How to Not Be Pavlov’s Dog: A Four-Week Plan to Unplug from Your Smartphone

Our smartphones: can’t live with them, can’t live without them. But is that really the case? Maybe there’s a way to be more connected to people without our phones.

The buzzes. The pings. The beeps. The rings.

All these noises and sensations send us running to our phones like little scurrying Pavlov’s dogs (if you’re unfamiliar with this classic psychology experiment, click here).

Even before we reach our phones, when we hear those sounds or feel those telltale vibrations, we’re already salivating for that next text, tweet, or email.

And even without those notifications, sometimes you may feel phantom vibrations in your leg as if your phone is buzzing. Or, you may just reflexively reach for your phone when you’re bored.

The Smartphone as Time Machine

Last year, I realized I was developing an unhealthy relationship with my phone. In fact, the phone had become something of a time machine.

I would be sitting at home watching a movie with my family, while jumping from app to email to Facebook, to text–making sure I was “on top of things”–and next thing I knew, the movie was over.

Somehow, I had missed it.

Had I been transported in time? Was it a really short movie?

No. I just wasn’t present.

The Cost of Being Responsive

All those “communication” apps were also starting to mess with me. I’d be in my office working on a project, but my phone kept reminding me of new messages from my team in Slack, from Upwork, Google Chat, Facebook Messenger, and Skype.

My team and clients had gotten used to “instant access” to me, and, to be honest–I was kind of proud to be so responsive.

But quickly responding to any question anytime is not a good habit to get into. It leads to bad expectations and frankly, the quality of my responses would vary greatly.

Smartphones: Tools of Connection or Addiction?

So many of us rely on our smartphones for not only keeping up with friends and family but also to keep up with our businesses. Ever since the first iPhone was introduced in 2007, our lives have been transformed by our access to information and to people–for better, but sometimes, for worse.

For one thing, smartphones can actually make you not so smart. You’ve probably heard by now that apps like Facebook are created to be addictive. We keep checking in to see if we’ve missed anything–the latest updates from our friends, texts from our loved ones, or the latest sports update.

Smartphones create a lot of unnecessary FOMO–fear of missing out.

Nancy Colier, author of the book, The Power of Off told The Seattle Times these startling facts of how connected we are to our smartphones these days:

“Most people now check their smartphones 150 times per day or every six minutes.

Young adults are now sending an average of 110 texts per day.

Forty-six percent of smartphone users now say that their devices are something they ‘couldn’t live without.’”

Are you one of those 46 percent of people? Is your smartphone something you “couldn’t live without?”

Think about this: when you are so hooked into your smartphone, how present are you for your family, your friends, and your clients? It can keep you distracted from important conversations you’re having face-to-face with people and from maintaining focus on your work.

Reaching out for your smartphone can become such an impulse, you may even think it’s an extension of yourself.

Not sure if this is true for you? Let’s think about the last time you lost your smartphone. Did you panic, frantically looking for it? Or, did you think it would eventually turn up and didn’t worry much about it?

Are you looking to untether yourself from your smartphone? Are you ready to cut that digital umbilical cord?

A Four-Week Plan to Untether Yourself from Your Smartphone

Because of my own frustrations with the constant interruptions to my workflow and my family time, I came up with a plan to break up with my cell phone, step by step. I even built a little wooden box in my workshop where I put my phone at the end of the day.

Keeping it on the counter wasn’t enough. I have to put it “in the box.” This physical barrier reminds me not to mindlessly pick it up.

So here it is–a four-week plan to break up with your smartphone and reclaim your life from those non-stop beeps and buzzes.

But, before you begin, I strongly suggest that you make sure you tell your contacts that you’ll be doing this. Not only will that give you some accountability, and you won’t be needlessly worrying folks, but people can then support you in how you want to be contacted. It’ll help set you up for success.


    • Week One turn off all notifications except phone calls and texts. Yes, it will a shock when your best friend isn’t buzzing or beeping all day to remind you that you are important, but it’s only a week, so let’s see how it goes. This will start breaking you from the Pavlov’s dog conditioning–i.e., your phone is Pavlov and his bell, and you are the dog.
    • Week TwoTurn off ALL your notifications. Yes, every single one. This includes your incoming phone calls, texts, and emails. Plan on scheduling 3-4 times a day to check in and see what you missed. You may surprise yourself with how much time you’ve freed up.
    • Week Three Check your phone only two times a day. So, at this point, you may still have some anxiety because you don’t have your phone constantly in your hand. You’re not cranking out emails via Siri while you are driving across town to your next appointment, or you’re not constantly replying to texts as soon as you receive them. That’s OK. It’s part of the process. Stick with it.

You might also start to realize that there are some people who don’t seem to be able to function without you, even if you told them that you’d no longer be instantaneously answering your emails and phones. There will definitely be people who will test these new boundaries and think that your new rules don’t apply to them.

What you should do is consider this a time to retrain these people, empower these people, or to simply get rid of these people. You are either over-serving them as clients or doing their jobs for them. In either case, it’s a waste of time and it’s not serving you and your best interests. If there are people who are not respecting your boundaries, you should cut them loose.


    • Week FourKeep all the previous rules in place, plus check your phone at the door when you get home. Yes, as crazy as it might sound, you don’t need to check your phone over dinner, at the gym or while you are in bed. This will be hard–especially if you are addicted to reading the news, checking social media, the stock market, or the sports scores as part of your evening downtime. But remember, you really do want to be present for your family and loved ones, to have real quality time with them. That’s really hard to do if your eyes are glued to your phone.


For me, it’s been an adjustment. I didn’t realize how hooked on my phone I was until I really made a deliberate effort to unplug.

But the results are clear. I’m more present, less distracted, and ultimately more connected and productive than ever before.

When you are plugged in all the time, you may think you’re being more productive, but instead, you’re bound to fry your circuits.

If you go through with this four-week untethering from your phone, you’ll most likely find that your productivity will increase because you’ve been able to recharge your own batteries. You’ll probably also find that you’re actually less stressed and more on top of things than ever before. Your relationships, both personal and professional, could also improve.

Just remember: after you’ve implemented this four-week plan, you can still use your smartphone, but you have got to make sure that your smartphone isn’t using you.

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