You are a curator when it comes to your mobile devices. You choose all of the apps and settings. You control the horizontal, and you control the vertical. And these choices dictate how you spend a lot of your time. So it’s worth being deliberate and having a design strategy.
My strategy is to make my phone as boring as possible. I want it to be totally uninteresting and deeply unengaging.
I knew that my approach was working when, on my morning walk the other day, I idly opened my phone to see what was happening — as I often do — and I saw that nothing at all was happening. No Facebook. No Twitter. No e-mail. No games. No Reddit. No News. Everything I would normally check was gone.
I slipped the phone back into my pocket and enjoyed the scenery. I looked around at the little things on my block that I might not normally notice. I saw my neighbor Rahul and said hello. He didn’t reply because he was fiddling with his phone. I looked at my dog, and he looked back at me. My dog doesn’t have a phone to look at. I tried to be as present as my dog.
This is the pattern:
- Unlock phone
- Shrug at the vast mundanity of my Home Screen
- Lock phone
- Ask self, “How many minutes of my life did I just get back?”
- Return to life
I worked up to this over several weeks.
Boring phone rule #1: Severely curtail notifications
I only get notified if someone is directly contacting me over a messaging platform. Whenever I get a bulk or indirectly personal notification, I disable notifications for whoever sent it. No breaking news updates or last-minute flight deals. No “Michael liked your photo” from Instagram. No “Judy is your Pin Twin” from Pinterest. My time is worth more than that. So is yours.
Boring phone rule #2: No sounds or vibrations
For many notification types, I do not want to be interrupted; I want to see the notification next time I look at my phone. So, I adjusted the settings for sound and vibration on the remaining apps that do notify me. For example, I love the Reminders app on iOS, but I do not need to know right away that it’s time to give my dog his heartworm pill for the month.
Getting notification settings just right is a subtle art. Even an app like Messenger is different from text messages. I want to be interrupted by a text. I don’t want to be interrupted by Messenger because I consider it a more passive, casual communication method.
Boring phone rule #3: No impulsive checks.
I tapered my use of Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter over a couple weeks. Each time I noticed myself checking my phone impulsively, I deleted whatever app I’d been sucked into. What I’m left with is a bunch of boring and incredibly useful utilities. Maps, Evernote, Lyft, UPS. Yawn.
Boring phone rule #4: Enable Restrictions
Once I’d whittled things down, I knew I couldn’t trust myself to keep it that way. So I enabled Restrictions:
I disabled Safari and Installing Apps.
I had a friend set the passcode for Restrictions. I have to text him to get the code, and I’m not going to do that. There is no amazing app that I have to install before the next time I see my friend. Just boring updates to boring apps.
There are two notable exceptions to my phone’s boringness: Podcasts and Kindle. While these two apps can demand a lot of time, I don’t have an impulsive relationship with them. I have a specific time and place when I use these apps, and I’m happy with that. For now.
All in all, I have 90 apps left on my phone. So it’s not about quantity, it’s about boringness. It’s about how each app will impact my life, and opting into that impact rather than thoughtlessly giving away my time.
Most importantly, it’s about the context of use. Apps that wish to be engaged with at All Times and in All Places must be removed. I still play games and read Reddit and such—but I don’t do it on my phone.
In broad strokes, here’s what I’ve got left:
- Messaging & video chat apps (with appropriate notification settings)
- Note taking app
- Payment apps
- Transit apps
- Photos and Camera
- Non-impulsive reading apps
- Boring Collaboration Apps like Docs / Paper / Dropbox
- Fitness apps
- Podcasts / Music
- Earthquake/First Aid
- Gboard (the most boring app of all?)