001 · 5 Steps to Living More Harmoniously with your Phone
or, Making a phone-tool
Today, I’m going to teach you how to make something. Something for which all you need is your smartphone and about a half-hour of your time. It will be very similar to your current smartphone, identical in look and feel, but hopefully transformative in terms of usage. Whether this is your first time attempting to puts reigns on your phone or this is simply another step in myriad clean-up attempts, there will be something in here for you. We will be shifting away from whatever our current relationship with our phone is to a maker-tool relationship. The steps will guide you to restructuring your relationship around using your phone only when you want or need to. Picture this as a mini-course in which you can do all or none of the steps. Each step will be cumulative upon the others, but ultimately this is configured to be accessible and customizable.
We are inevitably starting with the pesky building blocks of the attention economy. Apps control everything we are capable of doing on our phones, and in too many cases control our actual behaviors as well. Paring down the actual number of phone-choices reduces the potential to sink time into it. Now, we can’t rid of all of our apps, and detangling “good from bad” or “essential from non-essential” proves more difficult than it initially seems. I simply urge you to go through your app library one by one and ask “has this served a meaningful purpose for me in the past month”? Delete the ones that haven’t. A month is a long time considering we spend an average of 3 and a half hours on our phones a day, and any app deleted is easily recovered. Put it in terms of utility for yourself, and see what you find.
At the beginning of this process I had 232 apps on my iPhone. When I finished I had 146. This means I had almost 100 apps on my phone I was hardly using. By cutting down on the potential “windows” into distracting activity, we are improving our odds of not getting sucked into something every time we pick up our phones. I certainly feel better with all that less clutter, I can’t wait to see what you find out for yourself as well.
Next, on to notifications. These seemingly innocuous paths of communication between our apps and us are the foundation for how apps manipulate us. They shift our phones from passive tools to active, attention-grabbing obstacles. For notifications, I would recommend being as spartan as possible. Only keep what you really need. We check our phones on average 344 (once every ~4 minutes) times a day, so it’s likely you will be checking in on things enough without a reminder. Go app by app and disable or silence whatever is not truly necessary. I like turning off the ability for a notification to wake up my phone while it is asleep, as well as the anxiety-inducing red badges that show you your missed notifications. This should be greatly expedited by the app purge we just performed in step 1. This step is essential in terms of taking control of our attention. No longer are we going to allow our phones to tell us when to look at them. You can massively recapture your attention and turn it towards other, healthier avenues.
3. HOME SCREEN
After getting our apps and notifications right, the next step is to refresh the humble home screen. This is what you’ll be looking at every time you unlock your phone, so its contents are critically important. I prefer a super minimal home screen, but to each their own. The main focus here will be getting any immediately distracting apps or widgets off of the home screen, leaning on the app library to access them.
My current home screen. Here is a link to a video on using the Clear Spaces app to create the hidden widgets.
By simplifying this grid of distractions, we’re forced to think about what we actually want to do with our phones. Less apps means less possibility for distraction, less notifications means you’re only picking up your device when you really want or need to, and less clutter on the home screen severs the immediate nature of jumping into things. At first, your brain will be confused. You’ll pick up your phone and habitually search for notifications that are now silent, or click on apps that are no longer there. This will gradually wear off, your brain will stop expecting things to play out this way. Eventually you will only pick up your phone when you have a specific need or task to perform (the goal of the phone-tool).
At this point, it’s no secret that using our phones around sleep time is seriously bad for our brains. The goal should be not looking at our phones within 30 minutes to an hour before going to sleep or after waking up. I find that 30 minutes is extremely achievable, especially if you work your way up to it. Try taking it 5 minutes at a time, and even if you can’t get further, 5 minutes is better than nothing. Not only does the blue light produced by our devices interrupt natural production of melatonin, we are opening ourselves up to so many other thoughts or ideas in such a sacred space. I heard it phrased recently that going on your phone in bed is like inviting hundreds of strangers into your bedroom. This is where we are most vulnerable and should be doing the most to protect our energy, but is often where we spend the least intentional time opening ourselves up to others’ ideas.
As for practical application, I recommend using Apple’s Sleep / Wake Up feature or whatever the equivalent is for Android. I have the times set up to be roughly a half-hour before I go to sleep, which provides a nice additional lock screen that serves as an extra barrier to accessing my phone. Make the pact with yourself that if you pick up your device and see the little bed icon, it’s time to put it back down.
The little bed icon in question.
These are a few tips to being less mindlessly on our phones around bedtime, and the eventual goal might be to not sleep with your phone in your room at all. As many of us rely on our phones at night for safety (or alarms), this is not a realistic goal for all of us. Meet yourself where you are, not at some unattainable ideal.
Where is all of this leading us? By this point you may have a cleaned up & quieter phone, but you still know where to find Instagram in the app library, and it’s easy enough to bypass the bedtime reminder. This is where the biggest piece of work comes in, and requires each of us to do a little more digging into why we want a phone in our life. You have before you this amazing device, containing a multitude of tools and access to nearly all information, what do you want to do with it? Surely the end goal isn’t mindlessly refreshing feeds for hours a day. However, you will fail if you do not give yourself something to replace it with. For all of this to make a real change, we must change our actual workflows. I’m not using “workflow” in the productivity connotation, rather defining it as any series of activities necessary to complete a task. Whether it seems it or not, we complete tasks with our phone all the time. As much as “making a call” or “taking a photo”, things like “killing time on the train” or “unwinding after work” are tasks we perform with our phones. While taking a photo may obviously use the camera app, killing time does not have an explicit way to be completed. Whatever workflow you have come up with to pass time or decompress is precisely that: constructed by you. Your current workflow may look like constant refreshing of a number of different streams of information, but it doesn’t have to. Maybe it’s replacing Instagram & Twitter with Duolingo & iNaturalist (two of my favorite social media replacements), reading articles, writing down your thoughts — or maybe it’s not on your phone at all. I’m not here to make the decision for you, but I am here to make you think about it.
I bring back the question of “why?” not to induce guilt, but to really interrogate the relationship of your phone to your life. A phone-tool relationship ultimately has to be nurtured, thought about, and actively worked on. Complete abstention is nearly impossible in this day, so we need to work to meet ourselves where we are. If there’s anything we’re learning from rampant mobile device addiction, it’s that this relationship demands respect. Treat your phone like a garden, act slowly around it, learn from it, and understand how its needs relate to your needs.
CONCLUSION + FUTURE
I hope at least one, or all of those points resonated with you. Any steps we can take to actively control our technology will lead to a greatly calmer life. It may require some additional work up front, but if you want to live a life not completely consumed by technology, it’s going to need to be actively worked against.
I hope you’re enjoying reading, friend. I’m slowly figuring out what I want to do with this presence online and I appreciate the space to do it. We’re living in a world that’s unfortunately devoid of a lot of love, and it’s more important than ever to protect ourselves. I’ll continue to share whatever advice I have towards protecting ourselves from the internet while also using it to our benefit. I’d also love to hear any tips you may have, feel free to respond to this email or leave me a comment.
Until next time, take care.