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Addicted to your phone? 5 ways to use it to create healthy habits

I decided to use my iPhone to break the bad habits it was holding me hostage to — and use it to create a healthier routine.
Cellphones get a bad rap for hurting our mental health, but they can also be used as tool to help you make positive lifestyle changes.
Cellphones get a bad rap for hurting our mental health, but they can also be used as tool to help you make positive lifestyle changes.TODAY Illustration / Getty Images

As a health and wellness professional, I’ve preached for years to keep your phone out of your bedroom. But during the pandemic I picked up some bad habits, ignoring my own advice and making my phone a permanent fixture on my nightstand. It became one reach away when I had a hard time falling asleep or would wake up in the middle of the night. And it fueled an obsession with social media and work.

According to Teralyn Sell, psychotherapist and brain health expert, some research suggests that cell phone use can change our brain activity, decreasing reaction times and negatively impacting our sleep quality and patterns. “Problematic cell phone use also has a relationship with depression and anxiety, as well as increased substance use including tobacco and alcohol,” Sell said.

I knew it was time for an intervention. But instead of banishing my cellphone for good, I decided to change the way I was using it.

What if I used my iPhone to break the habits it was holding me hostage to — and use it to create new, healthier habits? I began thinking of all of the positive ways that phones have enriched our lives: health and wellness apps, music, connection to others, calendars to keep us on track, to name a few.

Here are the features I tapped into to make some positive changes in my daily routine.

I set time limits

Go to settings and then screen time, and you will see a summary of your daily phone usage, as well as tools to limit usage in specific areas. The first thing I did was utilize “sleep mode,” designating the hours of 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. as a quiet time when calls and texts wouldn’t pop up as notifications. I also set my “downtime” for these same hours, which means that my entire phone is a little darker even when I am using it. Beneath downtime, you’ll find “app limits.” I added a limit and checked off Social, Productivity and Finance — setting the limit at five minutes.

I wanted to cut down on the time I was spending on email, social media, calendar and financial apps during the day. Once the five minutes expires, I am prompted to extend for one minute, 15 minutes, or ignore the limit for the day. This encourages me to stop in my tracks, become present and ask myself: Is this necessary or am I wasting time?

The time limit feature has helped me budget my time, making me more productive and present.
The time limit feature has helped me budget my time, making me more productive and present.Stephanie Mansour

Limiting screen time can help improve mental health outcomes,” Sell said. “The problem here is the addictive nature of the screens themselves." As someone who’s always on the go, learning how to successfully budget my time has made me so much more productive and present. When I am at my desk, I focus on my work, check emails and add things to my calendar. But when I’m on the go, I don’t want to spend time on these things. Working on my phone for more than five minutes at a time really diverts my energy and focus from the present moment — something that added to stress and anxiety throughout the day. I found setting time limits to be life-changing!

I changed the sound of my alarm

Most of us use our phone as an alarm clock. I set my alarm for 7:30 a.m. every morning, which as a night owl is a hard time for me to rise. But because my phone goes into “downtime” at 10 p.m., that’s encouraged me to get into bed earlier and read. I found that this routine helps me fall asleep faster and get more hours of sleep before my alarm rings.

I also turned my alarm into a positive affirmation. Instead of the standard dinging, my alarm repeats the affirmation in my voice: “Today is going to be a great day! Today is going to be a great day!” That encourages me to jump up and turn off my alarm and start my day in a good headspace. I also now keep my phone in the other room, so I must get out of bed to turn it off. To create your own affirmation, simply record yourself in the GarageBand app on your phone and export the file as a ringtone. Then you can select it as your sound when creating a new alarm.

I post a mantra for the day to social media

I like to be intentional about my day and start the morning with a mantra, but it was a part of my morning routine that often got overlooked. By the time I’m dressed, I am already thinking about my next work project or distracted with breakfast.

I am also guilty of grabbing my phone and mindlessly scrolling my Instagram feed. So I decided to use social media to help me with this, too. Every morning, I open up Instagram and record a story quickly sharing my mantra for the day. Because I’m sharing it with others — and I encourage others to share theirs with me! — it’s become something I look forward to in the morning and it holds me accountable.

I started a morning yoga practice

After I post my mantra, I open up my yoga and meditation app (I use Insight Timer) that started offering live classes. I see which class is starting in the next 15 minutes, roll out my yoga mat and commit! Everyday is different, although there are a lot of classes at 8 a.m. and I also have teachers I like that I try to practice with regularly. It feels like a community (even though you can only see the instructor and chat box). I have my calls and texts silenced during this time, too, so I can really embrace the 30-60 minutes in the early morning to get centered.

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I allow myself 5 minutes of TikTok entertainment

There’s nothing wrong with using your phone for entertainment, but I found that it can very easily become a time suck. I recently started getting into TikTok and found myself spending an entire hour browsing videos. It became addicting and it was way more time than I wanted to be spending on the platform. So I took matters into my own hands and decided to limit myself to five intentional minutes of TikTok for pure entertainment. I love watching food videos and find them fun, so I scroll past any videos that come up on my feed that don’t have to do with food. This turned me into an active consumer of the app rather than a passive one.