Modern Life

9 tips for less screen time and more real time in 2020

Simple ideas for a digital reset and a new year of mental clarity and deeper connections.

By Liz Krieger — December 24, 2019

We all know the importance of work-life balance to reduce stress and prevent burnout, but what about screen-life balance? With the new year and resolutions on everyone’s mind, it’s the perfect time to try a digital reset — and that doesn’t mean chucking your phone or laptop out the window. Living in the real world means acknowledging that tech has a place in your life — and ensuring you’re the one deciding what that place is and how much of your time it deserves. 

“We have reached a point where most people are noticing that all the screen time simply doesn’t feel great,” says Nina Schroder, a mental health therapist at Virginia Commonwealth University, who researches the effects of high screen use on mental health. “Since the rise of the smartphone, indicators of mental wellness such as happiness, self-esteem, and life satisfaction have decreased while serious mental health issues like anxiety, depression, and loneliness have increased significantly, particularly among young people.”

If you feel like screen time increasingly takes more of your time, you’re not alone. In a study from the Pew Research Center, nearly one-third of US adults said they are “constantly online.” And over 60% of respondents in an HP survey said they feel their digital lives and real lives feel out of balance.  

How well are you balancing the time you spend on screens and fiddling with devices versus interacting with the world around you, free from photo-filter perfection and unending pings? Too much time with your device may mean you’re spending less time with loved ones, or you may be missing out on things you enjoy, like spending time in nature, exercising with friends, or taking a class. 

Schroder says the first step to finding the right balance is to consider your core values: “What do you most care about in your life? What makes you feel good? How would you like to spend your time?” Focus on what you can gain from less screen time instead of what you’re giving up, and try these simple steps to kick off your digital reset resolution and stick with it.

“Until you let yourself have that non-digital time you can’t know what it is you have been missing.”

—Jess Davis, founder of Folk Rebellion

1. Try a test run

You don’t have to quit cold turkey. Spending a full day untethered from devices can give you valuable feedback to help make your resolution successful, says Jess Davis, founder of Folk Rebellion, a lifestyle brand that promotes slower living and mindful use of technology. You may notice you don’t feel as scattered as you do when you’re constantly checking your phone or social media accounts. “Until you let yourself have that non-digital time, you can’t know what you’ve been missing,” she says. If a day is too much, try an hour or two, and then challenge yourself to gradually increase your screen-free time.

2. Use distraction-busting apps and features

While some people swear by only replying to email at certain times of the day — say, one hour in the morning and another in the late afternoon — that requires a lot of self-control. Instead, try managing when the messages come in by using an app like Boomerang, which includes an Inbox Pause feature that lets you choose when you see incoming emails. “I find it gives me a lot of mental relief knowing that I don’t have to deal with things until I chose to have them come in,” says Davis. Apps like Freedom or RescueTime can step in where your own willpower may be weak, helping you block access to certain sites or apps so you can stay focused without being tempted to check email or your Twitter feed. To avoid distracting rings and buzzes from her smartphone, Kate Carpenter, a writer in Pelham, New York, simply puts it in Do Not Disturb mode. “When my phone isn’t pinging, I don’t pick it up nearly as much,” she says.

Edgar Castrejon

Screen-free, in-person interactions are especially critical for young people — digital natives who may be missing out on the social skill-building and human connection that happens off screen.

3. Set digital boundaries

So many people feel that they have to respond to emails and texts within minutes of receiving them, but you can change that, says Davis. You can train people what to expect from you. Consider setting up an automatic reply in your email that lays out just how long it typically takes you to get back to people — and make it something that allows some breathing room. Try something like: “Thanks for your email. I typically reply within 24 hours. If this is urgent you can call me at …”

4. Choose talk over text

The next time you’re considering sending someone a text or an instant message, call them, or if you’re at work, walk over to their desk and talk to them. Despite all of our online “connection,” loneliness is at an all-time high, says Schroder. Texts, email, and social media give us a sense of direct communication, but without that in-person interaction and important nuance that comes from making eye contact and seeing facial expressions. They can also distract us from making personal connections and building important social relationships. When Davis took a few days away from her devices, she noticed how many times she kept touching her back pocket to pull out her phone the second she met someone new —  her way of coping with the feeling of discomfort. Screen-free, in-person interactions are especially critical for young people — digital natives who may be missing out on the social skill-building and human connection that happens off screen. 

5. Create screen-free spaces

In Schroder’s family, phones aren’t allowed in the kitchen, because people tend to congregate there, and she wants it to be a zone for conversation and connection. Virginia Sole-Smith, a journalist who lives in upstate New York, puts her phone “to sleep” in the family’s mudroom at about 8:30 every night, and doesn’t touch it until she’s been awake at least a half an hour in the morning. Amanda Duff, a publicist in Connecticut, also banishes the phone around bedtime: “That’s when I place it in a drawer in our foyer, far away from my bedroom.” That’s an especially wise choice, given that the blue light emitted from devices can interfere with sleep.

Jon Flobrant

In the new year, think about how you would create a screen-life balance by setting some digital boundaries.

6. Relearn the art of waiting

Next time you’re waiting in a line, look around and you’re likely to see people bent over their phones, whiling away those minutes by staring at a screen. “We’ve lost the ability to just wait, and that means that the art of chit-chat has died, as has the kind of daydreaming that can happen when you have a chunk of unstructured time,” says Schroder. If you’re out running errands like grocery shopping or grabbing the dry-cleaning, try leaving your phone in the car or turning it off. It’s a small step, but over time, it can help you detach from your device and use downtime in a more meaningful way.

7. Rediscover analog alternatives

Books, magazines, cameras, photo albums — yes, they can take up space, but using them can help you feel more grounded in the off-screen world. There’s something about just looking at a picture — holding it in our hands — that is powerful, says Schroder, and researchers know that there’s less of an emotional connection when something is viewed on a screen versus in its physical form. For example, Davis says introducing her son to music on vinyl records has given him an appreciation of the artists behind the music, since their names are printed right on the album. “We have to show kids the actual items, not just pixels and bytes,” she says. “We are fundamentally analog creatures.”

8. Get a watch. And an alarm clock. Maybe both.

Part of what keeps us glued to our smartphone screens is that we’ve come to rely on them for so much more than communication. “The phone can cannibalize everything in our lives,” says Davis, who notes that many people pick up their phones dozens of times a day just to see what time it is. “Give it less control over the needs in your life and you’re less likely to engage with it,” she says. Or consider this workaround, from Jody Lappin, a pediatrician in Southern California, who actually found that using a smartwatch helped her put her phone away. “I have to be available for calls and texts for work, but this way, I can put my phone away when I get home, which decreases my email and social media checking.”

Jessica Rockowitz

Focus on what you will gain from a digital reset and not what you are giving up.

9. Make your screen boring and less convenient 

If you’re like many people, you have a picture of a loved one or a pet on the home/lock screen. “Consider switching that out for something that’s less emotionally connected, so that every time you see your phone you don’t have an association with those loved ones,” says Catherine Price, author of How To Break Up With Your Phone and creator of Try setting your screen to grayscale so you’re not drawn to the bright colors and distinctive logos of your favorite apps, and make those apps a little harder to find. Price suggests moving them to the last screen on your phone, and then putting them inside a folder you have to click into to access. 

“You should try to make your phone a tool, not a temptation,” she says, adding that, ultimately, achieving screen-life balance isn’t about assuming all screen time is bad. It’s about being intentional about when and why it happens. “When you’re evaluating how you want to spend your time in general, you can think about what you do like about, say, your phone, so you can keep that and jettison the rest,” Price says.