Home >Opinion >Columns >Opinion | How the smartphone could help us manage our lives far better

Look around and one would see a whole lot of people with their heads down, looking into their mobile phone. Many an accident has been attributed to this over- indulgence. Is this relationship with the mobile handset a distraction that we should wean ourselves off, or is it an opportunity to be taken advantage of?

According to a research from RescueTime, a time-tracking software, people generally spend an average of three hours and 15 minutes on their phones every day, with the top 20% of smartphone users spending upwards of four-and-a-half hours. A study by research firm Dscout found that we tap, type and swipe our smartphones more than 2,600 times a day, on average. Extreme smartphone users touch their phones more than 5,400 times a day. For many, nothing else would have consumed as much of their time as their mobile phone does.

Neuroscience offers a clue to this intimate relationship with our handsets. Dopamine is a hormone that literally makes us happy, and is implicated in reward-motivated behaviours. Dopamine is released each time we receive something on our phones, in anticipation of something interesting—a text from a loved one, a “like" on Facebook, or an item of news that’s breaking. So we keep checking our phones, hoping to get a bit more of a dopamine fix throughout the day. There is every reason to believe that smartphones will be our companions for some time, even an addiction.

In the past, the time we spent engaged with media vehicles such as newspapers and television was limited by mobility constraints. For the first time, we have a medium of communication beside us at all times, even while we are asleep. The always-present, always-on attribute of smartphones could present myriad opportunities.

Smartphone apps also have unprecedented access to our lives—the location we are at, the speed at which we are travelling, or the activity we are involved in. Some of our recent research has shown that a person’s online behaviour can provide clues about his mood. The smartphone taps into this moment-to-moment information on the user’s behaviour, and the associated context—what is now being called the “data exhaust"—could be used to paint an increasingly accurate picture of the person.

Rather than just using this to aim ads at us, can smartphones be used as an instrument of managing one’s own life—nudging us towards our own stated goals? Can the mobile phone be used to motivate me to exercise more often? Can it be used to make me take my medication on time? Can it be used to make me slow down if I am driving too fast? Studies have shown that if long-distance drivers stop for a few minutes, every two hours, accident rates will come down. Can the mobile phone be used to motivate a driver to stop at a roadside cafe for a cup of tea?

The real benefits of a medium are fully utilized only once appropriate stimuli are created for that medium. Every time a new medium of communication emerges, our tendency is to continue using the older stimuli. When television emerged a few decades ago, early television ads were very verbose in nature, a vestige of a bygone era when print media ruled. It took some time for people to understand the real power of this new medium and make the communication more evocative, emotional, visual-oriented.

Although the number of times an average user interacts with a smartphone is very large, the interactions are very short, just a few seconds. A BigCommerce and Square study found that most interactions on the mobile phone are in-between activities; that is, something that one does between other important activities. Most smartphone usage is not planned either. Therefore, the amount of information one can absorb at a particular time is very limited. One needs to develop appropriate stimuli for smartphones.

Most of us are guided by a voice that is inside us, an internal dialogue that frames our reactions to life and its circumstances. It is this voice that goads us to wake up early to exercise, to not eat that tempting dessert, to drive slow, and to take the medication doctors have prescribed. This self-talk is one of the most under-utilized resources to master our minds and improve our lives. Can the mobile phone be an instrument that harnesses and amplifies one’s inner voice? While our evolutionary drives push us towards instant gratification, can the voice of the cooler, more deliberative pre-frontal cortex be strengthened? The key to human behavioural change could lie here.

What sound should represent our inner voice? Our inner voice speaks to us almost every minute, in a language that we are most comfortable with; for man, it is their mother tongue. But it never had a sound. Usually, most exhortations to change our behaviour come from a third party, at best a celebrity. Attempts to amplify our inner voice need not mean recording and replaying messages in our own voice. Several studies have shown that most of us do not like to hear our recorded voice because it only captures our voice transferred to our ears externally by air, and not the sound transferred through our bones.

There is every reason to believe that the mobile phone is here to stay with each of us for some time. Our smartphones have the potential to be our guardian angels. But the biggest challenge to achieving the full potential of this device will depend on whether we are able to harness its powers for good purposes and develop appropriate stimuli to influence our behaviour. This is the future of behavioural change.

Biju Dominic is the chief executive officer of Final Mile Consulting, a behaviour architecture firm

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