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Big Ideas

How To Control Your “Check-In” Addiction

Do you find yourself constantly checking your mobile device with no real actionable outcome? Quick tips on increasing your efficiency and peace of mind.

Have you ever been caught sleeping with your mobile device? Perhaps checking your email first-thing in the morning when you’re still in bed? Given what we know about the emotional voids that are fulfilled by our electronic devices – the search for thrill, the alleviation of anxiety and panic – our intense attachment makes sense. When we wake up we want to be greeted. When we fall asleep we want to do so knowing that all is well. The mobile phone has become the security blanket of the 21st century.

Our ubiquitous connection to everything around us (and everyone we know) presents both a mesmerizing capability and a powerful new set of challenges. We need to be more thoughtful about how we lead a connected life that is both creative and productive. A sound mind and sustained sense of connection come not from looking to our devices for guidance and reassurance, but from using them wisely – from “checking in” with clear intention.Here are some insights to consider:

1. Understand your emotional connection to your device.

In the book Thumb Culture, author Jane Vincent talks about the range of emotions she observed between people and their mobile devices. “Although few people think about their mobile phone in emotional terms,” she noted, “they do appear to be using it to achieve emotional goals.” She goes on to outline the emotional states that are commonly referenced:

Panic: Absence from the device; being separated from it.

Irrational behavior: The inability to control heart over mind (e.g. driving and talking).

Thrill: Novelty, multi-tasking, intimacy of the text received in public.

Anxiety: Fear and desire (for example, wanting to know about others vs. too much knowledge).

The take-away here is to understand what lies beneath our behavior with our mobile devices. Self-awareness is crucial, because how we allocate our time and attention is closely connected to our deeper anxieties and concerns.

2. Tune in with “intention” not “impulse.”

Have you ever just scrolled through your various mobile apps with a blank stare and no actual intention? It’s like when you’re bored at home and you wander over to the refrigerator; you’re not really hungry, you just want to feed your boredom.

Our devices tap into our impulsive side, our penchant for seeking information. If you’re concerned about your business or a loved one, you’ll impulsively glance at your messages. Even if it’s midnight, you might still scroll through your email despite the low probability of a message. Rather than “no news is good news,” we think “any news is good news.”

One solution is to manage our attention with intention rather than impulse. We must strive to tune into our devices only when we have a specific purpose. It should be about acting on our ideas, rather than reacting to other people’s communication habits.

Our devices tap into our impulsive side.

3. Use your device for communication “sprints,” then take a break.

There’s nothing wrong with checking your device. The problem is getting sucked into the device! You decide to quickly check your email or texts, and before you know it you’re checking Twitter, Facebook, or any number of other apps. The extensive options that our devices put at our fingertips are very effective at engaging our attention. To escape their siren song, we must be disciplined in our approach.Taking a page from the Scrum playbook, think of each interaction with your mobile as a mini-sprint. For instance, you need to respond to one urgent client email, and text your web developer about a key decision. Once those tasks are done, it’s time to disengage. One person we spoke with shared the tip that he counts down from 20 when he does a quick check-in on his phone, especially when he’s surrounded by other people. Just the mindset of counting down forces him to quickly check rather than meander.

Think of each interaction with your mobile as a mini-sprint.

4. Observe good “attention etiquette.”

Our devices should empower – not impede – better communication. When you’re alone, it’s no problem to check your device whenever you need to (keeping the above insights in mind). But, in social settings – meeting with a client or going out on a date – it’s time to start contemplating some guidelines for proper “attention etiquette.”Writer Farhad Manjoo crowd-sourced an answer to the “attention etiquette” question on, and came up with a great approach. He proposes, “If you’re in a situation where you’d excuse yourself to go to the bathroom, you should also excuse yourself before reaching for your phone.” He goes on to suggest that, if you do feel compelled to reach for your phone, “don’t play with your phone longer than you’d stay in the bathroom.”The exception to this rule would be when engagement with your device actually indicates attention. For instance, gadget lovers might prefer to take notes on a tablet in a meeting, rather than using a pen and paper. In this situation, focusing intermittently on your device can be a positive indication that you are paying attention, documenting notes and action steps in real time.
It’s time to start contemplating some guidelines for proper ‘attention etiquette.’

Every opportunity comes with new responsibilities, and the mobile era is no different. We must commit to using our devices more efficiently rather than more often.For more tips on managing your mobile life, check out our Email Etiquette and Self-Management Superhero posts.

What Do You Think?

How do you maintain a technology-life balance in the 21st century?

What have you done to better manage your mobile device, and what were the results?

More Posts by Scott Belsky

Scott Belsky is the Chief Product Officer at Adobe and is the co-founder of 99U and Behance. He has been called one of the “100 Most Creative People in Business” by Fast Company, and is the author of The Messy Middle and the bestselling book, Making Ideas Happen.

Comments (40)
  • Gooseman

    “How do you maintain a technology-life balance in the 21st century?”

    Are you kidding? I’ve got way too many distractions to answer a question like that!

  • heidikraft

    This is a great article – especially because it addresses our emotional needs that can vary by each individual. Agree totally with the most important piece being our awareness. It’s one thing to be connected due to habit and another thing if we’re aware of the impact it’s having on others, our brains and….also our hearts. It also lessons our productivity more than we think as our IQ drops 10 points when we multi-task.

  • Sasek10

    Just a pedantic quickey: we use quotation marks “this way”, not “this way.”, if you notice the difference and you care.

  • pedantic

    Just a pedantic quickey: we use quotation marks “this way”, not “this way.”, if you notice the difference and you care.

  • annelander

    It becomes even more difficult when important tasks like finding a new house or work requires instant responses (even at weird times) lest you miss out, a situation I’m in right now. Everyone expects everyone else to be as connected and addicted as them. Over the last few months that’s definitely become the case for me even though I wasn’t always this way.

    My personal strategy so far has been to shut my laptop/turn my phone to silent and leave the house at least once a day just to give my brain a rest. Also, No Laptops in Bed is a good rule…that I have been breaking.

    The sprint checking idea is great, I think I’ll take it on.

  • pedantic-er

    Not necessarily. American vs British style – you are referring to the British style. See… for details and example usages.

  • Ernest Falconer

    Thank you for the tip. This is very important and it is so easy to get sucked into your phone. I am in there enough anyway checking my business emails as well as other communications and find myself wandering a lot. Not so much in what would seem like important situations, but sometimes in my downtime and when I am with my family. And honestly that time may be a more important situation than anything, because your family needs to come first.
    I also served tables for a long time and I see so many parents in blackberries while their children play games on their Iphones. These tools can be great but not when there is no human interaction at dinner. We are already looking for ways to get rid of our new found “security blanket,” imaging the children who grow up with theirs…Kids have a hard enough time giving up a pacifier..This will be interesting to watch…

    Thanks for sharing
    Ernest Falconer

  • Kaye

    I understand the thought behind this, but I sleep with my phone because it has a clock and alarm.

  • pedantic


  • Scott Belsky

    I’ve seen this quite a bit… And I wonder if we need to bring back the old fashioned alarm clock, if only to avoid having to sleep with our devices!

  • Adamlorusso

    Sometimes I check my email before I even have my eyes fully open/have sat up in bed. I really didn’t notice how ridiculous that was until I read about someone else doing it haha.

    Good post.
    – Adam

  • crking

    Haha… I did that this morning. Was trying to read an email and I could barely pry my eyes open to do so. Sorta ridiculous. The email could’ve waited for sure.

  • crking

    Great topic!
    A pet peeve of mine (which I’m totally guilty of myself) is responding to text messages, emails or social media while sitting down to a meal with someone else. That time should be spent engaging with the person that’s sitting right in front of you, not someone who isn’t there. It’s just kind of disrespectful. If you must engage with your device during a meal, excuse yourself to go to the restroom and avoid looking like an ass.

  • TubbyMike

    I’m with Kaye; it has a clock and an alarm, so I sleep with my phone. I just set it to “Airplane Mode”. I don’t want to be disturbed by junk e-mail at 4 in the morning. Let’s face it, all e-mail at 4 in the morning is junk.

  • KayeWaterhouse Model

    Wow Im sooo guilty of these habits. Funnily enough I chastise my partner for even looking at his phone during dinner, and yet I will facebook from my phone before I fall asleep next to him at night, AND first thing in the morning. If Im not online, I feel like Im missing out on something important!!!!

  • Yoni

    I hate it when I’m at coffee or sharing a meal with someone who “has to take this call” or keeps on texting while we are meeting. It’s rude. Excuse yourself or don’t make plans to meet me if you have such an important call to take. If you can’t stop texting, don’t meet with me, text me instead, lol!

  • Gary B Cohen

    I think like all addictive behaviors it never starts as a problem it is only when you start to use the technology to medicate your feelings.

  • ryan

    I can appreciate this sentiment but analysis like this: “the inability to control heart over mind.” is absolute bs. If anything mobile phone usage is simply illuminating the same behavior we’ve seen for centuries – Status & Power – but in a new era. “Look at me and how important I am on my $400 smartphone.” I can hear already, “No. Not me!” Sorry, these are deep intrinsic motivations that will probably never go away and are extremely cultural. This article speaks to it’s audience for sure, dopy Americans who have to make rules like “no laptops in bed”. If you really want to control your addiction you should get to the bottom of what motivates you and go from there. I suspect most will sacrifice sanity for the mere chance of convenience any day. Such middle class problems. =/

  • Ninagraphix

    Kind of ironic that people are tweeting this. 😉
    A good article–I especially appreciated: “It should be about acting on our ideas, rather than reacting to other people’s communication habits.”
    Guilty as charged.

    Being a bit older, I am still disgusted when I see people at restaurants using their phone at the table. It’s just plain rude. And as mentioned by a few people-the disconnected family syndrome-everyone on a device, no one interacting–gives me pause. What type of message are these parents sending? That being completely self-centered is acceptable?

    The “I’m in line and being helped, but talking/texting and ignoring the checkout person’ behavior is another frightening sign of our disconnectedness to fellow human beings.

  • mkjones

    I read this on my mobile 🙂

  • Chris schroeder

    Great article! I’m a freelancer who works from home and need to apply what you’re saying.

    I think this upcoming generation will struggle with this as technology and life integrate more closely. We must learn how to get our priorities straight!

  • Marilyn

    I think that interactions are like a drug that you have to learn to control.

  • Spike Bachman

    Our digital lives have greatly expanded the sphere in which we seek acceptance / recognition. I’d rather draw water from a small, deep well than from a large, shallow puddle.

  • James Econs

    You’re onto something here. I think the key is balance between business and the different levels of social. For example, I will always turn my phone off while on a date; put it on silent (and no vibrate mode) if out for dinner with associates or parents etc; and set it to whatever volume is necessary when with good friends who wouldn’t bat an eyelid.

    The challenge starts at work. Airplane mode comes off at 8am which is fine when at the desk by 0600. But for a self-employed social media consultant/manager, what kind of standards or rules should be applied? More importantly, what standards do clients expect, and what should they be happy with?

    Answers on a postcard…

  • James Econs

    Forgive me for drifting from the topic slightly (and call me ‘new-age’) but, sleeping with electromagnetic waves bouncing from under your pillow are a big no-no in my book. Another reason to bring back the alarm clock!

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