to your time. Don’t take the phone out of the box until it is time to take the phone out of the box.

Using Grace’s instructions as a guide, I decided to use my own phone box for the 2ish hours I spend reading in my bath at night. My phone box is a ceramic chicken container that lives on a table in my bedroom:


I call using my phone box “feeding the chicken,” which is both pretty freaking adorable if you ask me and also serves a purpose in describing an action: being unavailable.


Results and Reflections 

It felt amazing. Letting my Sweetie know that I would be unavailable when I was feeding the chicken was a huge part of calming down my fears of being unavailable. Interestingly, we usually don’t chat much in the evening anyways before our agreed upon nightly Facetime date, so we may not have chatted then anyways, but letting her know that I was (basically) turning my phone OFF assured me that she’d know to contact someone else in case of emergency. I plan to get a small clock to keep in my bathroom so I can keep track of time without using my Apple watch as a clock, to really take away the option to connect while I’m taking a bath and reading. I can imagine setting up a phone box in my offices or carrying a portable one with me.


Accountability Buddy

When I mentioned on Instagram that I was trying to limit my time on Instagram, my friend Connie, a fellow graduate student blogger who writes Life of Learning, asked me if I wanted to be an accountability buddies. She also set up a Screen Time limit, and we messaged each other throughout the week to share our highs, lows, and interesting things we were noticing.

I’ve mentioned before that I am an Obliger (Gretchen Rubin’s “Four Tendencies”), which means that I build habits and accomplish goals more easily when I have external accountability. I knew that I would be more likely to stick to my social media limits if I was sharing my progress with someone else. 

Results and Reflections

It was really nice to hear that Connie and I were having similar thoughts and experiences throughout the week. I realized that I really was not alone in my habits of reaching for Instagram as a procrastination tool and when I had the smallest bits of downtime. I finished the week with a greater awareness about how I don’t really engage deeply on the app when I am simply using it to pass time when I’m waiting for my takeout to be ready or standing in line at the store.


The following three takeaways are meant to help you gain awareness of your social media and phone usage and to guide you in setting intentions that you can attach to your personal goals.


1: Question How You Feel

Answer the following questions on paper or out loud with a friend.

  • How does your current social media and phone usage make you feel?
  • How does your body respond when you think about turning your phone off for 15 minutes? What about 30 minutes? An hour? Three hours? Are there time limits that feel totally doable, but a longer one makes you feel panicky? Why?
  • What are times when you’ve not checked your phone or social media for an extended period of time and felt okay? What was happening then that made you feel okay about being offline and away from your phone? Note: my list includes being at academic conferences, working in archives, spending the day running errands with my Sweetie.

Once you’ve answered the above questions, look back over your answers without judgement for any patterns or surprising findings that you’d like to investigate more via journaling or discussing with a friend (or me!). 


2: Use Phone Box Logic

The logic of the phone box is that we are disconnect from our phones for predetermined time frames. I’ve heard many productivity and self development podcasters and authors say that they have strict limits on when they answer email, from blocking hours out as “unavailable” on shared calendars to only answering emails a set number of times per day at predetermined times. My goal to not check email or Instagram in the morning lines up perfectly with my ideal 7am-9am dissertation work time, as people generally do not expect responses before 9am anyways. 

See if there are other things you can apply phone box logic to, such as answering emails, doing chores or errands, buying things, going online in general, negative self talk, etc. 


How to Cope with Phone Box Anxiety

My irrational worry that something horrible would happen when my phone was on silent is likely tied to my complex recovery from codependency and addiction. If you feel like your own nervousness about putting your phone in a phone box mirrors mine, you can tell the people that you think may contact you that you will be unavailable from time X to time Y. That calmed my nervous system, and I hope it works for you. 

That being said, I realize that some people truly may need to be on call or available for emergencies. If that is you, or if you’d like to ease into using a phone box, try giving particular contacts a special ringtone for their calls or text messages and ignoring all other notifications except for them.


3: Link Your Usage to Goals via Mantras & Intention

I love to set intentions when I am in my present, wise, and grounded mind because when I am triggered or struggling I can trust that my decisions are well developed and reliable. Identify some mantras for yourself that you can apply to your goals to take time away from your screen. You can write these on post it notes to hang where you will see them (you can literally put one on your phone box). Here is a template:

I choose to ____ because ____.

You can read more about maintaining habits with mantras in my To Hold in the Hand: A Guide to Maintaining post. 


*Please note that the original version of this blog post was published here

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