How Your Phone Has Changed Your Brain, And 11 Steps To Change It Back

What has our attention is what forms us. Here are some steps to help us put that attention back where it belongs.

Your brain is different than it was 10 years ago. If you’ve spent much time online, especially on your phone, this has affected how you think, feel, and act in ways you probably don’t recognize.

I started noticing it a few years ago. I’ve always been a very avid reader, but in recent years I’ve been reading a lot less. For a couple years my book reading was in single digits. And even then I wasn’t enjoying or comprehending the little I was reading.

Busyness was the problem. That’s what I told myself. But that was only some of the problem. The biggest issue, by far, was my online consumption. It wasn’t just taking the majority of my time, it was changing the way I thought and processed everything when I wasn’t online.

My attention span was shorter, my patience was thin, and my ability to sit for extended periods of time to read, pray, ponder, or think had been drastically reduced.

This is a problem. A dramatically reduced attention span is a problem for everyone, of course, but it’s especially problematic for a pastor. Our calling requires us to slow down for long periods of time to read, study, think, plan, pray, counsel, and so much more. But the amount of time we spend online not only reduces the time we have available for that, it reduces our ability to do it.

We need a reset.

Take Your Digital Life Back

No, I’m not suggesting we abandon our online lives. I wrote these words in a laptop on which I also do research, answer emails, connect with people on social media, and send you this article.

We don’t need to abandon technology. We need to be less attached and reactive to it, and more proactive about how and when we use it.

It’s time to take our digital lives back. To use the devices instead of them using us. To get the benefits from them without being overwhelmed with the negative side effects.

Yes, that may sound optimistic to the point of idealism or even naïveté, but I think we can do it. I know we can do it. Because I’ve done it. No, I’m not perfect at it. It’s a daily struggle. But with a handful of purposeful, proactive strategies, we can reorganize our time, reset our brains, and reclaim vast chunks of our lives for the service of others, the health of ourselves, the delight of our families, and the glory of God.

Here are 11 starter strategies that have worked for me.

1. Define Your Digital Reality

Take an audit of your screen time for a week. You’ll be surprised. Or maybe you won’t be, and that’s why you may be afraid to look at it.

It’s been said that the first job of the leader is to define reality. So, the first job of leading your digital self is to define your digital reality. It’s like getting on the scale when you start a weight-loss regimen. The truth may be hard to look at, but it’s essential for setting future goals.

2. Separate The Essential From The Habitual

After the audit, decide what screen time is essential, and what is habit. For most people, the habitual far outweighs the necessary.

What’s necessary? Whatever is required for work and communication. And even a lot of that can be reduced. Do you really need to check your emails several times an hour? Likely once or twice a day is enough. Everything else is probably habit.

3. Put Something Better In Its Place

Once you’ve identified the nonessential screen time, decide what you’ll replace it with. Reading, walking, family fun, gardening, whatever builds up your mind, body, and spirit in ways that you enjoy.

If you only decide to spend less time online without having a proactive plan to do something you love as a replacement for it, you’ll fail. Rewarding yourself with enjoyable tasks makes it easier.

4. Delete Time-Wasting Apps

Whether it’s social media, games, or online shopping, if it steals your time, remove it from your phone and decide you’ll only engage in it at predetermined times on a device that you don’t carry with you – like your laptop.

5. Stop Notifications

We don’t need to know everything at the moment it happens. This was such a freeing thing for me when I did it a few years ago. Instead of my phone telling me when to look at it, I decide when that will be.

6. Move Some Activities Back To Analog

Recent studies have shown that you remember far more from paper than from digital. Whether it’s reading a print book or taking notes in a paper journal, the act of recording or reading offline engages our memory on a far deeper level. This is true for fiction and nonfiction, journaling and calendars, brainstorming and problem-solving.

7. Set A Timer

Yes, you can use your device to reduce the time on your device.

When you start this, you’ll find yourself wanting to grab your device, even getting nervous when you don’t. Set an alarm for a predetermined time when you give yourself permission to check your messages, emails, and social media. This should also have a predetermined end time. Then you can go about your other activities, knowing the next opportunity won’t be missed.

Start with the alarms fairly close together – maybe every hour – then gradually lengthen the time over a period of days until you get comfortable with once or twice a day.

8. Put Your Phone In Another Room

When you’re engaged in important offline activities, leave your phone somewhere else. For family dinners, time with your spouse, gatherings with friends, and church, if the phone isn’t with you you’re more likely to give those people and activities the attention they deserve.

If you’re not at home and can’t leave your phone in another room, here’s an alternative…

9. Make It Cost You Something

A few years ago I was at a restaurant for a large gathering. There were a lot of youth at the table. After ordering, one of them yelled “phones!” Immediately, every teenager took their phone out of their pocket and placed it in the center, stacked in two piles.

I asked what was going on and was told “if anyone grabs their phone before the end of dinner they have to pay for everyone’s dessert.”

We spent the entire meal in conversation, without a single usage of a phone. Not a bad idea.

10. Reduce, Then Eliminate Bedtime Usage

The phone is the first thing many of us touch in the morning, and the last thing we touch at night. This affects our entire day.

Make a pledge that you won’t use your phone in bed. You’ll be amazed at the positive effect this one decision will have on your day, your habits, and your sleep.

11. Ask God For Help

You’re not in this alone. Your time matters to God. If you go to him in prayer, Jesus will strengthen you to reset your brain, renew your spirit, and reestablish healthier, God-honoring habits.

What has our attention is what forms us. This is proven by both the Bible and neuroscience. Right now, our devices have more of our attention than anything – maybe more than everything else combined.

We need to give that attention back where it belongs – on Jesus and on those who are made in God’s image, including our own spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical health.

(Photo by Mirøslav Hristøff | Flickr)


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