Setting up Your Dumbphone

In the first part of this series, I described several ways of getting a little distance from your smartphone, and elucidated some of the advantages and pitfalls of each strategy. In this part I will go into detail about exactly how to accomplish what I believe to be the most viable solution: purchasing a secondary dumb phone and using it on weekends and holidays when the full power of your smartphone is unnecessary.

The first time I tried to switch over to a dumb phone I made a crucial error: I got rid of my smartphone entirely and transitioned to a dumb phone as my primary phone. I purchased AT&T’s most Blackberry-esque dumb phone, complete with a physical keyboard, and switched over my number to this new device. The timing of this switch could not have been more inopportune: I was going on a trip to Los Angeles the next week, a city I was very unfamiliar with. Trying to rely on a dumbphone while exploring a new city, having little experience with either life sans smartphone or my new environs, was both daunting and uncomfortable. I decided to switch back to my iPhone midway through my trip. In order to do that, however, I needed to find an AT&T store. Without Google Maps to guide me, I wound up getting quite lost. I hadn’t realized just how many life skills I had outsourced to my iPhone.

I had sought to get a break from tech, but made the mistake of jumping into the deep end of the pool. As a result, I quickly abandoned my experiment without getting any of the benefits of a less connected life. Hence, my new strategy: maintaining two phones. I would keep a smartphone as my daily driver, and get a dumb phone for those days and weekends when I wanted to disconnect.

The first step for me was to purchase a good dumb phone, one that I would hopefully actually use. There are many options out there, from cheap Blackberry knockoffs featuring full Qwerty keyboards, to tried and tested flip phones, to new ‘fancier’ dumb phones such as the Nokia 3310, which combine simplicity with an appealing design. After my last terrible experience with a dumb phone, I decided to stay away from Blackberry spinoffs. It came down to a choice between AT&T’s standard and cheap flip phone or the new redesigned Nokia. I reasoned with myself that taking a break from Apple’s artfully designed iPhone would be easier if my alternate device was also pleasurable to hold and look at. So I went with the Nokia, a more expensive but also more elegant option.

I made a trip to my local Best Buy and asked a clerk to help me set up a new phone number for this device, with the cheapest plan AT&T offered. This wound up costing me $25 upfront, and $20 a month after that. I reasoned with myself that if I were to use it every weekend of the month, the cost would come out to $5 a weekend, about the same as a cup of coffee. And if I ever wanted to abandon the experiment, it wouldn’t be too costly of an endeavor.

Once I had the phone, the number, and the plan, all that was left was figuring out how to let people know how to reach me on my new device. Instead of sending out an all points bulletin to all my friends and family, I decided instead to redirect my calls to my new device and turn on a makeshift ‘away’ message for iMessage. If you look in Settings on the iPhone, under the section devoted to the settings for the Phone app, you can find an option called Call Forwarding. All I had to do was turn this function on, and then enter the number of my new Nokia phone. Having done that, all calls made to my primary number were now redirected to the secondary dumb phone. Easy enough.

Call Forwarding

But since not most people prefer sending a text to calling these days, I knew that letting the people who had messaged me know where they could reach me would be the more important task. Fortunately, Apple’s iOS 11 operating sytem has a new feature called ‘Do Not Disturb While Driving.’ This setting allows you to send an auto reply to people while you are on the road, letting them know that you are presently unable to answer your phone but will get back to them at your destination. The settings for this feature can be found in the Do Not Disturb section of the Settings app. The away message can be configured to be whatever you want, so I replaced the stock message with “I’m away from my smartphone for the _____ (here you could put evening, weekend, week, etc). If you need to reach me, you can call or text me at (xxx) xxx-xxx. Otherwise I will get back to you ______.”

Your custom away message.

One thing to note is that your iPhone will send an additional message after your custom away message, letting people know they can reach you if they send the word ‘urgent.’ There’s no way to turn this function off, so I just included an addendum telling people to ignore the second message, and it seems to have worked. No one has sent me the word ‘urgent’ as a follow up.

This system worked like a charm. People who called me were simply transferred to my new number without any knowledge they were talking to me on a different device. Every one who texted me either resent their text to my new number or just waited for me to get back to them.

The hardest part of carrying around a dumb phone has been trying to function without my calendar. I’ve offloaded so much of my memory to my device that its difficult for me to recall what I’ll be doing even a couple of days in advance. I think a lot of us are using are using our devices as supplementary brains, or else my memory is just much worse than I realized.

So far I’ve only used my dumb phone for two days at a time, and I haven’t given up checking my smartphone entirely for those two days. I usually check it again in the evening after leaving it at home for the day. But I’m building up to two consecutive completely smartphone free days, and from there to a whole week. I’m curious what psychological effects I’ll experience after a whole week away from my second brain. In the next part of this series, I’ll describe what I’ve experienced so far while while venturing out without my smartphone, as well as my motivations for managing the tech in my life.