If the phone feels addictive, it is because it is. The “monkey on your back” saying initially talked about a monkey on the roof and had to do with debt and burden in the 1800’s. In the 1940’s it started to be applied to addictions. The idea of burden and addiction is applicable to our struggles to put down our phones today, research supports this. Many apps have an addictive component, the variable ratio schedule of likes, comments, sales closing, and notifications is attractive to our brain. Have you ever been scrolling on your phone, seemingly looking for something and you have no idea what it is? It might be dopamine, it is released when we hit those exciting and attractive variables that activate the pleasure center of our brain, and so we search for more of it. The self-regulatory part of your brain, the prefrontal cortex starts to nudge you with the idea that you should stop and put down the phone. The more we look for these little highs the more habit forming it can become and possibly addictive and new neural pathways are formed in our brain and these pleasure pathways aren’t giving the prefrontal cortex much say in the matter. Addictive behaviours look very similar on a brain scan with the same pathways lighting up for incessant smartphone use, cocaine addiction or an addiction to slot machines. I find this terrifying. Especially when you look at pictures of the addicted brain where the shape and definition look vastly different from a healthy one. Research is studying all this now and I worry about the long term results.

I think we would all agree, phones are a problem. Look around at restaurants on the streets, everyone is looking down. It is concerning. We can affect out brain’s functioning with constant phone use and we need to make changes to reset our brain health. Change might be too much for our self-control alone so it is important to set out some parameters.

Here are six practical ways to get that monkey off your back:

1. Be intentional: I can literally be checking in between everything and even during things. Half the time I don’t even know I am doing it, mindlessly picking the phone up and putting it down. Tonight, my daughter wants me to watch her entire ballet practice. What are the chances I can do it without glancing at my phone? Going in unintentional with my actions will make this impossible. The key is to be mindful. So often our phone checking is simply a habit and one we need to break.

2. Schedule time to be on your phone: I utilize social media for work, and can’t ignore it all day, but I certainly don’t have to be a slave to it all day either and so it has a scheduled slot which makes the time I am on it more productive as it is no longer limitless.

3. Schedule in an end time too: It is all well and good to say you will check it at your break and lunch but give yourself a time limit. How often do we check to see if that message went through, plan to quickly check something else, and fall down a black hole of baby pictures, memes, amusing pet pictures, blatant advertising, and a million shots of what you are behind on and not living up to. If you were asked you if you had an hour for social media in your busy schedule today you would have likely given me a hard no, and an hour might be a good day for you, see point 4. We are mindlessly getting hours in of this unproductive stuff.

4. Watch and record your productivity: My friend Kelly alerted me to the ability to track how much I am using my phone and for what. It is upsetting. Life is really busy for me right now and time is super important to me, so to see the time I am putting into the scroll is quite upsetting. Become aware but don’t stop there. Try recording how much you are on social media, what is productive, what isn’t and write down numbers each day. I do this because I want to decrease my use, use my time more wisely, and get in and get out so I can do that IRL living stuff.

5. Do not take it to bed: My phone has a new hang out, it is downstairs in the living room. There isn’t a fancy docking station, but this would be a great thing to implement. Keeping it downstairs keeps it from being priority number one…  not the first thing I look at when I wake or the last thing I look at when I go to sleep.

6. Turn off Notifications: I might be in a conversation or in the middle of work and be interrupted with an alert that makes me think about whatever it is telling me and completely lose track of what I am doing. I don’t find it helpful. Now that I am scheduling in time I can check my social media in a measured way and don’t need the notifications on every little single like, sale or email.


Kimberly Haydn said that “Every single time you say “yes” to something, you are inadvertently saying “no” to something else. Choose wisely”. What are you saying no to when you are distracted by your phone? As we experience the benefits of choosing when we want to use our phone, and not simply ending up on it by default, we are living a more present life.