A step by step guide to breaking your smartphone’s monopoly on your attention

Note: The “Sorting Myself Out” posts is a series exploring and implementing the ideas of Canadian psychologist Jordan B. Peterson on self improvement and living properly.

I gave a bit of thought to whether this belonged under the “Sorting Myself Out” tag and decided that screw it, doing this was so important to my own sorting out that I deem it relevant.

I was going to write a long preamble on why smartphones are addictive and destructive to our cognitive abilities but decided against it; the subject has already been done to death by far better researchers, so I’ll assume you already agree with me and lay out the steps for how I did it. To make a long story short, my concentration has improved by leaps and bounds along with my productivity. I can get around 2-3 hours of deep work in and I have ADHD. Think about that. I have ADHD. I don’t take pills. I can do at least 2 hours of deep work (in the sense of Cal Newport) everyday; according to Newport, even the best of Deep Workers max out at 4 hours.

It’s a tired trope that smartphones can do virtually anything, so as a response many of us have tasked it with everything. Here’s a (partial) list of what my smartphone does:

  • Alarm
  • Yoga
  • YouTube
  • Task manager
  • Phone
  • Email
  • Scanner
  • Photo editing
  • Camera
  • Meditation
  • Planetarium
  • LaTeX compiler
  • Python compiler
  • Timer
  • Internet browsing
  • Gaming
  • E-Book
  • Recipe book
  • Podcast player

I’m sure you can come up with many more. And that, I posit, is the reason smartphone use is so hard to control- it’s impossible to put down and the thought of leaving the house without it makes us break out in a cold sweat. Every time we have a more or less “valid” reason to pick it up, our attention runs the very real possibility of being hijacked by unproductive apps and purposes. We wake up to it, work out to it, cook with it, manage our tasks with it and ultimately go to sleep to it. With that in mind, my suggestions are centered around reducing the number of valid reasons we use our phone.

Step one: Make a list what you currently use your phone for

Smartphones are amazing. There’s no question of that. Also not in much doubt is the fact that most people can’t do without a phone of some kind in modern society; the point of this exercise is to reduce the reasons I use my phone, not handicap myself, so I make sure the list is more or less exhaustive.

Step two: Highlight or underline the functions that cannot be performed without a phone that you absolutely require

Examples would include, trivially, phone. You can’t call people without a phone. E-book? Not so much. For example, my family and significant other would like me to be reachable via WhatsApp at all times and WhatsApp requires a phone, and that is what I would highlight. What I wouldn’t highlight are things like alarm clock, timer and internet browsing (no one needs to do it on a phone; we did just fine before smartphones). Be very strict with what does and doesn’t the cut here because in the next steps, it’s open season on everything that’s left. We want to pare the list down to what we need in a smartphone, and not a step further.

Step three: The Replacing

Most features on smartphones can be replaced by analog alternatives. Here is my personal list of replacements:

  • Google Maps —> Paper maps (how archaic)
  • Task Manager —> Bullet Journal (or any other analog planning system. Check out Getting Things Done)
  • Alarm clock —> Why, alarm clock, of course. 😀
  • Timer —> Kitchen timer or hourglass. I go for hourglasses just for aesthetic reasons and trust me they are everywhere in my house. Everywhere. Get them in several different “modes”. A thirty minute glass is good for the Pomodoro method. One, three and five minutes good for things like brushing teeth or timing eggs and such.
  • E-books —> Print books. Cumbersome, I know. But worth it. I switched to Kindle for a while, but I still got distracted because there are so many books to choose from and I just couldn’t keep from flitting from book to book, so I scrapped the whole idea of digital books.
  • Internet browser —> I just don’t browse on my phone anymore. Computers exist.
  • E-mail —> Also no longer done on phone.

The goal here is to replace anything function that can be conveniently replaced so you will have very few “valid” reasons to pick up your phone. And if using paper maps seems inconvenient to you, consider that you will no longer be tracked everywhere by Google and it’s actually not that hard 😉 The feeling of competence I get from being able to navigate without Google holding my hand is actually kind of great.

Step four: The Culling

First of all, if none of the functions you circled requires a smartphone, cull the entire smartphone and buy one of those euphemistically named “feature phones”. There. You’re done. It’s that simple. Admittedly, very few people are willing to give up the entire smartphone including yours truly. Because I need WhatsApp, a dumb phone absolutely will not do. If you’re not done, then delete every app you don’t need, Even if you can’t replace some apps with analog alternatives, you can probably do without it, e.g. the newsfeed app. Newspapers still exist.

If you want to get rid of the browser or other “system apps”

If you’re on Android, there’s a way to delete your browser (I actually highly recommend this. The whole-internet-at-our-fingertips concept is overrated and, I believe, harmful) or any other app Android deems “system app”. Deleting “system apps” the normal way won’t work and unfortunately most manufacturer-installed bloatware count. Jaw-droppingly, YouTube also falls under this category. Having YouTube on my phone is a drug, I’ve decided. It had to go yesterday. If I couldn’t delete it, I was going to buy a feature phone. This is how much it had to go. You can either root your phone and delete browser and YouTube this way, or you can use a wonderful little tool called “adb”. I used adb to remove YouTube, browser and email client. This method takes a bit of technical know-how and google-fu (“android adb remove app” will work as a search term). Comfort with using command line is recommended.

DO THIS AT YOUR OWN RISK. I REPEAT. DO THIS AT YOUR OWN RISK. I WILL NOT BE RESPONSIBLE FOR ANY BRICKED PHONES BUT WILL ATTEST FROM PERSONAL EXPERIENCE THAT IT IS PERFECTLY FINE ON MY ZTE PHONE TO DELETE THE BROWSER AND YOUTUBE. ABSOLUTELY EXERCISE CAUTION WHEN DELETING GOOGLE APPS. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

If you’re on iOS, I’m out of ideas. The only way you can do this is probably through jailbreaking. Jailbreaking as been a pain in recent years and as a result I no longer try. If you can’t get rid of the browser, I would recommend hiding it. Put it in a folder on the second page where you can’t see it. Personally, since I want to keep my iPhone for gaming reasons, I just got a cheapo Android, removed the browser and YouTube, and made it my main phone. My iPhone sits at home as my game console.

Now when I pick up my phone because I’m bored and want to procrastinate, there is absolutely nothing entertaining to do on it. In all the ways that matter, it’s a wonderful feeling.

Step five: Set hard boundaries with what’s left

Turn off unnecessary notifications, master “Do Not Disturb” and various other settings, decide when you’re going to check e-mail or SnapChat, etc. Be as specific as possible. How many times, for example, should I check e-mail in a day and when? Once you have decided, write it down somewhere you can see it.

One of the ways I developed a hard boundary with my iPhone, whose browser I cannot remove and whose game I still want to play, is through a time-activated safe that cannot be opened through any other means (except perhaps a hammer). The iPhone goes into the safe (I personally use kSafe. Most people use it for cookies, but my phone is a species of cookie, “roughly speaking”) before my bedtime and can only be taken out after a set time in late morning, so I don’t start my day with my smartphone. If you choose to go this route, I highly recommend turning it off before you lock it up, because if anything beeps, or a stray alarm goes off, you will not be able to take it out. By way of example, here is a list of what I still use my smartphone for:

  • Calling
  • WhatsApp
  • Ambient noise apps
  • Camera
  • Work out

That’s it. I have one of the most boring phones around and I think it’s great.

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