Skip to content

Stopping mindless scrolling

  • Journal
  • 9 min read

Hey! Now! Come scroll now! Wither do you scroll? Up, down, near or far, here, there or yonder?

– Tom Bombadil after smart phones were invented, probably?

I found myself sitting on the couch one day, randomly opening and closing apps as I scrolled through them–until I reached a point where I had hit a topic I’d already seen (worse, seen hours earlier), then I jumped right into another app. The pattern repeated, perhaps for the good part of an hour, before I sat back and took stock in what I was actually doing–entirely wasting my time and not accomplishing anything meaningful.

While the media feed algorithms were quite pleased to allow me to keep feeding them delicious usage data, at the end of the day, I wasn’t actually doing anything useful.

This had to change.

As this recent research article published on Harvard Business Review, notes scrolling is addictive:

These platforms are designed to trap viewers in a social media rabbit hole: They offer bite-sized content that makes it easy to quickly consume several videos or posts in a row, they often automatically suggest similar content, and many of them even automatically start playing similar videos, reducing the potential for interruptions.

Unfortunately, unless you’re actually tracking the time spent scrolling through these apps or sites, it’s very easy to lose track of time without even realizing it. Perhaps even worse, it’s also causing you to miss out on opportunities for other ways you could be better spending your time.

Digging out of the rabbit hole

I was quite curious to find out where my time was going and I needed a place to start. The best way to begin making changes is by being data informed, so, I took a step back and looked at how I was spending my time. From there, I came up with a plan to try and reduce the time was spending scrolling.

A brief analysis

First, I started by analyzing how I was spending my time over the course of a week. I specifically picked a week that had less meetings, wasn’t around a major product release, or where I didn’t have any time off. My goal was to get a more accurate reading on my scrolling habits during a “typical week”. I gathered this information in two ways:

  • Using the built in Screen Time feature on my phone (iPhone tracks this across devices, and since I primarily use Apple devices, it was pretty accurate for usage).
  • Manually tracking start / stop times and what I was doing in the app on a piece of paper.

Why two ways?

I wanted to see how much I was consciously tracking compared to what my actual usage was. The delta between what my phone had logged and what I thought I was doing was incredibly interesting. What I found was how easily I could slip into scrolling through apps without even noticing it.

It is worth noting that I was quite rigorous on this—even during wind down times (such as just before going to sleep)—I tracked how I spent my time. I wanted to gather as much data as I could on where my time was being used. During this data gathering, I did ignore certain sources, like my Kindle Paperwhite and online courses like Udemy or Coursera, where I knew I was doing a focused task like reading and studying.

When I was done, I took the list of apps and categorized them into what were really time wasters and what weren’t. I kept it specific rather than using categorized percentages (such as something like “15% social media apps”), because I wanted a list I could create a targeted plan around.

What I found was that I spent the majority of time time in the following apps:

  • Facebook – Rarely posting content or having conversations. Primarily I was scrolling through the main feed to see if there were any new posts or anything of interest.
  • Instagram – Occasionally posting a picture, but primarily scrolling through the feed.
  • Twitter – I hardly used Twitter anymore, but it was available on my phone so I would occasionally dip in when I got bored in the other apps.
  • YouTube – Outside of a few new videos, mostly I would watch favorite scenes from movies or old videos, ultimately nothing really new or meaningful.

This was before TikTok really took off, so I may have dodged a bullet there!

What also got interesting was when I logged what websites I would visit. I would visit listicle-style sites and scroll, randomly clicking on articles (“15 now-you-know-facts that tickled our neurons!” or something similar) and scrolling through them; other times I would click Random for online comics I enjoyed reading. I would end up doing this for hours sometimes, or whenever I was feeling bored. Ironically, I had other tabs open with articles I wanted to read, but I opened for the quick-win websites to fill the boredom-gaps.

With this data in hand, it was time to act.

A plan

When I started looking into this more, I had just finished reading James Clear’s Atomic Habits which also really helped to come up with an approach. The book describes how a single habit is made up of four key components: cue, craving, response, and reward. For a habit to form, we need to make it:

  1. Obvious – No action should be required for us to pick up the habit.
  2. Attractive – It should be fun or pleasurable to do.
  3. Easy – Reduce friction as much as possible to make the habit easy to do.
  4. Immediately satisfying – There should be something satisfying that brings joy right after the habit is finished.

Of them, the last one is the most challenging to find something that can bring us that immediate joy and satisfaction after we perform the habit.

As an aside, I highly highly recommend reading Atomic Habits if you’re looking to start new habits or break existing bad ones.

It was interesting contextualizing the activities I was doing within the framework of habits (which, ultimately, is what they were). Here’s how it looked:

ObviousAttractiveEasyImmediately Satisfying
Websites“Recently opened” lists and browser history makes it easy to see and find these.Often there’s something new or interesting to read, with many sites posting multiple new articles a day.Websites are super easy to access from your phone or computer.You can quickly find, for example, some listicle article to scroll through to see what interesting tidbits come out of it.
Apps (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube)The apps are installed right on the phone, making them super easy to access.It’s interesting to “people watch” in the social media apps, or just scroll through feeds to see what’s going on.Opening the apps and seeing the details is fast and easy.That “itch” to see what’s going on is immediately satisfied, and you quickly find something that makes it worth your time to open the app.

Taking that as a starting point, I put together a plan of action that I called the “four makes”:

  • Make it difficult – Make accessing the apps and websites as difficult as possible.
  • Make it consistent – It has to be consistent across all devices (phone, tablet, computer).
  • Make it seamless – Easy to avoid without it requiring a lot of extra set up or configuration.
  • Make it a benefit, not a loss – When dropping the behavior, pick up something enjoyable.

Applying the “four makes”

Make it difficult

In order to make it difficult, I needed to apply a layer of friction between myself and the apps or websites. Here’s some examples of how I went about it:

  • Uninstalled all of the apps from my phone and tablet.
  • Limited access to the web page versions of those apps, and require logging in and logging out each time (always unchecking “remember this device”).
  • Limited opening sites I wanted to visit in private browsing tabs (this had the added benefit of keeping it out of my browser history for quick reminders to visit the site).
  • Hiding the “Recent Sites” section in browsers to not show as a reminder for sites to visit.
  • For particularly sticky habits, I used applications that restricted allowed sites and blocklists.

Make it consistent

I made sure I had the same limitations in place across all devices–including removing apps, website restrictions, and more. While this did require some initial set up, once it was in place, it was easy to keep consistent, especially with the way user settings and apps, etc. sync across devices now.

Make it seamless

This was perhaps the hardest as there is indeed quit a slew of apps available out there just for this use case. That said, I didn’t want to fiddle with anything that had complex setup, required paying for (one time use or even a monthly subscription) as all of that could serve as a barrier to following through on this. Instead, I focused on the activities above to introduce friction, which naturally guided me away from using them in general.

Make it a benefit, not a loss

Finally, I filled the time with something else I wanted to do, for example:

  • Reaching for a book I wanted to read;
  • Picking back up some online courses I was interested in studying;
  • Spending more time learning about roasting coffee and time actually spent roasting;
  • Playing video games. This may sound odd but it was a really great way to relax and spend time doing something fun.

The important thing was supplementing the scrolling for activities that I would enjoy and get some benefit out of, rather than replacing the time with… staring at paint drying or mowing the grass. This was the most impactful of all the makes, as I no longer had a need to scroll–there was way more fun things to do instead!

Six months later, I’ve discovered that I have had more time to devote into hobbies and other interests, which has been the biggest win for me. Of course, this is still a work in progress, and I’m always looking for new ways to better improve my focus time and avoid distractions.

So far, the extra time has allowed me to spend more time reading, learning new programming languages, and to get started writing again.

And, truth be told, I don’t miss those days of mindlessly scrolling away!