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I first realized I had an unhealthy attachment to my phone the day I stood in the middle of Big Bend National Park, surrounded by some of the most unique and breathtaking scenery the US has to offer but not looking at any of it.
Instead, my eyes were glued to the screen in my hand as I desperately tried to find cell service in an area I knew was completely off-grid.
Frustration welled in my chest as I kept trying to connect, one futile attempt after another, with no luck. I needed service, but not because I was attempting to call for help or consult a trail map I’d downloaded beforehand. I was trying to post a story on Instagram.
This moment in Big Bend, though eye-opening, didn’t prompt an immediate detox: It took another year before I was ready to confront my cellular obsession. Even once you’re aware of the all-consuming relationship you have with your phone, wrestling your focus back from the hypnotic glow of your screen is no easy feat. Because people need their phones for all kinds of communication and connection, it’s unrealistic to think that you can divorce yourself from your devices entirely—but you can strive for a better way to coexist with them.
“The ultimate goal isn’t to dump your phone. The goal is to create a healthier relationship with it,” said Catherine Price, science journalist and author of How to Break Up with Your Phone, who has spent years studying the effects of constant smartphone use.
It’s not too late to establish healthy boundaries with your tech. To help, we tested a handful of techniques you can use to create distance from your phone, from mental tricks to productivity apps to lockboxes that keep distractions out of sight.
Though you might be tempted to go cold turkey by immediately locking away your phone, you’ll need to focus on changing your habits first if you want your digital detox to actually stick. A good first step is to assess how often you subconsciously reach for your phone and which apps take up most of your time. To do this, Price suggests adopting some speed bumps—behavioral tweaks to help slow down your daily scrolling. Here are some of Price’s top tips, which are all completely free.
Not all apps are out to get you. In fact, some are specifically designed to keep you off your phone. I spent two days testing a handful of apps to see which were most effective, looking for ones that either introduced a speed bump or restricted my access to problem apps. Here are the ones that worked best for me.
One Sec is a fully automated app that leads you through a breathing exercise every time you attempt to open apps you’ve decided to flag. Instead of going straight to Instagram, you’ll be prompted to take a deep breath before One Sec asks if you really want to proceed. One Sec also tells you how many attempts you’ve made at opening those flagged apps, which can be eye-opening. On the first day I installed One Sec, I attempted to open Instagram, out of pure habit, nearly 35 times. Each time, One Sec took me through the breathing exercise, and I almost always made the choice not to continue to Instagram because I really didn’t want to be on the app. This incredibly effective app is also very user-friendly, thanks to a robust FAQ section filled with step-by-step tutorials on how to use the app on iOS, Android, and desktop browsers. The free version of One Sec allows you to block only one app, so upgrading to Pro (about $15 for one year) is worthwhile if you find yourself tempted by multiple apps on your phone.
Opal restricts your access to certain apps during specific user-determined windows of time. With the free version, you can create one “session”—mine is dedicated to blocking TikTok and Instagram during work hours. In the past, I would lose hours to those apps (if you’re my boss reading this: just kidding), but now, I barely think of using them because I know my attempts will be futile. I actually look forward to my social media time now, and it makes using those apps meaningful in a way that it never was before. Opal Pro is fairly pricey (about $100 per year or $20 per month), but consider upgrading if you want the ability to create unlimited recurring sessions. Opal Pro also has a Deep Focus mode, which prevents you from canceling your session or bypassing the timer.
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to a digital detox, and sometimes, it takes a combination of methods to find what works best for you. If you’ve already done what you can to introduce speed bumps into your scroll time yet you’re still struggling to put down your device, it might be time to pair it with some of the gear below to help you stick to your goals.
The mere presence of your phone, even when it’s powered down, can be a distraction (it incites FOMO), so sometimes it’s essential to keep your phone out of sight when you want to focus. This can be as simple as sticking your phone in a desk drawer during the workday or dropping it in a basket during meals.
If you’d like a more official home for your devices when you’re not using them, consider a dedicated phone holder. (This can be especially helpful if you’re the forgetful type, since you won’t be able to call your phone to find it if it’s switched off.) The company Bagby makes gear designed specifically to reduce phone use, like analog alarm clocks and felt phone pockets. I tried out the Bagby Original, a phone-size pouch designed to hang from a doorknob. It’s intended to be used overnight to create a phone-free bedroom (more on that below), but it can be used any time of the day to stash your phone. I found it helpful to stick my phone in the Bagby Original when I was doing chores upstairs and wanted my phone close to listen to a podcast.
The Bagby Social, a four-pocket hanging phone holder, is another good option for households looking to digitally detox together. Anytime I’m downstairs and not actively using my phone, it lives in the Bagby Social—not only does this keep me from aimlessly scrolling during the 10-second countdown between Netflix episodes, but it also saves me from losing my phone to the couch cushions.
*At the time of publishing, the price was $29.
You’ll have a harder time detaching from your phone if it’s the last thing you look at before falling asleep and the first thing you reach for in the morning. Banning your phone from the bedroom helps create better digital boundaries in the long run. Pick a communal area, like the living room or the kitchen, to create a dedicated space to drop your phone off or charge it overnight. This doesn’t have to be fancy: If you live on your own, it can be as simple as leaving a charging cord or Qi wireless charger on a counter. If you’ve convinced the whole family to join you on your quest for a phone-free bedroom, a multi-outlet surge protector can get the job done.
This charging stand provides a fast charge to both iPhone and Android smartphones and comes with a wall plug and a long USB cable.
*At the time of publishing, the price was $29.
With six AC outlets and two 2.4-amp USB ports, the Power Air packs a lot of protection into a compact design.
If you rely on your phone to wake up in the morning, consider getting an old-fashioned alarm clock. A frills-free traditional alarm, such as the DreamSky Compact Digital Alarm Clock, is an affordable option. If the blare of an alarm is too abrasive, a sunrise alarm clock is a more gentle way to coax yourself from bed using soft light simulations (we especially like the Philips SmartSleep Wake-Up Light HF3520).
This digital alarm clock does exactly what an alarm clock should do: get you up and out of bed.
With clipped on-page coupon
This alarm has the most soothing simulated sunrise and sunset, which may help you feel less groggy.
*At the time of publishing, the price was $179.
A lot of folks are reluctant to distance themselves from their phones because they don’t want to miss an urgent or emergency call. Setting up call-forwarding from your cell to your landline can help ensure you receive important calls while you’re at home so that you don’t have to tether yourself to your device. Check in with your service provider for more detailed instructions on how to set up call-forwarding; it can usually be done through your account. The AT&T DL72210, the best cordless phone we tested, offers a long-enough range that you’ll be able to walk around the house without losing connection, and our testers thought it sounded even better than Wi-Fi calls on an iPhone.
When you’re out and about and don’t need immediate access to the internet, consider carrying an old-school flip phone. Wirecutter hasn’t tested flip phones, but unlocked options are relatively inexpensive. You might even have a graveyard of discarded phones in a desk drawer that’ll still work if you juice them up. When you’re ready to take a smartphone break but still want to be reachable in case of emergency, you may be able to slide your SIM card into a phone without internet access. As long as the older phone is compatible with the same cellular network as your smartphone, you should still be able to text, make calls, and take grainy photos without the temptation of losing yourself in an app. Just keep in mind that new SIM cards may not be compatible with older phones. (And Apple has moved to eSIM as of the iPhone 14, so you won’t be able to physically transfer a SIM card if you own that model).
If you’re worried that a flip phone will make you seem outdated, don’t: Gen-Z has recently leaned into flip phones with low-quality cameras and no internet access, reclaiming them as vintage. It’s cool to disconnect.
This phone offers good range, great voice quality, and more features than most others at an affordable price.
Lockboxes with digital countdown timers and locking mechanisms are designed to keep tempting contraband (such as smartphones, cigarettes, and credit cards) out of reach when self control is not enough.
Ultimately, placing your phone under lock and key should be a last resort. “I don’t think that gimmicks like lockboxes work unless you have done the intention-setting, mindset-shifting, attention-building work first,” Price said.
I saw dozens of lockboxes online at the time of testing, but I only considered compact options with digital timers, a solid locking mechanism, and a sturdy container. After researching eight lockboxes, I tested three.
I spent a week using these safes and found that locking my phone away for short bursts of time—an hour here, two hours there—did help with my productivity. If you haven’t yet done the work to distance yourself from your phone, a timed lockbox can help in the short term, but it’s not a permanent solution.
Of the boxes I tested, only the opaque kSafe lockbox was actually effective in helping me focus on the task at hand. It comes in a variety of sizes; I found the mini best for stowing away one or two phones at once, while the medium can hold an entire family’s smartphones. I couldn’t see my phone, which helped me forget that it was locked in there (though I could hear it buzzing from time to time, so I’d suggest powering down your phone before dropping it in).
The kSafe was also the easiest to use: The timer is set by spinning a large dial, and the easy-to-read screen clearly marks the hours and minutes until release. When my hand would involuntarily reach for my phone, I’d hit the box instead. To do something with my hands, I’d twist the time-setting dial, which I found cathartic, like using a fidget spinner. The kSafe can be locked for a little as one minute to as many as nine days, and it can’t be opened until the clock has run down (though you will have a five-second delay to abort the mission when you first set the timer). Having the potential to lock my phone away for multiple days at a time was nerve-racking, but it’s not something you can do accidentally—you’d have to make a very concerted effort to turn the dial to reach an exorbitant amount of time.
The kSafe’s biggest drawback is that it’s expensive. Both the mini and medium boxes are about $70, a pricey investment to make on an item meant to keep you from using another one of your pricey possessions.
You can find locking containers that are a lot cheaper, but after researching and testing a handful of them, I found that most are ineffective. Some of the boxes I tested, such as the JRing Time Locking Container, were too easy to get back into after the timer had been set. Others, like the ySky lockbox, allow owners some access to their phone screens through cutouts. Some of the much cheaper options, like the Pliislup lockbox, have cheap-feeling mechanisms that require some fiddling to spring open, even when the lock isn’t activated.
And clear boxes in general aren’t truly distraction free—because you can watch new messages and notifications fill your phone screen but you can’t do anything about it, which is a very specific form of 21st-century torture.
My relationship with my phone is by no means perfect, but it’s a lot better than it was at the beginning of this experiment. Rubber bands, lockboxes, and the One Sec app were helpful in the beginning, when I was still subconsciously reaching for my phone at every idle moment. But I was able to stop using them as I became more intentional about how I interacted with my phone. I still find myself drawn to social media throughout the day, but thanks to a combination of app blockers and screen-time limits, I spend way less time on those apps in general.
Making my bedroom a phone-free zone has also been a huge improvement. Now, instead of lulling myself to sleep with the blue glow of my screen, I read a book (an actual, physical book) before bed. Some nights, I even do the crossword—on paper, with a pencil. An alarm clock wakes me up in the morning as opposed to an alarm on my phone, and I’m able to go through my entire morning routine, which includes a cup of coffee, before ever touching my phone.
Though I’m not off the grid, like I was that day in Big Bend, I’ve drawn much healthier boundaries with my phone. Now, whether I’m in a national park or at dinner with friends, I find it a lot easier to engage with what’s happening around me instead of staring down at my phone screen.
This article was edited by Alex Aciman and Catherine Kast.
Catherine Price, science journalist and author of How to Break Up with Your Phone, phone interview, December 12, 2022
Elissa Sanci is a senior staff writer for Wirecutter’s discovery team based in Denver. Her byline has appeared in The New York Times, Woman’s Day, Marie Claire, and Good Housekeeping. When she’s not testing TikTok-famous products or writing about car garbage cans, you can find her hiking somewhere in the Rockies or lying on the couch with a bowl of chips balanced on her chest. There is no in-between.
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