stevemedcroft.com
1Dec/180

Decluttering your smartphone

I love technology. I always have. My first cell phone was a Motorolo 8000, the infamous 'brick' phone, large as a masonry block and just as heavy. My first personal computer the IBM AT 8800, replete with a green screen and floppy disks. I am old enough to see the evolution of most of the technology that we take for granted today, and some that used to seem futuristic; smartphones, personal computers, drones, robots, self-driving cars, etc.

Technology has improved our productivity and enhanced out lives. So many formerly analog tasks and media have been replaced by technology. But, along with all that productivity have come distractions. Apps designed to entertain us, to make us more productive, to encourage us to play and consume, gobble up an overwhelming amount of time. We are caught in a loop of self-perpetuating, addictive usage.

Like many of us, my biggest time-sucking technological device is the smartphone. Never more than an arms length away from me (even when sleeping), this powerful, candy-bar sized computer is a constant source of distraction and mindless consumption. I both love it and feel like I could not live life without it. We constantly check to see if there is a new email, text, or instant message for us to respond to. We fiddle with Facebook to get a dose of what-did-I-miss in a group of other people's lives. We scroll for fifteen minutes on Instagram at pretty images promoting other people's vision for their life. Twitter. Oh, God. Since Donald J. Trump became president, I would hover on Twitter in a constant state of anxiety expecting to read at any moment that society had collapsed. I log in to the websites of CNN and NPR and ABC News and NBC News and the New York Times and Fox News, not really sure what I'm hoping to read, but rattled nonetheless. Oh, I also YouTube and stream Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon Prime on my phone. I'm stressed out just writing down the list of all the ways I use the smartphone mindlessly.

These uses of technology make us consumers, products of someone else's business, rather than a self-directed individuals using amazing new technology to empower our own lives. I hate myself for the addictive powerlessness I feel sometimes when I throw my precious life away on this device.

How can we get control our toxic use of technology? Should we get rid of our phones? Switch to a model with a limited display, one that only makes phone calls and maybe, if we're lucky, text messages? That's not really practical, right? Technology is not the problem. Our use of it is the problem. The manipulation of us as users by the manufacturer's and app developers is the problem. So we don't need to remove personal technology from our lives. We just need to minimize it.

Decluttering the smart phone

At its core, the smartphone is a computer that runs applications. Each application serves a specific function. Some are powerful computing tools, like email, which allow me to connect with people on my terms. Some are powerful personal tools; my banking app that allows me to oversee and manage my business and personal finances. Some are powerful information and entertainment tools; my Kindle reader that gives me access to all my reading material. Regaining control over the smartphone and turning it back into a tool for productivity is about curating apps and organizing the way you interact with device.

First, this means setting up the options on the phone to take away the things developers use to encourage overuse, like notifications, sounds, and available times. It then means sorting applications into three categories; keep, throw away, and consider.

The 'keep' applications are those that are essential to your everyday life, that lead to productivity, are valuable, and bring you joy. The calculator function is an example of this. I use it regularly and having access to a calculator on my phone means I don't have to possess a physical calculator. Same with the phone function itself. I wouldn't want to not be able to make and take phone calls. You want your keep applications readily accessible.

The throw-away applications are apps we never use and don't need. These could be apps installed by default with the device, apps we install to get access to a certain service, games we never play, or apps installed to support memberships and rewards points programs we can access another way. Get rid of of any app that you do not use (remember, if you get rid of anything in your life you later find essential, you can always bring it back).

Consider remaining applications carefully. They maybe important to you, but lead you to consumptive behavior. Email, Social-media apps, video apps, etc. The might properly belong in the remove pile, but we each have to make our own decisions on these. For me, getting rid of Twitter, Instagram and Facebook as apps was a step (I've even gone so far to delete my Twitter account). Keep the apps you want access to, but use the phone's settings to minimize their intrusion into your daily life in several key ways.

Only keep essentials on the home screen of your smartphone.

Only keep essentials on the home screen of your smartphone.

First, you can remove all notifications. Much of my smartphone use was triggered by the applications reaching out to me. I was getting a digital tap on the shoulder in the form of a ping or a pop-up or an icon on my home screen. My response to the tap was always to pick up my phone. I'd always check. Human Beings are wired to need certainty. Open a question in our minds and we are programmed to need to know the answer. It's a primal, base-level survival response. App developers know this and use it to manipulate us to use their apps. Removing notifications gets you back in control of one way the technology uses us rather than the other way around.

I also set my phone to automatically go into Do-Not-Disturb mode for specific hours every day. At 5pm, until 9am the next morning, only a programmed list of people important to me can reach me by phone or text. This small change put a giant border around my use of technology that gives me control of how the tool is used.

Another trick to get control over smartphone use is to minimize your phone screens. We decide where app icons appear on our phone, and we are able to have multiple screens. Put the essential apps, the ones you want quick access to, that don't lead to overconsumption or abuse your time, on the home screen. Bury other apps behind the home screen to add a layer layer of friction between the impulse to use the app (check email open Instagram) and the actual use of the app. This friction, the need to scroll to a second or third screen or first open a folder to gain access to an app, gives you a moment to challenge the impulse. I want to manage how often I check email, so I buried email in my phone. To get to my email app, I literally have to open my phone, scroll to the right four times, open a folder, scroll to the second page of icons, then click the email icon. That's enough effort that I question whether or not I really want to do this every time.

With my smartphone notifications silenced, do-not-disturb limiting access to me to working hours, and a screen layout that gets me quick access to the apps that I find essential, and adds friction to get to the apps I abuse, I feel like I am at peace with this technology now. How about you? Do you recognize the pervasiveness of this technology in your life? Do you feel out of balance, like you're giving too much time and energy to your smartphone that you want to redirect to more positive uses? How are you decluttering or minimizing your smartphone use?

The step-by-step to a decluttered smartphone:

  1. Scroll through your phone. Look at everything you've installed there. Create a list with three columns; keep, consider, and throw-away.
  2. Keep - list the essential apps. What do you need and use on a daily basis. Calendar? Calculator? Kindle Reader app? Phone, Text? Music, Podcast? These apps will stay, but the device will be setup to make them passive and readily accessible.
  3. Consider - decide which apps you use, but are habit-forming or you overuse mindlessly. For me, that's email and browsing the web. Those apps will stay, but will be silenced and placed behind a layer or two of friction.
  4. Throw-away - remove everything else that you can.
  5. Setup your screens. Home screen for need. Second screen with a folder full of the none-essentials. Maybe one screen per app (to force scrolling to find the one you typically use by habit and add friction).
  6. Setup a Do Not Disturb time.
  7. Establish your favorites (who will be able to penetrate the DND time).
  8. Turn off all notifications. All. Notifications. Except maybe the badges so long as they are not on the home screen. No push notifications.
  9. Charge your phone somewhere other than beside your bed.
  10. Leave your phone in your car when you go to the store or to a movie or to visit someone.
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