Struggling to Cut Things Out of Your Life? Try This Instead

Struggling to Cut Things Out of Your Life? Try This Instead

One of my friends has quite an ambitious goal for 2021: severely cut down on phone time. I’m talking like 6+ hours a day to maybe 1 hour a day.

No more social media. No more Candy Crush. No more Chrome. 😱

These things had become an addiction, and she wanted to free herself from them.

As can be expected, she struggled. Minimizing phone usage, especially during a global pandemic (=> loneliness, boredom), is really challenging.

  • And so we tried to come up with some creative strategies:Whenever you feel the impulse to check your phone, do 10 jumping jacks.
    • Some amount of activity often helps reduce the intensity of a craving, and connecting the “check your phone” impulse to an activity other than checking your phone helps break the “check-your-phone impulse → check your phone” association.
  • Keep your phone in a place far away from where you’re doing work.
    • Humans are lazy. Inconvenience is a strong deterrent.
  • Keep your phone in a lockbox and give me the key.
    • This leverages inconvenience and accountability, although we decided employing this strategy would probably end our friendship.

Ultimately, though, we settled on one of my faves: crowding out.

The idea goes like this: Instead of cutting something out of your life, consider adding things into your life so that the “bad” things are naturally crowded out by the “good” things.

We are generally very bad with restriction — telling ourselves we can’t have something often makes us want it more, and indeed our negativity bias makes the loss even more painful. It also doesn’t help that we often cut something out without replacing it with anything, leaving a void that makes the restriction that much harder. Adding in / crowding out often feels much more agreeable and requires waaaay less willpower.

As an example, if you’re trying to improve your diet, you might add vegetables to your dinner instead of cutting out dessert. The more you add in whole, unprocessed foods, the more you’ll grow a liking to them (in terms of both taste and the way they make you feel), and the less you’ll want the processed stuff.

I’ll also add that this strategy can be remarkably effective when you feel you have too much on your plate. When I feel anxious and overwhelmed, my initial instinct is to remove things from my life to lighten the load. But, sometimes, crowding out can be more helpful — if I instead focus on the things I do enjoy, and focusing on bringing more of those things into my life, the not-so-great things on my plate — the negative thoughts, the ruminations, the unnecessary tasks and obligations I held onto so strongly for who knows why (#anxiety) — will naturally fall off.

In my friend’s case, the trick was to identify things to add into her life to naturally crowd out the impulse to be on her phone. Loneliness and boredom (#covid #life) seemed to be the primary triggers for the check-my-phone impulse, so social activities seemed to be the highest leverage add-in. (I’m sure most people can relate — when socializing, especially when doing an activity with people, we don’t check our phones nearly as much as we do when we’re alone.)

Of course, there’s only so much socializing one can do in a pandemic, but my friend, in particular, had more options than she thought she did. Even in the cold of NYC winter, there are meet-ups at museums, in the park, on hiking trails. She even found a bowling group to join. In any case, this reframe of her goal was remarkably effective, and she is not only making huge progress on her goal, but she is also so much happier because of her newly-charged social life.

Is there anything you’re trying to cut out of your life? How might the crowding out strategy apply?