This is your brain on mobile

A critique of destructive smartphone habits diagnosed by someone that makes a living off of them.

Jeremy Vandehey
Apr 10, 2014 · 10 min read

Power down

I was a mobile junkie. The phosphorescent glow left me mesmerized and needing more. Each Snapchat or push notification fueled my need for news, updates, and winning the battle against boredom. At my worst, most conversations with friends and family would start with “do you have a charger?”

I remember the turning point. I had just returned from a camping trip where I ‘witnessed’ a beautiful sunset. As I was reminiscing over the dozens of photos I took, I barely had any recollection of ACTUALLY being there. I was so focused on eternalizing the moment through my phone, that I hadn’t taken the time to eternalize it in my brain. I accepted my addiction and decided to make a change.

Full disclosure: I’m a technologist that works almost exclusively on mobile. I’ve had the opportunity to build some really neat things (thing 1 and thing 2) alongside very talented people. So my telling you to put your phone down is a little bit like a girl scout telling you only to buy 2 boxes. We (as app makers) want them to be addicting. Like a potato chip manufacturer, we try to put just the right crunch and the perfect amount of salt so you can’t help but have just one more. We want you to get addicted. It puts the potato chips on our table.

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There have been several great posts and humbling videos about mobile abuse so I hope I’m not beating a dead horse. I have no doubt that mobile is the future that is already here. Thousands of great apps have enriched and enhanced every aspect of our lives. As a human being, many of these triumphs are trumped by the overwhelming anxiety phones have instilled in us. We’ve trained ourselves to constantly seek refuge from boring, everyday life through our phones. We’ve grown so accustomed to this behavior that we can’t shut it out, even during truly exciting or beautiful times in our lives. We resort to the tapping & pecking muscle memory. The reality is 95% of each day is boring, everyday life. I had to hit rock bottom to realize I didn’t want to spend 95% of my life glued to a screen.

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Rock bottom

**inner-dialogue intensifies** “I wonder what [friend who isn’t present] is doing? I hope the Badgers won (edit: they didn’t)? Did that dude from work ever email me back? How is the INTU stock doing today? Did I get any more Instagram Likes?”

Having access to this data around the clock while attempting to hold a meaningful conversation with a good friend I hadn’t seen in weeks was impossible. I’m embarrassed I let it get to the point where if I wasn’t tinkering on my phone, I was thinking about it. I bet if you start paying closer attention to your mobile habits, you’ll notice it too.

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this is your brain on mobile

I want it here. I want it now. We live in an uber-convenient (hue hue hue) time where ride-sharing, same-day delivery, and instant gratification are the norm. This also means we are doing our nomadic ancestors a serious injustice by not walking anywhere anymore. I live in one of the most walkable cities on the planet, San Francisco. I Lyfted everywhere, got groceries delivered, etc. My phone just made it too convenient to be active. If I was walking, my phone was in my face, and I became a hazard to myself, other pedestrians, and drivers.

I want the world. I want the whole world. I want to lock it all up in my pocket.” — Veruca Salt

Decreased recall & critical thinking. Remember the glory days when you would spend an entire afternoon playfully arguing with a spouse, sibling, or friend about some trivial factual disagreement like which NFL team had the most Super Bowl wins? I do. My brother and I would spend entire afternoons having intense debates about the most Google-able, answerable topics. The truth is the answers never mattered as much as the conversation. It brought us closer. It taught us how to communicate. How to debate. Today that intense argument would have fizzled out in 2 minutes with Google having the final say.

On the clock. Around the clock. There is no 9-to-5 anymore. I’ve accepted that. What I haven’t accepted is after receiving an email at 10pm I’m expected to respond within 10 minutes. The line between work and home is static. What’s worse is I somehow used tweets and snapchats as a vehicle for validation and self worth. So even those activities felt like chores. Constant push notifications, emails, and messages meant I could never shut down and turn off.

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The following is a transcription of a dramatic reenactment of a real text exchange. The names have been changed or omitted to protect the innocent.

Appointments are moving targets. Let’s take another trip down memory lane, the year: 1992. You call your buddy from the landline and agree to meet at the local park in 30 minutes. Wanting to impress your friends, you get lost in the activity of adding those tinkling gadgets to your bike spokes for almost an hour. As soon as you snap out of your childish trance, you race to the park to try and catch your friend, but he’s nowhere to be found. The next day you have to sit and hear about how they ambushed the neighbor girls with water balloons. You missed it.

Phones have turned us into inconsiderate and tardy buttholes. I lost respect for my friend’s time and being punctual wasn’t a priority because updating them with an ETA became passive and far too easy.

I’m bored. Entertain me. Here’s the thing about saying, “I’m bored.” It’s a (boringly) grey area and a slippery slope. What used to be a thrilling experience (like riding the subway for the first time) is now mundane. Why not pass the time with a quick game of Three’s? This time spent crashing a fucking bird into a pipe quickly accumulates where a significant amount of seemingly insignificant yet beautiful moments pass you by whilst staring at a screen. Also…taking a picture of a beautiful moment still doesn’t count if the picture and filtered output is the end goal. Take that moment in. Truly experience it. Not from behind a Sepia filter.

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So I made a change.

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A new phone layout to prevent phone abuse. Only necessary apps on the home screen. Everything else tucked away. Inconvenience is the point. Ween yourself off. Turn OFF all badges, sounds, vibrations, and alerts.

In addition to this change, I started noticing more and more opportunities to cut the mobile ties. I’ve summarized these tricks into a program I’m calling the mobile cleanse.

The mobile cleanse

  1. Brain first, phone second. Can’t think of the artist for a song you just heard? Siri can’t help you now. Exercise your brain, and try to figure it out for yourself. If you still can’t get it after a few minutes of focus, shift your attention to something else and it will come to you sooner than later. Be sure to carry a notepad (that’s right…actual pen and paper) to jot it down so worst case you can Google it later.
  2. Hide and delete. This is the mobile cleanse mantra. Say it with me now… “Hummmmmmm…hide (inhale)…and delete (exhale)…and hide (inhale)…and delete (exhale).” You don’t need 200 apps. Uninstall the ones you no longer use and tuck the non-essentials into folders a few swipes from your main screen so it’s inconvenient to access them. You’ll soon realize how little you actually need them. My essentials include: phone, text, Spotify (music is my guilty pleasure. I’m not perfect), and Wunderlist (I’m a big fan of sole-focus task management…more on that in a second).
  3. Never push. Always pull. Unless your wife is expecting a baby at any minute, there’s nothing more important than the people you are with in that moment. Turn ALL notifications & badges off. Set your phone to silent (not VIBRATE). Don’t even allow yourself the temptation to swipe and catch up on the latest insta-snap-vine-whatsapp-videos. Don’t take away from the beautiful, seemingly insignificant, uninstagrammable moment you are having with the people you love. These nasty notifications also distract you from work, hobbies, and passions. Keep your focus. Buzzfeed’s top 25 beach bodies can wait. When mobile browsing is acceptable, PULL the information you seek (manual refresh, etc). Don’t let it come to you. Cold turkey. No exceptions.
  4. Your delivery is free if it’s a mile or less. Never Uber / Lyft / Sidecar if your destination is < 1mile. If weather and conditions permit, you can walk. Walk to the corner store for groceries. Get out of your house and and enjoy the fresh air (10 bonus points if you get to your destination without taking a picture. 20 points if you can walk without music. Another 50 points if you don’t need Google Maps to get there).
  5. Buy a watch. I would often catch myself pulling out my phone to merely check the time (and then check the time again since I never actually remembered it the first time). This frequent ‘time check’ reenforced the habit of constantly pulling out my phone and undoubtedly led to unnecessary browsing if a waiting notification piqued my interest. Buy a watch. Wear it.
  6. No phones in the bedroom or bathroom. Let’s focus on the bathroom first and how much time you save without your phone (see below for a non-scientific study of time spent on the toilet with and without a phone each day). Also the risk of accidentally dropping your iPhone in the toilet shoots dangerously close to zero if toilet tapping isn’t allowed. Now for the bedroom. It’s proven that looking at bright screens just before bed increases the time it takes to fall asleep. Step 1 ABSOLUTELY applies in the bedroom. Imagine two star-crossed lovers staring deeply into eachothers’ phablets. Playfully destroying pigs or experiencing mind-numbing insta-gasms. Yeah you get the point. If there’s one experience I don’t want to miss for a new LinkedIn connection, it’s one where I can truly connect with the person I love.

Time spent pooping

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This is exaggerated. If you are actually pooping for 10 hours per day, please see a doctor.

With great power comes great responsibility

An Apple a day keeps the doctor away. An Apple every 20 seconds…well…that’s too many fucking Apples.

Best of luck with the cleanse. Please share / recommend this article to help friends become human again and tweet me directly (@jgvandehey) to let me know how it goes or if you need a sponsor, support, or tips. It is now safe to use your electronic device (in moderation).

TL;DR — We are on our phones too much. They were built to enhance our lives, not consume them. Be a human.

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