How to Use Personification to Stop Phonecrastination

With a 🙁 or a :D, you can use personification to push yourself away from phonecrastinating on IG, Reddit, TikTok, or whatever again. Try this simple and science-backed game.

Personification Pinterest Pin

Ah, phonecrastination.

You never tell yourself you’ll sit there for an hour, but then it happens. “Just a few more minutes.” Then later, “just a few more minutes.” If only I wasn’t so tired after work.

Since I suffer from this, I ran a test this past week.

I’ve been having problems with a new video game that I enjoy but which devours my productive time. Like any bad habit, my “need” is emotional. If you’re tired of running out of time, try the personification game.

A guitar with two sound holes and a bridge that combined give it a goofy smile.

The personification game

In my efforts to become a kinder person, I’ve been using objects with more gentleness. No need to contort the bristles of my toothbrush or close a door without twisting the knob. The trick is to imagine those objects have souls… well, faces. (pareidolia)

Or you can literally just take a marker and googly eyes to it so you won’t forget.

And it turns out research backs this up. We’re more likely to support a social cause if we give objects a face. The researchers call it “anticipatory guilt”– you don’t manhandle an object or forget to play with it because you don’t want to make it sad. To avoid guilt, you make the object smile instead.

A red light bulb with a frowny face and a little tear. A caption beside it reads "I'm burning hot, turn me off when you leave!" An ad by the Toronto Hydro Electric System.
You don’t want to make this little guy sad, do you?

The researchers didn’t study smiley objects, but a sad face and a little tear were enough to compel their participants to action. Most people don’t want to cause something pain. So you imagine whatever thing you’re neglecting feels pain when you don’t use it or you handle it too roughly. Like a dog wanting a walk and bringing you the leash but you’d rather phonecrastinate instead. Aw.

(Hypothesis: this might be a reason some men call their car “she.” To take better care of it.)

To use personification to your advantage:

  1. Identify what thing you want to do but run out of time for. Narrow it down to a physical object.
  2. What makes that thing sad? Picture a sad face on it.
  3. What makes that thing happy? Picture a smiley face on it.
  4. Don’t neglect it!

(Also why 10:10 is the typical time watches are displayed at in ads: it makes a smiley face.)

It also helps to remember Your Why. Otherwise, you could get stuck in the “I need motivation to get motivated” loop. I used to be stuck there, and that’s why I made this!

My choice for personification was my (piano) keyboard. I practice 3-4 times a week for a half hour or more, but I do it at the end of the day before dinner. Sometimes I’m tired or I run out of time. If I decide to play that darn video game again, I pretend to hear him sniffling behind me and having a sad face like that light bulb above.

If it helps, give your object a name, too. Is that you, Yamaha-san?

“Anticipatory guilt” works for me, but maybe it’s more out of kindness than wanting to avoid guilt.

There’s a catch to this, though.

Don’t turn your object into Clippy.

Clippy the smiley-faced paper clip says, "Sometimes I just pop up for no reason at all. Like now."
The horror.

If you’re old enough to remember Clippy, the Microsoft Office assistant, you know that smiley faces aren’t always happy. A lot of people found Clippy smug and condescending. It matters how we perceive it.

A) “Can I help you?”
B) “Can I help you (because you’re stupid and can’t do anything yourself)?”

According to a 2016 study, “consumers enjoyed a computer game less when they received assistance from a computerized helper imbued with humanlike features than from a helper construed as a mindless entity.” The helper undermined players’ autonomy and made them feel dumb. All because of a smiley face.

“You look like you need help. Let me help you.” See how it can go both ways?

Personification works best without the help element, I’ve found. In my case, the piano, I don’t make him overbearing and needy. His personality fits my schedule. After all, I made him, so to speak. He sniffles only if I waste his time slot on something else, not because I don’t play him every day.

In short, don’t imagine a smiley face until after. As for why, let’s take a Japanese example.

How Japan nails personification

In Japan’s ancient polytheistic religion Shinto, all objects have a soul. A common theory goes that over centuries, this way of envisioning everyday things as alive spawned Japan’s multitude of kyarakutā キャラクター (“character,” or kyara キャラ for short).

They’re used in warning signs, as company mascots, or as helpful guides. For instance, the one below warns laundromat customers to be careful to not overstuff the washer or leave items behind in the washer or dryer.

On one page, an overstuffed washer with a face looks miffed. On another page, a dryer with a face pokes the shoulder of a mermaid before she leaves to remind her there's still a shirt inside.
(From the book Hello, Please! by Matt Alt and Hiroko Yoda (I claim fair use))

Notice there are no smiley faces for the correct way to do things. You can chalk this up to negativity bias. In my experience, sad or miffed objects work best… especially if they’re cute.

There are happy-faced characters, and they function in much the same way, but in my experiment, I didn’t find smiles to be effective in forming my new habit of switching off. “Anticipatory guilt” is powerful.

Whatever your character turns out to be, don’t make it an obligation. If you want to do something but keep running out of time because social media sucked you down a rabbit hole again, remember not to neglect your character. You’ll make it sad.

I’m sorry, Yamaha-san! I’ll play you tomorrow!

Final technique pointers

Imagine the thing you want to do as a physical object, give it a face and maybe a name, then make it sad when you don’t use it or play with it. Don’t apply this technique for your smartphone or favorite video game, though, or it’ll backfire. Only for the things you want to do.

Your mileage may vary, but I found that my keyboard, Yamaha-san, is sad when I choose my new video game over him again. Why else did I buy him?

This technique works for forming new habits, too, like using your exercise equipment once a week or meditating. Try different things and see what works.

Who’s your character? Post in the comments. I’d love to know how this works for you.

Now get out there and make that guitar smile.

How to Use Personification to Stop Phonecrastination

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