Breaking unhealthy media habits in six simple steps

Shortly after I got my first iPhone, I started using it while walking up the stairs, sitting on the toilet and waiting for a traffic light. This was around the same time that many companies realized they could capitalize on micro-moments.

After all, all the times that humans are idle for a few seconds add up during days, months and years. Google isn’t even coy about it anymore. For me this started way back in 2009. The habit of whipping out my phone during a few free seconds grew and grew. I didn’t even think about it anymore. Only when traveling I realized I was missing out on the new environments I was in. And that at home, too, I was perhaps not aware enough what I was doing.

I’m sure you have your own stories like that, so I’m not even going to try to define what unhealthy internet habits are—I want to share how I got rid of most of them. First of all I should point out that there are some proven ways to break habits in general:

  1. Set a clear, specific and attainable goal.
  2. Make explicit to yourself why the habit has bad consequences.
  3. Create barriers to engage in the bad habit.
  4. Replace a bad habit by a forming a good one. I recommend this test for guidance on forming a new habit.

My biggest challenge with mindfully using the internet is dealing with the endless feeds acting like (sidenote: I’m hesitant to link to Nir Ayal, because of how he dubiously helps both corporates and users in the war for attention. But here’s his slot machine article. ) for salient information.

Here are the six thing I did specifically to lay off news feeds, especially those of social platforms.

1. Unfollow everyone

Sounds scary? On Facebook and LinkedIn you can unfollow people without breaking your connection with them. Then each profile is still only a few clicks away. And as for Twitter: you’ll remember the important accounts. For me, seeing an empty timeline was a good reminder that I went there without a purpose.

Unfollowing hundreds of people at once would take hours. So I didn’t do this in one go. Every time I logged in, the first thing I did was being surprised. About posts from people that the algorithm didn’t consider likely to engage me before. The second thing I did was unfollowing those accounts too. I found that worked well, because there was no cold turkey transition. And every unfollow was like striking a blow in in a battle against the timeline algorithm’s control over my mind.

2. Take a break for a month

About once a year, I take a break from Twitter and LinkedIn. A month is good, because it’s long enough for acquiring a new habit instead of it.

3. Delete your account password

Despite everything, I think the platforms can be useful when used well! So for every break, instead of deleting my account, I reset my password to a strong, impossible to remember string. Then I remove it from my password manager. Those times I ignored my own commitments to not log in, going through the password reset and 2FA processes took enough time for me to lose interest.

4. Delete your apps and bookmarks

Removing the apps from your phone is an obvious step. Probably everyone has tried it for a while. The mobile web apps Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn offer are a bit sparse compared to the native apps. And they’re annoying, because they constantly prompt you to use the native app. But I learned to appreciate that; I want to set up some barriers between me and my bad habits!

My iPhone didn’t make it too easy to remove all shortcuts to the platforms. After I deleted the apps, Siri started recommending me to go to the web UIs of Twitter and LinkedIn. I disabled the recommendations and removed all the favorites (the icons you see when opening a new tab). I had collected quite a few news sites and other feeds there. Safari didn’t like that blank empty state though. Within a day, the default set of ‘favorites’ appeared. With Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn among them.

The default set of mobile Safari's bookmarks showing the icons for Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn
“You must have favorites!” Also: what’s up with the inconsistent Apple favicons and weather.com not even having one at all?

5. Leave your phone at the charger

When I was distracted, I often took out my phone to quickly check notifications and feeds. Oddly, I even did this sitting at a computer, which I could use to do just that, but faster. That’s the thing with bad habits: they don’t have a purpose. To get rid of this habit, I started wearing a watch again. Because the clock on the lock screen was my excuse for always having my phone in my pocket.

Another reason I always had my phone near me was two-factor authentication. So for all applications that allow it, I replaced SMS as a second factor with the secret code countdown thingy. Google Authenticator is probably the best known app for that. The problem with that one is that you’re still chained to your phone, because it doesn’t sync to other devices. I now use Authy, which has a desktop app that syncs with other devices.

At home I now (try to) leave my phone at the charger and at work it stays inside my bag.

6. Don’t replace the habit of checking one feed with another

When I decided to stop habitually checking Facebook some years ago, Twitter filled that gap. Don’t be like me. Be careful with every app that has an endlessly scrolling feed as its main screen. In Here’s how I maintain healthy media routines I describe what I did to avoid the relapse trap. Spoiler: I found this the difficult part!

Designers know: the big platforms only optimize for user experience, if that also serves a business need. But you can design routines that are good for you.

I hope it’s clear that I’m not arguing that we all should quit the internet and live in a cabin or something. Life happens under imperfect circumstances. Today, one of those circumstances is that some of the biggest internet companies can’t find viable business models beyond serving ads. Even if I despise some of these companies’ practices, I don’t want to miss out on everything they offer. In my experience, a healthy balance between time spent and value returned is possible.

After losing my bad habits, I set up some rules to maintain healthy media routines. Let me know how they’re working out for you!