My phone controlled me, so I went on a digital diet

I was having a much-coveted weekday sleep-in when my four-year-old barged in to inform me it was time to get dressed. Shocked that I’d wasted nearly two hours mindlessly scrolling through my phone instead of resting, I got out of bed feeling more mentally drained than when I get up at dawn in the morning.

My husband has been complaining about my screen addiction for months. I wiped it off But somehow those two precious lost hours made me realize with a jolt: My phone was checking me.

As I pondered what kind of digital diet to embrace, I came across Mind Over Tech, founded by former sculptor and web developer Jonathan Garner. About five years ago, Garner had a personal crisis. Like me, he noticed that part of his mental turmoil was due to his limited ability to control his attention when using his phone. “I wanted to complete a task, but got distracted by something completely different. I was scrolling through Twitter before I even knew my phone was unlocked.”

The product born of Garner’s wake-up call is a physical deck of 50 cards, each containing bite-sized experiments to help users approach technology in a more conscious manner. Over a 24-hour period, I tried a few, including: “Avoid using technology early in the morning,” which urged me to delay the first moment when I’m on my phone each morning, and “Post- It notes on your phone screen to help me identify when and why I’m picking it up. I later added “Charge your phone outside of your bed”. The goal, Garner says, isn’t to force yourself to make a change, but to try and build a new healthy habit, like doing yoga daily or cutting down on caffeine.

I decided I would only continue doing something if it stayed natural and kept an analogue journal of my progress. The first two cards — plus “Avoid your inbox until afternoon” — worked well for me. I practiced it every day for over two weeks and found that I felt more positive about my relationship with technology, was better able to exercise self-control when it came to my phone and, dare I say it, more productive overall . I think these are habits I will return to on a regular basis as I am sure I will always fall back into old ways.

Other prompts never got stuck entirely. The Delay the Search Urge card was a spectacular failure as I’d spent almost a full day trawling through hotel reviews for an upcoming trip to the US.

Is there an explanation of what sticks and why? Garner says that each individual collects data, reflects, and then makes changes for themselves — a form of scientific experimentation. “But what really matters to you every day is how best you spend that extra hour in the morning. Does it help you charge?”

Mark Essex, an executive at KPMG, puts his digital habits in the same category as comfort eating — something he’s struggled with for 25 years. For him, the experiments, such as movement or meditation, are more of a regular exercise than a one-off solution. He told me that his 10-year-old daughter also started using the cards and left her phone downstairs before going to bed.

For some, reevaluating their relationship with technology has been more upsetting. When former YouTube exec Georgie Powell idly scrolled through pictures of her newborn daughter with her baby lying right next to her, it prompted her to quit her job. “I ignored my daughter, didn’t even look her in the eye,” she told me. “Meanwhile, my main goal with YouTube was to get people to watch more YouTube, and that was starting to make me increasingly uncomfortable.”

Powell founded Space, an app that analyzes your screen time, before phone makers like Apple rolled out this feature by default. She believes the pandemic has increased parents’ worries, largely because of technology, as it shattered boundaries they had previously held up. “I’ve found families struggle to reset. The callback function is difficult,” says Powell. She no longer takes her devices upstairs at night and only replies to messages in spurts.

My favorite part of this experience was using pen and paper to plan and take notes. Every time I sit down with the deck and my notebook, my two-year-old walks by, drawn in by the bright colors on the cards. Together we spend 20 immersive minutes sorting them by color and dividing them into stacks, time when neither of us are distracted by a screen. That’s the habit I hope to keep.

Madhumita Murgia is the FT’s European Tech Correspondent