Minimal smartphone use and the urge to document your life
About ten years ago, after going through some rough moments in my life, I rediscovered the outdoors. This happened quickly, with help from a dear friend. I purchased a new bicycle (a hard-tail mountain bike) and started using it for my daily commute.
Soon after that, I went to various local cycling trips and events, gradually managing to shake off the distress I had at that point. My physical shape was getting better and I quit smoking. One year later, I met the girl which I eventually ended up living with and getting married to.
Since we both have a soft spot for spending time outside, we frequently went hiking, mountain biking and bicycle touring.
Back in 2012, I thought of starting a blog for posting photos I took during our trips (I did and still do carry my DSLR camera when we go out). The idea was based on the principle of “giving something back to the community”. I did not own a smartphone (didn’t find a proper use for such a device) and I did not have a Facebook or Twitter account, despite what many of my peers thought about it.
It was still a time when local nature enthusiasts would scour the web for tips on wild trails and places, so most had a tendency to share such information with people nourishing similar interests. After posting some photos followed by one-sentence descriptions, I began receiving positive feedback. This was new for me, and it made me feel like what I was doing somehow mattered. So, I began writing trip journals with photo inserts. Of course, my writing was painfully awful, but it still got positive feedback. Then, I took it a step further.
Even though I never set out to write content that could later be monetized, I started investing considerable amounts of my personal time in optimizing and designing the website. And writing about our trips became a scheduled chore.
Not our trips, but content for my blog
Suddenly, I found myself speeding past my friends and spouse just to gain enough distance so I could have time to pull out my camera, look at different angles and take photos of the surroundings and the people cycling towards and away from me. My mind was not wandering around while enjoying each pedal push through the forest, breathing in the fresh morning air and listening to the birds chirping all around me. I was focused on dreaming up my next blog post while I was still outside, supposedly disconnected and having a good time enjoying my favorite leisure and the companionship. Fast-forward one year later, we bought a sports camera and started to film our trips and vacations. “For our private archive”, I would say. But this was raw material to be edited a few days after the trip. Photos were not enough.
This became some sort of a norm, and outdoor activities had to be planned not only for our own enjoyment and well-being, but to also provide content for the blog. I felt that periods of inactivity would look bad and that readers would be disappointed. I was subjecting myself to a lot of stress by having to sort photos and edit videos up to 3 or 4 AM, when I should’ve been sleeping and recovering after a nice “outdoor escape”. The next day, I would eagerly send links to friends and family. I even created social media pages for the website, since I found it crucial all of a sudden.
All this time I was ignoring an increased state of anxiety and irritability that started to discreetly manifest each day. I even rushed some evenings with my wife so that I could go work on “the latest material”, causing totally unneeded distress to our relationship.
There I was, caught in a vicious and unhealthy cycle that lasted for five years. And I never monetized any content, not even on the associated YouTube channel, where all the edited videos were being uploaded. Of course, along the way I’ve learned a lot about photography, video editing and writing in general, but my approach was not at all wise. I could have learned all that without dealing with the blog thing and creating the obligation to regularly provide content.
A wake-up call
In June 2016, me and my wife took on a three-week bicycle tour through Switzerland and South Tyrol, together with two friends. It was a great, very demanding (for example, we climbed three mountain passes in one day: Fuorn, Umbrail and Stelvio) and memorable journey. But it was also the tour in which I’ve managed to completely ignore a good chunk of my surroundings just because I was busy taking “scenic” photos and shoot videos on the go.
After returning home, I’ve spent quite a few nights in a row sifting through hundreds of photographs and some journal entries we took while on the road. The following year, I would constantly find myself trying to create the “perfect bicycle touring videos” based on hours of trivial footage gathered during that trip, editing hundreds of photos and writing blog posts based on journal entries. And I did the same for the rest of our outdoor activities that immediately followed that alpine bicycle tour, working in parallel. I was convinced that multitasking was the way to go and that everything we did had to be written down in a nice, palatable form. All this while still working my day job at the office, where I increasingly found it harder to focus. This would go on for months after our son was born.
Finally, one day, I snapped.
While at work, I began feeling dizzy. A violent migraine followed, along with severe nausea and intense shivering. Cold sweat ran down my forehead and I felt like losing conscience at times. After managing to get home using a cab, I remember my wife looking extremely worried while holding our son. I got in bed and instantly fell asleep. Three hours later, I woke up feeling much better.
That scared me and it wasn’t hard to figure out the culprit. I decided to stop.
Out with the blog and enter the smartphone
I gave up on writing for that blog, but decided to keep it for reference. Most of the text was exported and some of it ended up in printed form, to be stored in a box on a bookshelf. Now, photos and occasional footage are taken only for private use, and I resorted to a printed selection of photos. And I still keep little trip diaries, but they are personal and I tend to them whenever I get the time, since it’s a low priority activity.
However, my behavior shifted.
Even though I did not own a smartphone until mid-2016, I found myself increasingly using one once purchased. I even upgraded three times during my first year, with the sole purpose of having “a better device that would make me more productive” and I was hooked to the whole thing: the apps, customization, settings, instant messaging and even social media.
I joined Facebook in late 2016 and said that I will rarely use it. Two weeks later, I was constantly checking my phone. The same story with Twitter. Hundreds of valueless pictures began to pile up on Google Photos, and this went on quite a fair bit until I found myself taking “cute” shots of my son instead of constantly interacting with him and enjoying the unique moments of his childhood and early development. To make matters worse, I started to stare at the screen while my wife was right next to me, trying to carry a conversation. Something seemed odd.
I was in a similar spot as before, but this time the implications were much greater. Again, something had to change, and that was me.
Admitting that I may be the only one responsible for the distress I was causing around me was a tough thing to do, and it was only possible after going through a few months of intense and critical self-assessment. After all, this tendency towards “digital addiction” had a more deeper source that I imagined and seeking refuge in trivial activities did nothing more than masking a void. I did not like what I found out about me (in general, that is), but finally ended up taking some decisions in regards to my priorities, way of working and spending my time and attention. And the so-called “digital life” is part of this.
Simplifying life and dumbing down the smartphone
I decided to keep my Facebook and check it only once a week, from my laptop, especially when some of my friends were out on cycling trips. I deleted my Twitter account, decluttered my own material possessions (that took some effort and, at the time of writing, it’s not yet a completed task), quit Netflix and started “going minimal”. Especially when it comes to my phone, which is eventually the end goal of this particular “story”. Of course, the phone is just a part of the process, but I find that it weighs quite a lot, and looking around me today I can’t help noticing the impact smartphones and social media have on our societies.
I’ve designed my own rules, based on “the quiet life I used to have before owning a smartphone”. Maybe this list will prove useful for others too, at least as a starting point.
Of course, these rules are null if one does not thoroughly analyze and change daily behavious.
Rule #1: Strip your phone of all but the essential apps
We have been persuaded to think we need a lot of apps and services in order to function in today’s world and that we need to be connected 24/7. Websites and forms are not enough anymore, so for any trivial task, an app has to be developed. Of course, it’s a lucrative business since most of the “free” apps actually sell statistical information about the way you use them and some also provide your personal content to third parties. And it’s also easy for users with no background in Information Technology to assume that most services can be accessed only using their associated app.
But the smartphone needs to be a phone that can provide features bringing a tangible plus to the user’s life. Google Maps is truly useful when in need of directions to a car repair shop in a city or country you’ve never visited before, but that does not mean one has to abandon any form of orienteering in familiar places just because using the Google Maps user interface is somehow addictively interesting.
Keep the basic apps and especially remove any social media from your phone. I own an Android device, so I only have Google Maps, Google Chrome, Garmin Connect (I still use a sports tracker, as it makes it easier to sync recorded runs & bicycle rides - maybe this too will go away at some point in the future), Telegram (the IM I use for conversations with my wife), WhatsApp (still required to provide close friends with an IM that allows easy URL exchanges when needed) and YouTube (rarely used as a remote for a Chromecast). Okay, and Termux, Uber, Google Photos and VirtualCards. Everything else (like online banking, weather updates and looking things up) is done through the browser, only when true need or emergency arises.
Disabling or removing the built-in search app (especially the one Google provides) is also crucial in this process.
Rule #2: Enable and use “dark mode” everywhere possible
This not only saves battery, but is easier on the eyes. It also helps keeping the “Oh, look! Shiny bright colors!” instinct at bay.
Rule #3: Put the phone on DND mode (with gray-scale, if possible) from 10 PM till 6 or 7 AM
Night time is yours alone. The phone must stay out of your bedroom, preferably by the hallway entrance of your living space, but it is still advisable to have it as silent as possible. DND mode allows one to select which calls can bypass the setting, which is truly useful if you want your spouse or parents to be able to call you in case of maximum emergency. Grayscale helps ignoring the phone’s screen.
Rule #4: Make your phone as dull as possible
Disable sleek animations, use solid black as wallpaper and choose the simplest launcher you can work with. Give up on eye-candy and start seeing your phone as a simple tool rather than a source of distractions and mindless swipe-fun.
Rule #5: Always use the “Battery saver” mode
Preserving resources is very important in today’s society. We are concerned about energy as a whole, but we ignore the fact that the powerful computers we constantly carry around in our front pockets run a lot of things when we don’t need to, draining energy and thus, wasting a resource. Since one wouldn’t use a race car for a daily 4 mile commute through endless traffic jams each day, phones should be on standby as much as possible.
Rule #6: Buy a wrist watch
This may not be so obvious, but think about all the times when you looked at your phone’s screen only to check the clock and you’ve ended up spending 10 minutes dealing with all the notifications that are displayed on your lockscreen.
A wrist watch eliminates a bad habit and the potential of being distracted. Beware of smartwatches, since they move the source of distraction away from your pocket and on to your very wrist, which is ever more accessible. Analog and mechanical watches are simple, sleek and still available, but any watch would do.
Rule #7: Set fixed time intervals each day for trivial, low-quality use (instant messaging, checking emails, etc.)
Instant messaging is highly superficial and, I would argue, not that valuable. As Cal Newport puts it, this should only be used for logistical purposes like sending map coordinates or links that help establish a real face-to-face meeting or to complement a real conversation. Since most of instant messaging is low-quality (whether you accept this or not), it must not be able to disrupt your activities. That’s why having notifications disabled and setting time intervals when you voluntarily check for new messages plays a major role in reclaiming your own time. After all, if someone really needs to reach you, a phone call is much better and valuable.
Rule #8: Use your phone for looking up information and email only in case of urgency (either personal or professional)
The smartphone can be a very useful tool when true need arises. For example, one may quickly search for a car service, emergency numbers or public transport schedules in a foreign country. Or checking email when the job really depends on it and you are away from a laptop or desktop computer.
Rule #9: Disable location services and data connections when you don’t need them
Just as you wouldn’t leave your car’s GPS running overnight while you sleep, smartphone location services should be enabled only when needed. Otherwise, you should stay away from finding those monthly location history emails you get from Google to be anywhere near interesting. Actually, it’s down right creepy if you think of it.
Also, GPS uses a lot of battery power, so keeping it disabled is nothing but a plus.
Rule #10: Keep your phone in the hallway
Probably the most important of all. Once you don’t allow your phone to be a constant companion around the house (buzzing while playing with your kids, having dinner or a relaxed discussion with your spouse), your family interactions become screen-free by default. And this is a big plus, especially for setting a good example your kids could use and look up to. After all, you cannot pretend your kids should not extensively use their phones when they grow up while you also constantly stare at a blue screen in your palm.
Whenever you need to call someone or check an important message, do that in the hallway, by the entrance of your home. Right where you keep your keys and wallet.
How does it look like in real life?
Well, battery life ranges from three to five days, depending on my needs. Extra phone calls, the use of a ride sharing app or using Google Maps for quickly getting around the public transport system of a city I’ve never been to before will eat up battery power. But I didn’t need to bring along a powerbank.
Since I am a computer guy and I’m not afraid of consoles, my launcher is a console itself, which allows me to quickly type in actions like “call Friend” or app names (it’s embedded autocomplete feature helps a lot) and keeps things to a quiet minimum. Before that, I used the simplest launcher I could find, but I bet each platform has its options. What exactly you use does not matter as long as it is simple and with very little to no eye-candy.
Having just a few apps is great and I do not at all feel limited or constrained. If the need arises, almost everything can be done through the web browser. This includes streaming services like Google Play and YouTube.
People without a background in Information Technology may think it’s strange or impossible that web services are also accessible through the use of a web browser, but I believe this to be one of the key factors that drives the “app market”. Again, once an app is installed on your device, it has access to some of its resources, part of which may not have anything to do with the app’s purpose and functionality. Some of that info may be monetized elsewhere.
It took a week of struggling with the above rules and the new setup in order to realize how much time I have been wasting. For a couple of days, I deliberately refrained my newly developed habit of compulsively checking the phone, but it did work eventually once I noticed the beneficial effects it had on my family and well-being.
Maybe the most valuable gain is my son not finding the phone that interesting anymore. Of course, he would occasionally get a hold of it and walk around the house pretending to have a phone conversation, but that’s it. And since our societies are already confronting the ugly side-effects encountered by generations of children that grew up being constantly “hooked”, getting kids to live a normal childhood before some technologies are gradually and carefully introduced is crucial for future generations.
And this is also the foundation for building a focused life, but that’s a subject that requires a separate discussion.