Tim Harford: how behavioural economics helped kick my phone addiction
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The year 2011 was a big one for me. My son was born. We moved to a new city. I published a book. But something else happened that was in some ways more significant: on February 9 2011, I bought my first smartphone.
It didn’t feel like a milestone in my life at the time. I didn’t note it down in a diary or commit the date to memory. Only finding a copy of the receipt helped pin down the day. Yet I have come to realise that the phone was a very big deal indeed.
Daniel Kahneman, Nobel laureate and author of Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011), distinguishes between the “experiencing self” and the “remembering self”. My remembering self dwells upon the landmark moments such as the new baby. But my experiencing self is all about the phone.
I spend more time interacting with it than I do interacting with my children. I am in the presence of the device more than I am in the presence of my wife, although at least I have my priorities straight as to which I go to bed with.
As Cal Newport puts it in a new book, Digital Minimalism, we didn’t sign up for this. My first email account (1994) received a handful of messages a day, most of them newsletters I subscribed to in order to prevent cobwebs forming in my inbox. Facebook (2004) was a curiosity, less interesting than the latest computer game.
The first iPhone (2007) had no app store and was originally conceived as an iPod that made phone calls — although since “crackberry” had just been named the word of the year by Webster’s New World Dictionary, perhaps we should have seen what was coming.
But we didn’t. The hardware and software of the mobile age have gradually and profoundly entangled themselves in most parts of most people’s lives. If you are anything like me, you pick up your phone much more often than you pick up a knife and fork, and spend far longer reading email than reading books.
Not that I wish to grumble. These tools are enormously powerful. Without them I’d need to hire a secretary, spend hours playing phone tag and give up on working during long journeys by train and plane. Yes, they may occasionally distract me during the school nativity play, but the alternative would have been to miss the play entirely, because the office and the school are 50 miles apart.
I am not entirely happy with the role these technologies play in my life, but neither do I want to relinquish them. I know I’m not alone. For several years now, I’ve been dispensing sporadic advice about email overload both to readers and — if I am honest — to myself.
But late last year, I decided to do something more radical: to deploy everything I knew about economic theory and behavioural science, along with a few hard-won practical discoveries, to rebuild my relationship with the digital world from scratch. This is the story of what I learnt.
The power of the status quo
Inertia is always the first obstacle. Richard Thaler, who won a Nobel Memorial Prize for his contributions to behavioural economics, coined the term “endowment effect” to label the behaviour of an oenophile economist.
The economist had snapped up some Bordeaux wines for $10 a bottle, only to see them appreciate in value to $200 each. The economist wouldn’t have dreamt of paying $200 for a bottle of wine, but didn’t want to sell the wine for $200 either. He was happy to drink it on special occasions instead.
This behaviour is illogical: either the economist should prefer $200 or he should prefer the wine, and which he actually possesses should make no difference. Yet his actions seem perfectly natural, and Thaler and colleagues were able to demonstrate similar behaviour in laboratory experiments.
We like what we have, and these experiments suggest that we have no better reason for liking what we have other than that we have it: the disadvantages of choosing something else often loom larger than the advantages. As a result, we are reluctant to relinquish what we have — including the digital tools we’ve grown accustomed to using.
For this reason, digital sceptics such as Cal Newport and Jaron Lanier suggest that the first step in a reassessment of your digital habits should be a sharp temporary break.
Lanier, a pioneer of virtual reality and the author of Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now (2018), advises at least a six-month break from all social media. Newport suggests a briefer but broader ban: not only no social media, but no Netflix, no Google Maps, no smartphones — no digital tools at all for 30 days, apart from whatever is professionally essential.
The point here is not a “detox”. There is no intrinsic benefit to taking a month off from computers any more than one might recommend a brief, invigorating break from smoking or opiates.
The aim is to change the status quo to allow a reassessment. It’s only after you put down the electronic rucksack overflowing with digital possibility and stroll off unencumbered that you’re in a position to make a sensible decision about whether you really want to carry it around all day long.
So, I stripped various apps off my smartphone. The first time I dragged an icon to the “uninstall” bin felt like a big step, but it soon became a giddy pleasure. Off went the news apps, and a blog reader called Feedly that absorbed a huge amount of my time and attention. I already eschew games on my phone, but would have removed them too with gusto.
I spared the Financial Times app (which surely passes Newport’s test of professional necessity), and also retained Google Maps, a podcast player, The Economist’s “Espresso” app, the camera and the weather. Newport would have been more radical but I felt satisfied with my choices.
The big question was: what to do with my social media accounts? Facebook was simply too troublesome to delete, especially since my personal account is connected in opaque ways to a “Tim Harford” page maintained by my publishers. But I never had Facebook on my phone and after briefly unfollowing or muting all my contacts, I had no problem staying logged out.
My Twitter habit is more of a problem. I have 145,000 followers, gently persuaded over 10 years and 40,000 tweets to follow me — that’s about 10 books’ worth, or 20 years of weekly columns. This alone was a reminder of just what an effort Twitter could be; but deleting the account felt like the nuclear option.
So what could I do? Two years ago, I hid the “mentions” column so that I don’t see what other people say about me on Twitter. (Much is friendly, some hurtful and almost all superfluous.) Yet I was still wasting a lot of time noodling around there for no obvious gain. So I deleted the smartphone app and on November 23 2018, I tweeted that I was planning to “get off Twitter for a bit”. By a pleasing coincidence, the last person I interacted with before logging out was the man who named the endowment effect, Richard Thaler.
Time for what?
One of the most important — and misunderstood — ideas in economics is that of opportunity cost. Everything we do is an implicit decision not to do something else. If you decide to go to an evening lecture, you’re also deciding not to be at home reading a bedtime story. If you spend half an hour browsing news websites, that’s half an hour you can’t spend watching football. Those 40,000 tweets cost me something, but I am not sure what and I certainly didn’t ponder the cost while tweeting them.
This neglect of opportunity cost is a very human trait; we often fail to bring to mind the opportunity costs of our choices. One fun if slightly dated illustration of this is the choice between a £1,000 high-end CD player or a slightly less excellent £700 unit.
A difficult choice — until it is phrased as a choice between a top-notch £1,000 CD player or a £700 player plus £300 worth of CDs. At that point, most people clearly prefer the second option. The opportunity cost of the more expensive player could hardly be more obvious, and yet bringing the obvious to our attention changes our decisions.
For this reason I was determined not simply to cut back on my digital activities, but to fill the freed-up time and energy with something else. I focused on three activities. First, more exercise: I replaced Twitter with an exercise app that could run me through some brief, vigorous training sessions.
Second, more fun: I looked up some old friends and invited them to play role-playing games with me every other Sunday evening, rolling dice and pretending to be wizards. (I realise that Dungeons & Dragons isn’t cool. But neither am I, so I don’t care.)
And third, since social media is supposed to be about connecting with far-flung people, and since Christmas was looming, I decided to start writing letters to include with Christmas cards. I couldn’t write properly to everyone but I did manage to write serious letters to nearly 30 old friends, most of whom I’d not seen for a while. I reflected on our long friendships, brought to mind good times long past and, in particular, recalled important moments shared just by the two of us, nobody else. The letters were the antithesis of clicking “Like” on Facebook.
The experiment was beginning to get interesting.
Swiping, fast and slow
As Daniel Kahneman explained in Thinking, Fast and Slow: “When faced with a difficult question, we often answer an easier one instead, usually without noticing the substitution.” Rather than asking whether we should buy shares in Amazon, we ask, “Do I like to shop with Amazon?” Instead of pondering the leadership and managerial qualities of a presidential candidate, we ask ourselves whether we’d enjoy having a beer with them.
Tristan Harris, executive director of the Center for Humane Technology, argues that the digital services we use often perform this substitution for us. Imagine, says Harris, a group of friends on a night out, trying to figure out where they can go to keep the conversation flowing. They turn to their phones for a recommendation and find themselves gawping at images of cocktails on Instagram.
The phones, says Harris, replace the question, “Where can we go to keep talking?” with, “What’s a bar with good photos of cocktails?” Phones simply do not suggest options such as going back to someone’s apartment or strolling along the waterfront.
This happens all the time, and we often don’t notice the substitution. Looking for love, we swipe through faces on Tinder rather than searching for local clubs or volunteering activities. Picking up a phone to check the time in the morning, the question “What’s the time?” is quickly substituted with, “What did I miss while sleeping”?
While writing the last paragraph, I was confronted with the perfect example. It started to rain. Wanting to know whether the shower would last, I typed “weather” into Google. I was given an instant answer to my question, but I was also shown a list of weather presenters. Human faces! They are always eye-catching.
An old university acquaintance became a TV weather presenter; I wondered how she was doing. Who wouldn’t? Of course Google substituted an easier question: What does she look like these days? Other photos of weather presenters were also offered and, 30 seconds later, I was looking at pictures of a completely different weather personality, Tomasz Schafernaker, stripped to the waist.
Fifteen years ago, I would have struggled to explain this sequence of events to my wife. But nowadays, no explanation is really needed. We all know how swiftly and easily “When will it stop raining?” can lead to “What do Tomasz Schafernaker’s nipples look like?”
Trying to get some work done with an internet-enabled device is like trying to diet when there’s a mini-fridge full of beer and ice cream sitting on your desk, always within arm’s reach. You can crack open a can and take a swig before you’ve even realised what you’re doing.
Perhaps even worse, the tempting rewards are unpredictable. The psychologist BF Skinner once found himself trying to eke out a supply of food pellets he’d been using to reward rats. To his surprise, he found that “intermittent reinforcement” — sometimes the rats would get a pellet, sometimes not — was more motivating than reliable rewards. Unpredictable treats are highly addictive, just like email, social media or clickbait headlines.
So what to do about this problem? It’s not easy: by definition an intuitive response occurs before we have time to stop and think. The obvious solution is to create some friction. I installed a software plug-in called Strict Workflow on my desktop browser. With one click, it blocks time sinks such as Twitter, YouTube and various clickbait news websites for a period of 25 minutes.
It’s astonishing how many times during those 25 minutes I reflexively check, see the blocking message instead and go back to work. I’m hopeful that a few weeks or months with this blocker may break this fast-twitch habit, but in any case the software works.
Meanwhile, by uninstalling news apps, Twitter and Feedly, I’d made my phone less like a sweet shop. As a testimony to the power of unconscious habit, after uninstalling Feedly, I deleted a few incoming emails, then unthinkingly tried to find it. It took a moment for me to realise I was searching for an app that I’d deleted less than a minute earlier.
It was a reminder that there’s more going on here than poor or short-sighted decision-making: often when we use our phones, we’re not really making any conscious decision at all.
Paul Romer won a Nobel Memorial Prize recently for analysing the way different innovations would spill over, enabling other innovations and the process of economic growth itself. Four weeks into my experiment, I was noticing some unexpected spillover benefits myself. The phone was still tempting, but decreasingly so. I took my children to see a Christmas film and, for the first time in years, didn’t feel the urge to check it.
I was getting a real sense of the mutually reinforcing nature of the distraction ecosystem — and how I’d failed to see it clearly when inside it. In November, for example, I would have been scrolling through Feedly looking for interesting material. I told myself I was looking for things to read, but really I was looking for things to tweet about. If pushed for time, I’d sometimes tweet things instead of reading them. This foolishness was evidence of a seriously bad habit.
But having uninstalled Twitter, I found myself less tempted to go and look at my Twitter stats (nothing to see) and also less tempted to flick through the blogs. After all, if I wasn’t going to tweet about them, why not read a book instead? Each new app that I removed from my phone weakened my tendency to pick up the device; often, it made other apps less useful or less appealing. I hadn’t seen this effect coming, but I wasn’t complaining.
Adapting to events
The first of January is usually the date for turning over a new leaf but, with hindsight, beginning my experiment in late November instead was an accidental masterstroke. The run-up to Christmas is a different kind of busy: the volume of email declines, replaced by Christmas cards and shopping lists. It’s a time when we often see people face-to-face instead of on Facebook.
By unplugging various digital services, I was moving with the wind at my back; doing firmly and deliberately what I might anyway have drifted towards.
The experiment was working well. I wasn’t missing Twitter at all. I was spending much less time with the phone. Some old friends were emerging from the woodwork to tell me how much they enjoyed receiving my letter. A few fretted that I was going through some kind of crisis, but overall the letters felt like a vastly better way to contact people than through Facebook.
When I did see friends and family, I found it easier to give them my full attention. Sherry Turkle, author of Reclaiming Conversation (2015), has found that people initially used texts as an add-on to face-to-face conversation, but the texts soon became a substitute: more convenient, more controllable.
The problem with real conversation, one high-school senior told her, was that “it takes place in real time and you can’t control what you’re going to say”.
I sympathise, and we probably all had face-to-face conversations over Christmas that we wish could have been conducted from a thousand miles away. But while real conversation can be tiring, it is also vastly more rich and meaningful than a few dozen bytes of text. The less distracting I found my phone, the more I enjoyed talking to the people in front of me.
At the end of December came a strange and unexpected test: I was awarded an OBE in the New Year honours list. Suddenly the digital hush of the year’s twilight was interrupted by a steady stream of congratulatory messages.
I was out walking with some old friends, catching up on the news of the past few months and chatting about the year ahead. In my pocket, my phone was pinging, and I felt increasingly anxious about letting the messages go unanswered. I snatched moments here and there to type responses, offering slightly embarrassed excuses to my companions.
It’s not an experience I’m likely to repeat, but it taught me a few lessons. First, even friendly digital messages can provoke anxiety. I was fearful of appearing ungrateful by not replying promptly. This was silly. A delay would not have bothered anyone. But I couldn’t help myself. I should have left the phone at home.
Second, it’s easy to reactivate bad habits. After a couple of weeks in which I checked my phone a few times a day instead of several times an hour, the influx of messages pushed me back into the habit of checking my phone like a rat hoping for a food pellet. It took several days more to regain some calm.
Third, and more positively, the investment in spurning social media was paying dividends. I did buckle and log into Facebook for the first time in weeks, not wanting to ignore messages of congratulation. It was completely silent. People had worked out, it seems, that Facebook wasn’t a good way to reach me. I managed to resist logging into Twitter completely.
Still, I did start to wonder whether the new regime would survive contact with the normal working routines of January. I called Jocelyn Glei, author of Unsubscribe (2016) and host of the Hurry Slowly podcast. “The notion that you’re going to change all your habits and be done is absurd,” she cheerfully warned me. Fair enough — but then how to sustain the new pattern?
Glei’s advice was to remain vigilant. It’s one thing to check out at Christmas, another to do so in September. It makes sense to stay off Twitter while writing a book; less sense, perhaps, while marketing it. Each new project, she advised, required a quick re-evaluation of where to draw the digital boundaries. The digital reset was going to be a work in progress.
The point of the break was to allow a thoughtful assessment of which digital services were worth letting back into my life. So as the new year starts up and emails start to flow freely again, what did I learn?
First, I didn’t miss being plugged into Twitter at all. I’ve been ignoring notifications for years — thus missing some of the benefit and much of the aggravation of the platform — but have still been tweeting away out of some strange combination of duty and inertia.
My new plan is to log in for a few hours on Friday, set up some links to my columns and other projects that may interest some people, and log out again. If I ever see a good reason to use the platform more intensively, I’ll be back.
Second, I enjoyed having a more boring phone. With very little on it now but an easily emptied email inbox and the FT app, I pick it up less often and for less time, and am more likely to do something useful with it when I do check it.
I did reinstall Feedly — which I find essential for my job — but will keep an eye on my usage. With no tweets to send, the app has become more useful. I read for the sake of learning rather than for the sake of tweeting.
Third, the “strict workflow” blocker worked so well in saving me from my fast-twitch impulses that I added my email inbox to the blocked list. I’d had limited success with an email blocker before, but this time was much more successful, perhaps because the blocker was part of a larger plan.
Finally, it was good to focus on the upside of the digital decluttering. Although it was partly an exercise in habit-breaking or self-denial, it was much more useful to think of it as spending time and attention on things that mattered.
Some old friends seemed genuinely touched to receive a real letter; nobody has ever been touched by a Facebook “Like”. I felt in better shape at the beginning of January than at the beginning of December, which is hardly the usual Christmas experience. I walked, talked, ate and drank with old friends. I even battled a few imaginary wizards.
I’ve no desire to give all this up to spend more time with my phone.
Tim Harford is an FT columnist
FT Solutions Network: What do you think could help us with our digital addictions? Share your ideas and experiences in the comments below. If we can persuade Tim Harford to come back online for a moment, he will be responding
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