How often do you find yourself lost in candy apps: those apps that lure you in with the sweet promise of cute kitten pics but leave you with a stomachache and tooth decay? Yeah, I’m talking about the everyone-is-an-expert-on-Facebook app, its adopted cousin #lifegoals Instagram, and the anger-fueled Twitter. Or your email app. You know the type. The kind of app that lures you in with great promises but ends up making you feel inadequate, angry, sad, stressed out, or all of the above at the same time.
Getting our faces stuffed with candy apps can easily become a habit. Luckily, you can rewire your habit-forming loop to reduce the time you waste in candy apps by being just a bit lazy and disappointed. All of this without saying goodbye to your beloved smartphone, so you can still spend time with those one or two fruit apps that actually do make you a better human being.
Why are candy apps so irresistible?
I blame guys like Nir Eyal. He’s made a career out of teaching techies how to build habit-forming apps. To be fair, advertisers figured out how to turn products into habits decades ago by selling us toothpaste with the promise of shiny smiles and by creating the craving for minty freshness. And while both advertisers and techies swear they are just trying to make our lives better, there is such a thing as too much toothpaste just as there can be too much candy.
Some techies now regret inventing such powerful drugs as the Like button. But when the free apps we use are kept alive by advertising money, the pressure to keep our eyeballs coming back for more is real. And, rather conveniently, our brains are wired to find shortcuts to the things we often do. Especially if said things initially lure you in with mental candy such as those adorable cat pics your long-lost friend keeps posting.
You see, you and the common lab rat (along with fish, birds, and other vertebrates), both have a basal ganglia nested at the core of your brain. Despite its funny name and shape, the bas’ gang’ actually does some pretty cool things for you. One of its most fascinating jobs seems to be making new habits. In the book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg shows us how habits are like a really cool optimization algorithm that allows you to think big thoughts as you automatically perform that tasks you’ve done a thousand times before on auto-pilot. It’s the well-known case of walking or driving home without thinking about it. Your basal ganglia knows where you live, in just a slightly creepy way.
A lot of the habits you pick up throughout your career as a human are good for you. Brushing your teeth every day, being able to walk without having to think about which foot does what, things like that. Thinking is expensive in terms of energy use in your body, so your bas’ gang’ is on the lookout for the following pattern: a cue, followed by a routine that leads to a nice reward. Once you repeat the pattern a couple of times, you bas’ gang’ goes “Aha!” and builds a new habit for you so you can get to the reward on auto-pilot. Pretty sweet.
The only trouble is, habits persist even if the rewards are not good for you. Just ask any junkie. And this is why, even as you know that Twitter is inevitably going to make you mad, you somehow find yourself engaging in heated arguments on Twitter after you juuust wanted to check your phone to see what the weather is like. (And you still have no idea if it’s going to rain later in the day.)
Once a habit is built, your brain will start craving the routine as soon as it sees the cue: “Oh, phone, where puppies?” And before you know it, you’re back on Twitter, but instead of puppies you’re arguing about the geometric properties of Earth with lunatics. Still, the craving persists, and you keep coming back to Twitter.
It turns out that there is such a thing as too much optimization when it leads to a habit you no longer enjoy but can’t resist. Once the cue ‘n’ craving combination shows up, you can’t help but see your routine through.
The cues are all around us, and even your friends are complicit
James Clear provides an excellent overview of the five main cues — or triggers because a trigger sounds more exciting than a cue — that can be used to build new habits. Let’s go through each of them and see how we’ve gradually allowed smartphones and certain apps to attach themselves to different types of cues:
Time: If you use your phone as an alarm clock, you’re likely to check your phone first thing in the morning. And then again as you prepare to leave the house. And maybe just a quick check before you go to bed. We often attach our phone usage to a specific time of the day. Or days that end in y.
Location/environment: Public transport, in particular, seems to be a strong trigger for an irresistible desire to play Candy Crush Saga. And waiting rooms around the world also make us reach for our phones almost instinctively, they might as well put up “phones welcome” signs.
Preceding event: Notification sounds, icons, and badges are the obvious event triggers here, but the act of unlocking the phone itself can be enough for your monkey brain to go: “Alright, phone, how can I be entertained?”
Emotional state: Boredom is an excellent trigger for unlocking your phone, and so is feeling lonely, self-conscious, depressed, and having the need to connect to other humans. Getting “liked” or “retweeted” feels great, and it’s easy to trigger the craving for social validation when you’re feeling down. Emotional states can even be used to trigger different behavior in social apps. The now infamous Facebook experiment revealed how Facebook managed to trigger emotion contagion and affect posting behavior by tweaking the type of content they promoted in their news feed algorithm. Providing emotional rewards to different emotional states is a powerful combination given how out of touch with emotions we generally are and how our craving for connection and approval is part of our human DNA.
Other people: Were you ever in a group of people when one of the said people takes out their phone and within the minute, like a yawn spreading from person to person, the whole group is staring at their respective phones like zombies? And when you see everyone else having fun on their phones, FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) kicks in and makes you check your friends’ Instagram stories to see if they posted about you. Monkey see monkey do.
Will destroying your smartphone reclaim your free will?
We’ll save the discussion about free will for another time, but the short answer is no. The act of picking up the phone is all around us, embedded in the fabric of our homes, and infused in everyday social situations. Placing your phone on the table is a socially accepted (if not expected) behavior in most places except maybe in theaters and cinemas, and top secret meetings — but even in those phone-free sanctuaries people are most likely secretly filming everything under the table.
Just image: you’re meeting up with friends and decide to leave your phone at home. How will your always-late-friend let you know they are running late again? How will you take the blurred selfies that will become the only memory you have of the night out? And how will you even find that new place you’re meeting at without step-by-step directions? The anxiety of not having your friends a message away or missing out on the latest meme even has a fancy name among researchers: social stress. Among regular people, you may know it as FOMO, although researchers are people too.
Let’s say causing social stress might not be the best course of action then. Removing our phones as a trigger might be as difficult and frustrating as going out for dinner with friends, super hangry, and order just a glass of tap water while your friends stuff their mouths with pizza, beer, and then cake! And I won’t even mention all the likes they are getting on their food porn pics.
Besides, a couple apps out of the millions in the app stores are actually good for you and don’t even use dark patterns to shame you or blackmail you into coming back for more. So, let’s assume you want (or even have to) keep using your phone. But you do want to eat less app candy: spend less time in apps that make you feel bad afterward. Luckily, habits can be short-circuited in surprisingly simple ways — as long as you can identify the elements of your habit loop and decide to make a change.
Create new routines with smarter home screen architecture
So, we’ve established that you will be triggered to pick up your phone, unlock it. And then kick off your routine. Which one? Well, you have more cues dangling right in your face: the app icons on the home screen. And that is why you often find yourself checking Twitter after you pick up your phone just to check the time:
“What time is it?” [CUE]
Phone. “I should look at my phone. It has all the answers.” [CRAVING]
Unlock. “Oh look, Twitter! I’ll just have a quick look.” [ROUTINE]
New stuff on Twitter. [REWARD]
(Five minutes later … ) “What’s the time again?” [Rinse and repeat the loop]. I bet your finger can find the shortest way to Twitter in the dark. While asleep.
In The Power of Habit, Duhigg describes the Golden Rule of Habit Change, according to which changing habits works best if you keep the cue and reward, but replace the routine that’s bad for you. So, you’ll keep checking your phone, and you still want to get something out of that, but you want to change the routine.
Your finger is faster than your thoughts though, so I suggest a little home screen architecture hack to work with your laziness rather than against it: the sweeter an app is for you, the further away from your main home screen it should be, no matter how often you use it. And you can replace the routine of snacking on candy apps by keeping your main home screen full of fruit apps that make you feel better. In practice, this means you might have to move Twitter far away from home, in a folder of folders if possible, and move the Kindle app to your main home screen.
Messing with the placement of app shortcuts might be an easy way to beat the habit loop at its own game:
Cue: You will still be triggered to unlock your phone based on time, where you are, an intriguing notification, how you feel, or peer pressure. However! By moving the shortcut, your finger will be drawn to tap on an app that isn’t where it’s supposed to be. The basal ganglia will have to ping the outer layers of your brain to figure out “Umm, where did the blue square with the white bird go”?
Routine: So instead of tapping right on the bird icon, you will be forced to think about where the shortcut is or to type the app name in the search bar. Efforts. Ugh. We don’t like efforts. Also, you’re giving yourself time to self-regulate. “Why am I looking for Twitter when I just wanted to check the weather?” Even if you get drawn to other shortcuts on the home screen out of sheer habit of tapping, you will land in a fruit app. Hello, new routine!
Reward: By placing boring — ahem, healthy! — fruit apps on your home screen, your brain might be disappointed by the reward it got for picking up the phone. “A todo list, seriously? Where are the cute puppy pics?” And the disappointment itself might lead to the weakening of the overall phone-habit loop and encourage you to reconnect with your friends offline more often. Or, alternatively, you will find that reading books is just as exciting as trolling people on Twitter! (You can’t say I’m not an optimist.)
Do keep in mind that your monkey brain is smart. In time it might learn that an extra swipe and tap still lead to cute kittens (hello new habit!), so rearranging the app shortcuts regularly might be a good exercise to keep your monkey brain on its toes (or rather, nerves) by challenging it to learn the new shortest path to the candy store.
The ARRR! feedback loop to unbrick your app habits
Now it’s your turn to show your teeth to the pesky habit loop that’s sucking you into infinite scrolling in candy apps. You don’t have to wait for Talk Like a Pirate Day to say ARRR! and clean up your app diet:
AWARENESS: Get yourself to look at the app shortcuts you have on your main home screen. No, stop, don’t tap on Twitter! Sigh. … Ok, nice to have you back. How do you feel about each of the apps you see? Don’t forget the pinned apps in the dock at the bottom of the screen. Make a note of which apps are like candy for you.
REORDER: Move the apps that suck you into habits loops you don’t like further away. To the second screen. Hidden inside a folder on the 5th screen if you need to. Make the monkey work for it. Hide Twitter and other birds of a feather in a folder named “Tax Returns” or “Family”. Whatever will make you think twice about casually opening it.
REPLACE: With candy out of reach, think about apps that have a positive effect on you — the fruit apps, like meditation apps, workout apps. And then fill your kitchen aka home screen with their icons. Don’t be surprised to find out that the number of fruit apps is smaller than the number of candy, just like the number of fruits that are satisfying to eat is much smaller than the number of delicious candy humankind has invented. Such is life.
REVIEW: Observe how your app habits change over time. Your needs and priorities might also change. If you have a tight deadline, you might want to bring back Slack to your home screen even though you hate it. Just remember not to leave it there for longer than necessary. In some cases, you might need to delete an app completely (looking at you, Facebook) but overall I think the best approach is to learn to live with these monsters just like you can learn to live in a world full of cakes and not eat cake every day. Or at least take the long route to the cake place. On feet. In the rain.
The experiment: sample of one
I believe in eating my own cake, I mean … fruit! so here’s how the ARRR! loop has worked for me so far:
Less news and outrage: I stopped checking email, Twitter, and Google News multiple times a day and getting so outraged by whatever people are outraged at this very moment. Now that the news feeds are more than a tap away, I find it easier to check them only as I drink my morning coffee — outrage is stronger than caffeine! — and sometimes in the afternoon/evening. I occasionally still relapse with Twitter (especially when I have a tough day), but overall I’ve discovered that I don’t miss those other 59 times a day that I don’t catch up on the latest.
Fewer animal pics and ads: I stopped snacking on Instagram stories, #pomeranian, and #catsofinstagram. Requiring that extra swipe + one tap (gasp!) to open the Social folder, was enough to break the loop. And to stop seeing all the latest bra and yoga pants ads. I guess I now have to live with my current athleisure collection and my own cats.
More reading: Making the Kindle app front and center has had a very positive effect on my reading. I also think I stay in the app longer because I was slightly disappointed whenever I went back to the home screen and didn’t find my junk food (aka Twitter) just sitting there, looking pretty. Eventually, my brain has learned that I get more out of reading the book than going back to the half empty home screen where disappointment awaits.
A note on bananas: You might be surprised to hear that I kept the Pokemon Go app on my home screen. It’s kinda a banana app for me — so convenient and sweet it almost counts as candy — but I’ve kept it in my fruit category because it’s encouraging me to get out of the flat and walk to the nearest Pokestop. If they add a Pokestop next to my home location, I’ll probably have to recategorize this banana of an app as candy.
Dig deeper: recommendations
Want to learn more about what drives our habits and how to change them?
Here are some fruitful destinations you can visit next:
If you only have 5 minutes: How to Build a New Habit: This is Your Strategy Guide by James Clear
If you have more minutes aka hours: The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg
And if you’re looking for fruit apps to keep you distracted from phone candy, here are a couple of my favorites:
10% Happier: a no-nonsense meditation app for skeptics. I especially like the fact that it doesn’t have badges and streaks, so I don’t feel like a terrible person if I skip a day every now and then.
Down Dog: yes, a yoga app. No chanting, and you can keep the names of the poses in English. I keep recommending this one to people who sit a lot (who doesn’t?). Your back and shoulders will be grateful.
Unbrick your fig challenge
I know you’re only human, so maybe start by picking one candy app you want to spend less time in, and one fruit app you want to open more often. May the basal ganglia be with you!
If you can replace an existing app routine with a new one and stick with it for at least a week, you will receive:
💎 10 self-regulation
💎 5 mindfulness