Smartphone Moderation For The Win

How often do you check your phone? I compulsively check for new stuff. It’s like a mobile slot machine: pull the lever…what did I get?! You probably know the feeling, that subconscious tug from your brain-to-fingertips to find something new or novel with the glowing screen in your hands. It’s distracting. I want a calm un-fragmented psyche. No more Smartphone Psychosis, please. Zombie-scrolling, mindless checking, and constant connecting must stop.

Checking out

My smartphone usage was like an addiction. I thought my problem was social media. Earlier this year, feeling frazzled from checking Twitter too much, I deleted my account. Then I signed out of Facebook. I also turned off nearly all phone notifications (interruptions). No more red circles for email. No more random “Dinggg!” repeatedly pinging my brain throughout the day.

Scaling those back really helped my splintered mind feel calmer. I also went on walks outside and intentionally silenced podcasts and music — solitude. This let me be fully present in the physical world around me. All I had were my own thoughts. Clarity replaced mild background anxiety. I agree with Cal Newport in his excellent book, Digital Minimalism:

“Simply put, humans are not wired to be constantly wired.”

It’s been over 4 months since then, and while an improvement, I don’t think I’ve unplugged enough from my smartphone. My habit is to check it often, looking for something new or novel to feed my brain, like Johnny 5 from the movie, Short Circuit:

Input, neeeeed input…more, more input.

My mind has been hooked on always consuming new emails, new podcasts, new articles, new pictures, new sales, new apps, new sites… I had become what I beheld; my smartphone consumed me. And lest you think this is all overstated, watch this eye-opening video.

Like Neo jacked into The Matrix, how can someone unplug from what feels like an online lifeline? It has much to do with the constant connection ever-present in the pocket.

A phone, an iPod, and an Internet Communicator

I’m “picking on” the iPhone because it’s most responsible for starting the smartphone revolution and is what I’ve used most since 2008. When Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone, he presented it as three devices in one. Obviously, an iPhone is a cell phone, yet it has crept far beyond such a limited scope. While still an iPod and a web communicator, it’s also a camera, a mobile game console, and more.

It’s interesting to read in Digital Minimalism that Steve Jobs actually viewed the iPhone as simply an iPod plus a phone, primarily two devices in one. As Cal Newport points out in his book, the iPhone keynote focused on its iPod and phone capabilities, leaving internet communication as a distant third usage. Newport went on to confirm that the original scope of the iPhone excluded apps, the app store, and general purpose computing. It was simple.

The iPhone was never meant to do or be so much, but now we carry a pocket computer everywhere. Whatever you need, “There’s an app for that.” With so many apps doing so many things, we’re often easily distracted. Things have become too complex.

With increased capability and complexity, the iPhone is trying to fix the problem of distraction that it created by introducing more features for increased control, such as Focus Modes and Screen Time. But instead of adding features to minimize distraction, shouldn’t we be subtracting from the phone or minimizing smartphone usage overall?

More phone, less focus; less phone, more focus.

The simplicity and limited capability of the first iPhone is a key to guarding against the smartphone’s insidious scope creep. What is a smartphone for? It’s a tool; it’s several devices in one. I don’t think ditching the smartphone and switching to a dumbphone is the best answer for me. But I’m putting my phone in its place, focusing on its core uses for my needs, and minimizing extra apps and features.

This distills the smartphone to its essence like the original iPhone — simpler and less capable — and helps me to think of it as a-few-devices-in-one with associated apps:

  • Phone - Messages
  • iPod - Music, Podcasts
  • Camera - Photos
  • GPS - Maps, Find My
  • PDA - Notes, Reminders, Calendar, Calculator

As for “Internet Communicator,” I did two drastic things: deleted the Mail app and turned off Safari. Why check Mail so much? My emails are rarely urgent, and most aren’t important. Mail can wait until I’m at my laptop.

Lacking a web browser, I’m taking this radical new change one day a time. I had already deleted related apps like WordPress and Feedly. While it sounds crazy, I’ve asked myself if I really need all those on my phone when they’re always on my laptop, which is often available.

Outsmart the smartphone

The point is to think about needs versus wants and be intentional about smartphone usage. Minimize poor habits and smartly choose essential ones. Moderating usage is smart, like having a budget for finances. Rather than restrictive, it’s often liberating. Why be tethered to an extra appendage, the smartphone? I’ll let the iPhone be part of my life and no longer let it be my life.

In a psychosis, a person has lost touch with external reality. I can’t live that way, having my head always in my phone, my glazed eyes entranced with screen-stare, flitting between apps. So I’m trying to love my iPhone less, look up from its screen more, and stay in touch with what’s around me, cultivating mental calm and clarity.

Less phone. Less distraction.
More focus. More freedom.

If you’re seriously interested in all this, you should read Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism.

Where are you at in your smartphone journey? Do you control it, or does it control you?