Downtime? 25 Alternatives to Reaching for Your Smartphone

By Kyle Ingham

June 11, 2014   •   Fact checked by Dumb Little Man

You may not realize it, but you’re a drug addict. The drug I’m talking about is your smartphone.

You can’t deny it. The first moment you have a second free, what do you reach for?

You’re waiting for the train or the bus. Or you’ve just gotten out of a meeting. You’ve been disconnected for like, 27 minutes now! Got to check what’s going on in the world. Did you get an email? Did someone “like” your status? Did you get retweeted? You’ve gotta know now.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m just as guilty as you. I know whenever there’s an “in-between” moment I automatically—it’s a reflex—reach for my smartphone. I notice my pulse elevate slightly in anticipation just before I get that first hit: Ahhhh, it was just a LinkedIn update. But I feel better. Relaxed, at least for a moment. I’m good for another 9 minutes at least.

I know I do it, but I don’t like it. At best, it makes me feel unimaginative. At worst, I worry I’m starting to become an automaton.

So it got me thinking. What’s the alternative?

In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg argues that you can’t erase a habit, you’ve to “hack it.” Every habit is made up of a cue, a routine, and a reward. To change the habit, you have to take the same cue, insert a new routine, and have a similar reward.

Rather than send us all to rehab, I propose some alternate routines to help us “hack” this habit. If the cue for my smartphone is downtime, and the reward is getting information or stimulation somehow, what’s the new routine?

Surely it can’t be that hard to figure out alternatives. I mean, cell phones have only been widely available for 14-15 years. (Shoutout to my old Nokia 5110!). It’s not like we never had downtime before.

After giving it some thought, here are 25 things you can do in those “in-between” moments INSTEAD of reach for your smartphone:

1. Read a book or a newspaper.

2. Notice your surroundings. What do you see? Take note of all the sounds and smells.

3. Connect eyes with a stranger and smile. No need to be creepy. Just do it for a second.

4. Write your to-do list for the day.

5. Begin your bucket list. What to start with, surfing in Costa Rica or base-jumping in Dubai?

6. Call a friend. (I thought we weren’t using smartphones?!) You get a pass on this one. There’s a difference between the addictive reflex of checking social media and talking with a live person.

7. Start a conversation with a stranger. It might brighten both your days.

8. Whistle a tune.

9. Tear into some Sudoku or a crossword. It improves your brainpower.

10. Really look at the ads around you. Instead of seeing them as visual noise, try to learn something new.

11. Write a handwritten note to someone.

12. Do nothing and just breathe. Clear your mind. Doing this for just 2 minutes can change your day.

13. Be mindful of your posture and notice everyone else’s. You’re all probably slouching.

14. Supposedly, you are the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with. Think about your 5. Are they who you would choose?

15. Look at everyone around you and imagine their backstory. You might crack yourself up.

16. Flex your PC muscle. It’s good for women and men.

17. Listen to some music. (Wait, but all my music’s on my smartphone!) That’s ok, use it, but only listen to music, do nothing else.

18. Talk to a pretty girl or guy.

19. Pick up a piece of trash and toss it in the bin. You’ve done your karmic deed for the week.

20. Think about something or someone you’re thankful for.

21. Imagine what people would say about you at your funeral. Morbid, I know. But it really makes you look at your life and may inspire some changes.

22. Think about what you’re most proud of in your life. This used to be my favorite interview question to throw at people. The responses were all over the map.

23. Think about 3 big things you want to achieve in the next 5 years. Are you tracking to those goals now?

24. Imagine it’s 1986 when no one had cell phones. How did they ever survive?! How else did they occupy themselves?

25. Stretch. It improves blood flow and makes you live longer.

Kyle Ingham

Kyle Ingham is the founder of The Distilled Man, a website that features articles on essential skills every guy should know, like grilling, cocktails, and etiquette.

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