The Horrible Place Between the Apps

Dan Crawford, a public relations professional in Washington, D.C., described a trajectory similar to mine. He had installed time limits on his phone and given his wife the password; she acted as a sort of phone-time trustee, doling out 20-minute chunks at his request and her discretion. On Twitter, he had turned on two-factor authentication, which requires a code sent by text message to log in. Finally, he blocked Twitter’s number from his phone.

“Your brain gets used to extra steps very quickly,” he said. “But that’s enough steps that if I need to get work done, I can just hit log off.” For now.

It turns out there’s a thriving culture of folk remedies, tricks, and hacks, some clever, others desperate, and others bordering on self-flagellation. Generally speaking, turning off notifications seems to help, but can also increase compulsive app checking. Logging out of services after using them adds an extra step or two, but often leaves users no less engaged than before and slightly more irritated. Moving icons into folders, and then moving folders off the home screen? Yep. Installing more enriching apps to check — maybe a language-learning app, or crossword puzzles? It can help. It can also compound the same failure.

I heard no unqualified success stories about using Apple’s Screen Time, or Facebook and Instagram’s “Manage Your Time” functions. Brian Kokernak, a systems administrator, told his iPhone to limit his overall access, but described an outcome that was, basically, an inverted snooze alarm: “Hitting a Screen Time limit then tapping 15 more minutes every 15 minutes until I go to bed.”

There are crafty forms of app sabotage, too. Arianna Sanders, a supply chain manager at the e-commerce company Brandless, said she shuts off data access to the Instagram app, so she can’t use it without Wi-Fi. Jack Orlik, a researcher at Nesta, failed to hack his way out of his habit. “I changed the icon for Twitter to make myself pause in confusion or reflection before clicking it,” he said. “Muscle memory of my thumb didn’t care about the icon, so I changed its name to ‘NOT Twitter’ to alter its position. Worked for about one day.”

Some coping strategies moved beyond the devices themselves. “I put my laptop on my desk and don’t allow it to go anywhere else in my room,” said Anaïs Enders, a journalist in Singapore. “I put my phone on airplane mode after use and in a cup that a hated ex-boyfriend bought.”

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