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Confessions of an iPhone Addict: TAGteach and the Power of Choice

Communication addiction

My name is Emelie, and I'm an iPhonaholic.

I love my iPhone; I really do. Why do I love it? It's just there. It contains my friends, via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, blogs, texts, and MMS. It contains my interests, again via blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and different apps such as Runkeeper, Funbeat, NTC, and Nike +. It contains my family via photos, texts, and Facebook. And as a freelancer, it also contains my work, my office, and my to-do list.

iPhone addict

Sounds good, right? It IS good, to a certain extent. But only to a certain extent because my phone is also my pacifier, my dummy, my security blanket, my teddy, and my comfort snack. Those uses and needs are more complicated. And my phone is also just there. It is a habit; I swear that sometimes I'm not even conscious of grabbing the thingy.

I have found myself picking up my phone and fidgeting with it in situations where I really had no need to and when I wasn't really conscious of doing so. Walking from my bike to my youngest son's nursery door. Zoning out while the kids are talking about Star Wars. Waiting to pick up after one of my dogs. Missing being able to pick up my phone waiting for my spinning class because my love, my darling, was locked in my gym locker…

I love my phone, and I'm going to allow myself to love my phone. I need my phone for work and I am going to use it for work. I just need some boundaries, some mindfulness, some consciousness to achieve that goal.

Solution: use what I know

Here's the thing: I am a TAGteacher and clicker trainer. I know about behavior. I know about altering behavior. I know about breaking behavior down into tiny pieces and building up a new behavior from the pieces. Oh, all the stuff I know … when I am working with others.

We can do so much better!

Changing my own behavior is a different story! I forget. I try to go cold turkey, or lump stuff together like there's no tomorrow. Think about all the diet attempts, the exercise attempts, the budgeting attempts that have been devised (clumsily) by you for you, or designed by "experts" in a fashion that makes you wonder if they know much at all. We can do so much better!

Here is what I really need to do—use the principles of TAGteach (a method of modifying behavior using positive reinforcement in a focused way). First, I need to choose my goal behavior as specifically as possible. Next, I must look at what parts the goal behavior contains, and then what the parts contain, and then what those parts contain. I must keep going until I can't go any further. This is called "splitting." Let's go bananas with splitting!

Start small

My first step—my first tag point—needs to be something that is within my repertoire, something that I can already do. This is very important! A tag point is the tiny component of the goal behavior that I will reward myself for. This is where humans often trip up working with and for ourselves. We know the goal, we know we want the goal, let's just go do it. However, particularly when the problem behavior has aspects that are highly reinforcing (touching my sweet smartphone and getting to interact with and be validated by all those people, having candy, staying on the couch), it is essential to start with a point of success.

What I have found working with myself and others is that my first step in these situations should have to do with the active choice. In other words, it's not about altering anything but my thinking process, because how can I (or you) alter something that we're not really aware of?

iPhone addict

For example, take little old me when I'm out presenting at seminars. There will be snacks. There are often bowls of candy, yummy wrapped chocolates, chips, and more. There will be afternoon tiredness after presenting all day and focusing hard on all the attendees. Combine the two and you have mindless snacking! Like with my phone, I'm not aware that my hand is in that bowl and that a little bit of something is travelling at lightning speed toward my mouth until that action has been repeated a good number of times. Creating a tag point (a tiny goal that I will somehow mark and reinforce) about what to do instead of eating would be difficult, since eating isn't something that I've consciously decided to do in the first place!

My first tag point should probably be named "choose." "The tag point is choose."

I can have the chocolate or I cannot have the chocolate. I can use my phone or I cannot use my phone. In both cases the tag point is simply "choose." If I make the conscious choice rather than eating or fiddling with my phone mindlessly, then I will win!

There is something called a tagulator that I use to keep track of each little success. It's simply a string with beads on it, and I pull one bead down each time I meet my tag point of "choose." At seminars you can often see me with a tagulator hanging from my jeans or bag, because every choice corresponds to a pulled bead—and ten pulled beads can be whatever I want: a bath, a massage, a magazine, or even five minutes loving my iPhone.

Eliminate shame

Making a choice is an easy first step, no matter how difficult it is to alter the behavior completely.

Working to make whatever it is I'm trying to alter into a conscious choice and letting go of the stigma of the behavior I am trying to alter, I have taken a giant first leap. I am accomplishing something every time I meet the tag point. Anyone can do this as effortlessly as I can, since making a choice is an easy first step, no matter how difficult it is to alter the behavior completely. Being conscious of the choice will itself alter the number of times you (or I) actually go for the chocolate, the cigarette, the phone.

When it comes to dietary choices or habits that we don't like, we often assign ourselves a great deal of blame. This self-blame is counterproductive when it comes to altering behavior, because it cultivates the feelings of falling off the wagon every time we perform the behavior we hope to alter. The feeling of falling off the wagon often leads to feeling, "What the heck… I failed so I might as well eat the whole bowl of candy."

Success defined

Sometimes it is not necessary to travel beyond that first tag point of the active choice; that turns out to have been the case with my mindless eating at seminars. The tag point gives me focus and is a value-added tag point. The active choice often means that I won't stick my hand in that chocolate bowl, but might have a glass of water instead (bingo!). Or, sometimes it means having the chocolate, but savoring it quite differently (bingo again!).

Every time I want to pick up my phone, I try to interact with my environment in some way.

Turning the experiment to "my precious" phone (I'm Gollum and my iPhone is My Precious, obviously), the active choice tag point was a great success. But I needed more. So my second tag point with the phone is "interact." Every time I want to pick up my phone (a feeling that is now recognizable), I try to interact with my environment in some way. If I am alone, I bring myself into the current moment, perhaps feel the breeze on my face or hear the birds sing. If I am with the kids in a Star Wars situation, I will ask a question or make eye contact. If I am standing in line waiting for a spinning class, I will talk to somebody in the line.

This second tag point has worked really well for me! It creates daily moments of mindfulness, it results in more fun and better connection with my kids, and I meet some really great people in various situations. For me, a very social creature, this is a good match. It is important to remember, though, that tag points are individual and must be set according to "the learner."

TAGteach: a trusty tool

Am I "cured?" Well, the phone behavior change was trickier for me than the mindless snacking example. The iPhone holds what seems to be an infinite number of attractions that are highly reinforcing to me (and to a great many other people). That means that I needed to come at the different reinforcing activities from different angles.

Simply look at the behavior, figure out what you want, and find a way to get there.

Consider the profound and somewhat troubling question of why people crave attention and validation from other people (including, and especially, via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media options). There are many other behaviors that are as addictive in their nature, too. The lovely thing about TAGteach is that in the second of temptation you don't have to deal with the "whys" of everything. Simply look at the behavior, figure out what you want, and find a way to get there. One tag at a time.

About the author

Emelie Johnson Vegh is a Swedish Level 3 TAGteacher, a clicker trainer, a ClickerExpo faculty member, and the co-author of Agility Right from the Start. She is also a wife, a mom, servant of a Kelpie, and the co-owner of Carpe Momentum

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