The AIR method: A step-by-step guide on seeing your phone as a tool, not entertainment
Designed for people with lives and burned out attention spans
“You can try having self-control, but there are a thousand engineers on the other side of the screen working against you.” ― Tristan Harris
Much digital ink has been spilled concerning how social media/smartphone addiction is unhealthy for individuals and society, but there exist few tutorials on how to actually quit. What does exist tends to be laughably inadequate clickbait pieces that only provide one small part of the solution.
The AIR method is what I learned from three years of trial-and-error. It is a practical step-by-step method for people with lives (and battered attention spans) to mentally re-associate the smartphone as a tool to be used as needed, not an entertainment device to alleviate boredom. It is a series of low-effort, incremental changes who’s effects accumulate over time.
Do you ever stare blankly at a screwdriver when you’re tired or bored? Do you get anxiety leaving the house without one or fret about what your friends are using their screwdrivers for? By re-learning to see your phone as a tool, you can break the cycle of emotional dependence and no longer lean on your phone to ease boredom or stress.
What does AIR stand for?
A.I.R. stands for:
“Accumulative, Incremental, Rewiring”.
Un-learning a habit takes time. It is one of those things that cannot be automated, sped up, or “optimized”. In fact- an urge to seek immediate satisfaction is the exact habit this guide is meant to help you overcome. By learning to control our learned impatience, we can become less anxious, less depressed and more grounded.
How much time/willpower will this take?
Time: about a year (maybe more). Total willpower: while not being absolutely zero, is statistically insignificant. If done correctly you should not ever feel “deprived”. This isn’t a diet. You won’t need to feel hungry all the time.
Visualize yourself as being carried along a network of rivers. Use your willpower to hang onto the raft and not fall out. With a few well-timed rudder tweaks you can let the river of time do the hard work and still end up where you want to be. Between the adjustments you can live your life as normal.
Why focus on smartphones?
You may find (like I did) that removing addictive content from your phone is enough to significantly reclaim much of your time and feelings of control. Our phones are constantly with us, but also something many of us are unwilling or unable to go without for long periods. Being able to be reached in an emergency is important, many of us need some apps during work hours, etc. Restructuring my life and buying a “dumbphone” was not a viable option.
Why not Cold Turkey?
Some people do find success with simply deleting all accounts or buying a dumbphone. But quitting without learning how to deescalate makes it very easy for one moment of weakness to cause you to fall whole-cloth back into old habits, even after months of abstention. If the only way you learned how to enter a pool is to jump off the diving board, you will always end up completely immersed. The AIR method teaches how to use the metaphorical ladder, so you can go in (and more importantly, out) only to the degree needed.
“One day at a time”
This may take you more time than you’d hoped, but don’t be dissuaded. It is a series of very small, absurdly easy, baby steps forward. It may not feel like you’re making progress sometimes, and that’s the point. There won’t be a grand moment of revelation or a graduation ceremony, but there will come a moment when you realize you’ve arrived where you’ve wanted to be.
Can I skip ahead if I’m feeling good about my progress?
Move ahead cautiously. You may feel confident now, but consider your potential future self who is more bored/tired/anxious/depressed than you are. Your job is to give your subconscious brain time to re-wire itself. That process cannot be sped up.
Willpower only works in short bursts. It can’t be used long-term without exhausting you, which can cause you to seek stress-reducing behavior such as zoning out on your phone, undoing the work put in. Save your energy to prevent backsliding. When you feel discouraged remember this mantra:
Not making progress is still better than moving backwards.
Hi! Just wanted to let you know yours is the first Substack newsletter I’ve ever paid for. Thank you for making it affordable.
I think the work you’re doing here is essential. Looking forward to seeing the rest of your writings.