3 Steps to Turn Your Smartphone Into a Self-Improvement Engine

Science shows that your IQ is lower when your smartphone is near, but not when you use these three steps.

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By Dan Dowling

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For how indispensable our smartphones have become -- can we just call them phones now -- they might be doing us more harm than good. Research from the University of Texas suggests that we're measurably less intelligent (read: dumber) when our phones are within sight. According to a 2017 report by analytics firm Flurry, we spend five hours per day on these IQ-shrinking devices. But this doesn't mean our pocket technology is inherently bad. We just need to learn how to manage our phones for maximum benefit.

I've grown a lifestyle coaching business in part by teaching executive-level men and women how to do just that. Curious to learn how make the most of your phone?

Related: New Google OS Has Tools to Help With Your Tech Addiction

1. Set daily tech limitations

You know how you get these aspirations to be better at x, y or z? And you say, "I'm going to be better!" but it never happens? A lot of people do that with their smartphones. They instinctively suspect it's not healthy to be on Whatsapp four hours a day, but without a daily goal for limiting the habit their habit never changes.

That's why you have to set a daily goal for limiting smartphone use.

I advise all of my clients to set strict limitations in their daily planners for technology use throughout the day, which also includes texts and messages. (This means disabling notifications for everything but incoming phone calls.) Some do checks every two hours for 10 minutes, some check twice or three times a day. But no matter what my clients communication demands are, the knee-jerk, "Ah, I don't know what I should be doing so I'll just reach for my phone like Frodo with the ring" reaction is eliminated, which forces them to do more work.

You'll want to alert bosses and clients of your new communications schedule (which involves setting email autoresponders) and assure them that less is definitely more in this case.

Related: Apple, Facebook and Google Vets Form Coalition to Fight Tech Addiction

2. Relieve your mind with a smart note-taking system.

You know the sense of panic that starts building up when you have so much to do but don't quite know what to do? David Allen, author of Getting Things Done, likens our brains to a computer. In that analogy, the that panic is a malfunctioning mental "RAM." Like any computer, your brain at capacity ceases to function properly.

Allen's solution is to unburden your mental hard drive by uploading your thoughts and tasks onto a computer hard drive via a note-taking system. Your phone is the perfect place to start. It's always with you, always ready to relieve your brain. If you have an iCloud account, your phone notes automatically sync to your computer notes, and vise versa. Don't have a Mac? Consider purchasing an iPhone, then download an iCloud account on your PC or laptop for free. Here are the folders you need to start:

  • Health
  • Career
  • Happiness
  • Goals
  • Self-Improvement
  • Procrastinations
  • Life (for general observations)
  • Gratitude
  • Important people
  • Ideas
  • What's working
  • Next action*—

Any time you have an insight, deadline or task, file it away in the relevant tab to act on later. To make sure you come back to your ideas and actually act upon them, Allen suggests creating a "Next Action" sub-tab for each category. You'll set a reminder to revisit your "Next Actions" list once or twice a week. (More on reminders in the next section.)

For instance, if you're realizing that you're running low on thank-you cards for your clients/business partners, but can't take care of it immediately, you would go to your career tab and then to your "next action" subtab to input the new directive: purchase another stack of "thank you cards" at Wallgreens. Review your next action tabs regularly, you'll see that specific action and schedule it.

You'll want to program, "Review my next action tabs for 15 minutes" into your phone twice a week, once at midweek and once on the weekend.

Related: The 5 Best To-Do List Apps to Boost Your Productivity

3. Take advantage of your reminders.

Smartphones, especially the apps, are colossal distractions to most people. Polls show that 92 percent of our phone time is spent on them. But when you start limiting your phone use in general, and start using the reminders app, your phone alerts you to focus on what you really need to be doing. Which turns your phone into a focus aid.

The easiest way to start using your reminders is to activate Siri or your Google Assistant, and to dictate whatever you want to be reminded of. If you want to begin your big project next Friday at 2:00 pm, you'll say: "At 11:00 am next Friday, remind me to set my 2:00 pm alarm for starting new project." The wording has to be just like that example, otherwise the robot will confuse the times. And unfortunately you can't schedule alarms past a day in advance. You can also manually set alerts in the reminders app -- it just takes five times longer.

To cultivate the habit of using your reminders, start setting reminders for everything for a week: walking your dog, paying bills, even (what the hell) sex with your spouse. That way when you come across something that you really need to be reminded of, like an important meeting, you go to your phone by reflex. This one feature has saved me countless frustrations and missed appointments.

Dan Dowling

Solopreneur, writer, and coach

As a former couch-surfing millennial turned solopreneur writer and coach, Dan Dowling writes on personal development. Visit MillennialSuccess.io and learn how to create your own solopreneur success story.

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