Your Smartphone Can Make You a Better Human

Nothing is more human than social connection. The ability to relate, communicate, and coordinate gives us the power to do great things. Technology can support the social connections that make us human, but it can also get in the way.

How to use digital technology to support true connection with the people you care about

by John Zeratsky

Bzzzzzzzzzzt. It’s your phone.

Bzzt bzzt. Is it a Facebook notification? Or a message from an old friend?

Bzzt bzzt bzzt. Is it a news alert? Or a new pal reaching out to see if you’re free?

One sneaky feature of smartphones and social media is that they mix real messages from humans with computer-generated garbage. They display human contact next to growth-hacking “engagement.” The information that serves you shows up in the same way as the behavioral triggers that serve them.

And this feature is not just annoying. It’s actually at the core of what makes our smartphones so difficult to put down.

Let’s take a look at why that is, and then explore how we can use our phones to enhance human contact instead of replacing it.

Our Phones Are Randomly Rewarding

The same psychology that makes slot machines addictive explains why we find Infinity Pool apps like social media and email so hard to resist. 

It’s all about our love of random rewards. Here’s how we explained it in our book Make Time:

These technologies take advantage of the natural wiring of our brains, which evolved in a world without microchips. We evolved to be distractible because it kept us safe from danger (check the flash in your peripheral vision—it might be a stalking tiger or a falling tree!). We evolved to love mysteries and stories because they helped us learn and communicate. We evolved to love gossip and seek social status because that allowed us to form tight-knit protective tribes. And we evolved to love unpredictable rewards, whether from a blackberry bush or a smartphone notification, because the possibility of those rewards kept us hunting and gathering even when we returned home empty-handed.

All of which explains why, when you hear your phone buzz, of course you’re going to check! It might be something awesome, like a message from a friend 🤗

And that presents a challenge. If you want to reclaim control of your attention so you can focus on what matters, you need to quiet the noise from your phone. But you don’t want to cut out the good stuff (like real people reaching out). What can you do?

Don’t Do Not Disturb

A common piece of Internet advice is to switch your phone into Do Not Disturb mode to avoid distraction. It’s simple. It’s concrete. It’s binary. And it’s better than doing nothing. 

(Just barely, though. Do Not Disturb still requires an active choice to be made in the moment. You’ll have a lot more success resetting defaults on your phone to make the right choices the easy choices.)

There’s another big reason I don’t like Do Not Disturb: It’s a blanket ban on all incoming communication, and that includes messages from friends and family.

My friends are not a distraction. When my phone lights up with a note from someone I care about, my day gets brighter. I’m always happy to hear from them. I don’t mind the interruption. I may not write back right away, but I love knowing that they reached out.

Notifications Are Not Created Equal

Most notifications are blatant, manipulative attempts to steal our attention. They suck.

But some are good. Messages, for example, are a lifeline of connection to other humans.

Some notifications are useful. When the Uber app tells you your ride is here, that’s handy. When your banking app asks you to verify a transaction, it can save money and agony. When a reminder prompts you to stop at the grocery store so you can make dinner for your family, that might just save the day.

These notifications are great. I want them on my phone.

One of my rules for technology use is to embrace technologies that feel magical. And your smartphone can absolutely give you superpowers. When you download an entire book in five seconds, or explore the map of a faraway place, or get a down-to-the-minute weather forecast, you might feel like you’re living in the future.

Make Time is not the same as digital minimalism. It’s not an anti-technology message. It’s about embracing the technology tools that help us in the great human project of doing things that matter in service of others. It’s a plan for technology that serves humans; not the other way around. 

And nothing is more human than social connection. The ability to relate, communicate, and coordinate gives us the power to do great things (and unfortunately, some not-so-great things too). We’re not the fastest or strongest species on earth, but our social brains have enabled us to thrive.

Technology can support the social connections that make us human, but it can also get in the way.

The Illusion of Connection

Most people use messaging, email, and social media to keep in touch with friends and family. That’s very convenient, and these technologies feel like efficient substitutes for the real deal. But we know they’re not as good.

Studies show that when people use more social media, they tend to have fewer offline interactions. The more time we spend trading updates, likes, and comments, the less time—and inclination—we have for conversations in the real world. 

Holly Shakya and Nicholas Christakis have done some of the most rigorous research on these tradeoffs. Here’s what they say:

The tricky thing about social media is that while we are using it, we get the impression that we are engaging in meaningful social interaction. Our results suggest that the nature and quality of this sort of connection is no substitute for the real world interaction we need for a healthy life.

In other words, online communication gives us the illusion of connection with none of the benefits that come from spending time together.

Fortunately, we can reconfigure our technology to encourage real face-to-face connection.

The Pro-Human Smartphone

If you feel like your smartphone is too distracting, and you get the impression that your phone is leading you toward digital communication at the expense of real connection—I’ve got something for you to try. (And no, it’s not Do Not Disturb 😌)

Over the past few months, I have been working on resetting my personal defaults for how I use technology to keep in touch. My goal is to use technology to support connection, not to replace it. And naturally, my phone is at the center of this endeavor. 

Here’s how to use your phone as a tool for real connection and engagement:

  1. Start by making your phone distraction-free. Remove social media apps, since they are the most likely to suck you into unsatisfying substitute interactions.

    Take a look at your email—if you don’t get a ton, and most messages are from real people contacting you directly (as opposed to reply-all threads or automated marketing), it might be okay to leave it installed. If not, zap it. (But definitely leave personal messaging apps installed; they are key to this strategy!)
  2. For the remaining apps, turn off any manipulative and non-useful notifications. For example, the Amazon Kindle app (which is totally one of the magical, superpower-giving apps!) has annoying promotional notifications turned on by default. Yep, you don’t need those. Turn them off.
  3. At this point, when your phone buzzes, it should be because a) something time-sensitive is happening in the real world, like your flight is boarding, or b) someone you know is reaching out to you personally.
  4. This is the most important step: When you hear from someone you care about—friend, parent, sibling, collaborator, acquaintance, connection, or long-lost cousin—harness the energy behind that overture and convert it to something substantial: a real-life hangout, a video chat, or a phone call.

Friendly Social Jujitsu

Like a friendly version of social jujitsu, I try to redirect the other person’s message-sending energy into real human connection. (Apologies to any jujitsu practitioners for a botched analogy.) 

Face-to-face communication is best, of course. Video chats are good too; they give us digital convenience while tapping into an ancient part of our brains devoted to recognizing faces and facial expressions. Even a phone call can provide benefits over texting—humans have been communicating verbally for way longer than we’ve been reading and tapping at screens, and the telephone allows us to benefit from that evolved capability.

Here are some of the ways I make the shift beyond text…

If I haven’t talked to this person in a while: “Hey, it’s great to hear from you! I’d love to catch up on the phone sometime. You game?”

If I already have plans to see them soon: “Can’t wait to hear more about it when we hang out this weekend!”

If there’s a chance I might run into them: “Are you going to that festival/party/event/meetup/café? Maybe we can chat more about it there.”

Of course, making plans is always a good option: “It’s been a while since we hung out. You want to grab dinner on Thursday?”

And my absolute favorite, reserved for friends and family that live far away: “We’re thinking of coming to visit in December. You around?”

If all of this sounds a bit calculated and unnatural… well, maybe it is. 

But I think it’s an extra step worth taking.

When the path of least resistance leads us to a place we don’t want to be, it requires an over-the-top application of intentional energy to get back on track.