Category: Tech

Is your phone using you?

This post is an excerpt from my last newsletter, which you can read and subscribe to here.

Cal Newport—who you should be regularly reading—wrote a piece in The NY Times last year that is worth reading, or reading again.

In short, he suggests that the iPhone/smartphone should be used as a phone, iPod, and navigation device only. The fact that many of us have spent over a decade using these devices more than we should means that we don’t notice the way our phones have used us:

Under what I call the “constant companion model,” we now see our smartphones as always-on portals to information. Instead of improving activities that we found important before this technology existed, this model changes what we pay attention to in the first place — often in ways designed to benefit the stock price of attention-economy conglomerates, not our satisfaction and well-being.

We’ve become so used to the constant companion model over the past decade that it’s easy to forget its novelty.

“Instead of improving activities that we found important before this technology existed, this model changes what we pay attention to in the first place…”

Read more—hopefully not on your phone?—here.

The new year and my new rekindled relationship with Cal Newport means that I am back to using my phone in the most bare-bones way I know how.

In the midst of a busy fall I found myself adding email back to my phone most days. I am trying to avoid that again. (See #10 on my how to stop loving your phone post from two years ago.) I put together that list before I dropped all social media; I would still recommend removing social apps from your phone if you aren’t ready to quit cold turkey.

Quitting Google

I have toyed with it in the past, but tonight I finally pulled the plug on my Google account.

I am not naive to how much information other companies (predominantly Apple in my case) know about me. But Google and Facebook are different. They aren’t trying to sell me a product; they are selling me as their product. The data they collect and store is sold to God-knows-who for a number of purposes. (Seriously, sometimes Facebook and Google don’t even know who they are selling to.)

Gmail was great. It streamlined the email process, and provided virtually unlimited storage. Searching for old emails was a breeze. But it also processed every single one of your emails and targeted super-specific ads based on what you read and wrote. And then it started suggesting specific responses to emails. I don’t know why, but that was the last straw for me.

I might live to regret this. I have tried quitting Google once before. Let’s see if it doesn’t stick this time.

how to stop loving your phone

Becoming detached from my phone and off-hours email access started over a year ago, and has progressed like this:

  1. Disable all push notifications (except Phone and Messages)
  2. Remove native Mail app plus Gmail and Outlook apps
  3. Install Moment App (tracks screen-time as motivation to use phone less)
  4. Remove Social Apps (I add these back from time to time, but generally keep them off. Instagram is the most-likely exception here.)
  5. Disable Safari access (via Restrictions)
  6. Disable App Store access (via Restrictions)
  7. Remove all apps from first screen.
  8. Black and White screen (via Accessibility options. Thanks Billie.)
  9. Permanent Do-Not-Disturb mode; allowing phone calls and messages from a very short list of people to buzz my phone.
  10. Remain committed to redoing many of these as they creep back in over time.

You should try it. I can help if you ask.

On using Email as Email

You may have noticed a delay in my response-time for emails lately. This is because I started using email as its namesake suggests it should be used: as an electronic mailbox.

As technology advanced in the 20th and 21st centuries, and the smartphone transitioned from an executive novelty to the norm, very few of us—including myself—stopped to ask whether this was actually a good thing. We can access email 24-hours a day on our phones, but should we? Are humans the type of beings who are able to flourish when we are never truly disconnected from our work? I would suggest that we are not. I know with certainty that I am not.

My tendency, over time, became to use email as a slower version of instant messaging. I had email access on my phone and on my computer, and each of these devices notified me the instant a new message arrived. I then replied as soon as I possibly could, often feeling as though my work was not finished until I responded to every new email that arrived. This, as you can imagine, led to a sense of never feeling like I was “off-duty.” I am not alone in feeling exhausted by the “always-on” approach to email.1

All of this means that I am now using email as an electronic mailbox. Like my actual mailbox, I may check it occasionally throughout the day if I am expecting important information. Otherwise, I will likely only check it once or twice. This means that I no longer have email or internet access on my phone. (Pro-tip: you cannot really disconnect from email after-hours if you have any possible way of accessing it on your phone. iOS 10 allows you to delete the native Mail app and disable the App Store and disable Safari. I could not break my email-checking habit without making it impossible annoyingly difficult to check email on my device. You might need to do this as well.)

If you need to contact me immediately, you should probably give me a call. If you do not have my phone number, then I am probably not the person that is best equipped to handle your emergency.

On using email as email

At my best, I try to use email as its namesake suggests it should be used: as an electronic mailbox.

As technology advanced in the 20th and 21st centuries, and the smartphone transitioned from an executive novelty to the norm, very few of us—including myself—stopped to ask whether this was actually a good thing. We can access email 24-hours a day on our phones, but should we?

Are humans the type of beings who are able to flourish when we are never truly disconnected from our work?

I would suggest that we are not. I know with certainty that I am not.

My tendency, like most of us, became to use email as a slower version of instant messaging. I had email access on my phone and on my computer, and each of these devices notified me the instant a new message arrived. I then replied as soon as I possibly could, often feeling as though my work was not finished until I responded to every new email that arrived. This, as you can imagine, led to a sense of never feeling like I was “off-duty.” I am not alone in feeling exhausted by the “always-on” approach to email.

(See Fortune Magazine’s article “How Checking Email After Work Is Burning You Out” or read the results of one of studies it references: ”Anticipatory stress of after-hours email exhausting employees.”)

I am now back to trying to use email as an electronic mailbox.

Like my actual mailbox, I may check it occasionally throughout the day if I am expecting important information. Otherwise, I will likely only check it once or twice. This means that I no longer have email or internet access on my phone.

You cannot really disconnect from email after-hours if you have any possible way of accessing it on your phone. iOS 10 allows you to delete the native Mail app and disable the App Store and disable Safari. I could not break my email-checking habit without making it impossible annoyingly difficult to check email on my device. You might need to do this as well.

But what about…?

Several but what abouts almost ruined my endeavor to use email as email. Here are some ways I have talked myself back into it.

If someone needs something from me immediately, they can give me a call. If they do not have my phone number, then I am probably not the person that is best equipped to handle their emergency.

If you are thinking, “I would love to do this, but my industry does not allow it,” then I would suggest two things:

(1) I thought the same thing; you are probably wrong, or (2) You are right, but I imagine you can find a way to limit the “always-on” email mentality to regular work hours.

  1. See Fortune Magazine’s article “How Checking Email After Work Is Burning You Out” or read the results of one of studies it references: ”Anticipatory stress of after-hours email exhausting employees.”