Photo by Oliver C. Darafera

How the Apple Watch Cured My iPhone Addiction

When I first saw the Watch announcement during last year’s Apple keynote, I nearly teared up. Another device that would litter my mind with notifications, buzzing, and a constant need for attention, I thought. I had been struggling to break my iPhone dependency for months and nothing was working. The last thing I needed was a mini-iPhone on my wrist.

I wasn’t always an iPhone addict. Before the year 2000, I didn’t have a computer at home. My childhood and early adolescence were spent playing with friends, inventing and building my own games, and spending time outdoors. I loved to read and I loved to draw. My first desktop computer introduced me to a new form of magic: having every color I could ever imagine in Photoshop 5 (I know!). At that time, I was allotted one hour of ‘Internet Time’ on Friday afternoons. A year later, I was building websites in HTML (using tables!). Two years later, I landed my first design client through the family grapevine. Five years later, I was working part-time as a freelance visual designer (using my first Macbook Pro). Twelve years later, I got hired as a full-time UX designer. The day I started that job, I got my first iPhone.

Things deteriorated quickly. I was using my phone before bed, while waking up, while in the toilet, while cooking, during dinners, and during intimate conversations. Eventually, there was one loud argument (slash intervention) by my best friend and my boyfriend in a Vietnamese restaurant. I was angry. It’s not that I was addicted, per se. I just spent a lot of time using my phone. But the app Moment, which I installed on my phone to prove I didn’t have a problem, told me that my average total daily iPhone use added up over two hours.

On my worst day, I spent 7 hours and 41 minutes on my iPhone.

As a UX designer and qualitative researcher, this was not only alarming but also fascinating. I wanted to know what it was that kept me hooked on my phone. I researched mobile phone addiction (it sounded dramatic), I tried a 30-day-off-Facebook challenge (but still clocked considerable time on my phone). I also spoke with others. It appeared that many felt equally drawn to their smartphones but no one quite understood why.

Then came the Watch.

Everything changed when I got my Apple Watch. Within twenty-four hours of wearing it, I forgot where my iPhone was for the first time. A week into owning it, I now leave my phone plugged into my music player when I get home and keep it in my bag while outside.

So what changed? And, more importantly, why?

The most common question I get about my Apple Watch is: “what’s it like?” People expect to hear about the usual: hardware, design or features. But the Apple Watch isn’t a collection of new features or cool interactions. The value of it, for me, is embedded in the way it’s affected my day.

I hadn’t noticed it before the Watch but my iPhone had become my gateway drug for over-consumption of content. Small, necessary interactions turned into minutes and hours of uninterrupted iPhone time.

In reality, I used my iPhone for three kinds of things:

  • Small, important stuff: finding out my friend is late, getting a reminder to take medicine, setting a timer for my dinner.
  • Bigger, important stuff: sending an email, taking notes, calling my parents.
  • Things that wasted my time: browsing Pinterest, following YouTube suggestions, reading my Facebook timeline.

The thing that was taking up the majority of my time? You guessed it: the time-wasters. I ended up spending a lot of time on them without planning to or without realizing. I just sort of “ended up there.” In a sort of drunken-night-out kind of way, I could never recall what triggered the three-hour YouTube binge that left me with only 5 hours of sleep.

Understanding triggers was key to unpacking my iPhone dependency.

In his book, Hooked, Nir Eyal explains how products get into our heads and drive us crazy by forming strong habits. First, we have an external trigger (like a notification or an email), we then take a small action and get rewarded for it. Afterwards, we proceed to do something that makes it profitable for us to come back again. The best products turn that very thing we did into a new trigger that brings us back into the product, and so the loop continues.

My iPhone is a mega-hub of Hook Loops.

My iPhone is littered with products that operate in this way: Facebook sends me a push notification that someone liked my post (trigger), I check Facebook (action), feel good about myself (reward), write another post (investment), then get the next notification (trigger). It’s simple.

But my phone isn’t just one product, it is a mega-hub of triggers, rewards, and addictive hooks. Nearly every time I access my phone, I participate in several hook loops. This happened regularly: I would wonder if anyone had texted me, and even if no one did, I would see a notification from a social network and end up spending time engaging with it. Or maybe I would look up a recipe on YouTube while cooking only to see a trigger in the form of a recommended video by my favorite makeup artist. It was endless.

More interestingly, nearly all my initial triggers to use my phone were completely legitimate. They were the small, important stuff: a reminder, a phone call, a text, having to create a calendar meeting. These were not time wasters themselves but they were the triggers that led me back to my phone again and again.

The Apple Watch keeps the essential things at arm’s length

(Pun very much intended).

The first twenty-four hours with the Watch were life-changing. Not because it was shiny and let me send my heartbeat to my boss (yes, that happened) but because, for the first time, it allowed me to break the loop between recurring small triggers and looming time-wasters.

The key to the Watch is that you can only do one thing at a time, and nothing more. There is simply not enough room on the screen for competing information. Apps are small, and most do one thing very well but there is no need to linger.

The biggest difference since the I got the Watch has been very simple: I no longer check my iPhone. Ever. There is no more FOMO, and no more cascading triggers that cajole me to use other apps. My phone joined the ranks of larger, multi-purpose devices in my life: my iPad and my laptop. I know I can use them whenever I need to accomplish a bigger task, but I certainly don’t need them around for the small stuff.

Edit: I spent a bit of time setting up my gadget universe so it serves me best. I keep my phone on silent with no vibration, I put desktop and iPad notifications on Do Not Disturb during the day, and I’ve turned off notifications from Pinterst, Facebook, etc. via the Apple Watch app on the iPhone so they never reach my wrist. The only things that reach my Watch are things that matter to me.

The impact has been dramatic. Separating the necessary minute interactions from content consumption and immersive use has left more time and attention in my day for everything else I’d been missing.

Here’s a taste of a few things that the Watch transformed:

The way I walk
While walking and listening to music, I can skip a song right on my wrist. This leaves my hands free and my eyes focused on my surroundings. No more going from Spotify, to a quick text to the iPhone home screen and then into Facebook, or Twitter, or Instagram, or Feedly, or email. I notice and enjoy my time outside more.

My weekday watch face, showing essentials, including my next calendar appointment.

The stress of being busy
My next calendar appointment is always on my wrist using the Modular watch face. I’ve actually begun scheduling individual work sprints (or Pomodoros) into my calendar so that I can always see what I planned to do next. This means prompt meetings, and less headspace dedicated to worrying I’m late. I turn this watch face off during the weekends and enjoy beautiful butterflies instead.

The way I text
To respond to a text, I choose to either send one of the suggested responses (like “OK,” or “Sorry, I can’t talk right now.”) or dictate using Siri. This means urgent texts get a response straight away and everything else can wait. If I want to participate in a long exchange I can switch to my iPhone. Having to make a conscious decision to switch to my phone for longer messages gives me enough time to choose whether the timing and length of each exchange suits me. Texting also takes a lot less time away from my offline social interactions.

Mornings and are much more efficient
In a city like London, the weather is unexpected and it makes dressing in the morning very unpredictable. I used to have to unlock my phone, navigate to the correct screen, and tap on the Weather app to see the daily forecast. Now I just need to look at my wrist and tap on one icon. I don’t get exposed to any distractions. I also don’t keep my phone in my bedroom anymore and use my Watch as an alarm. This means half an hour in my morning reclaimed from my frenemy the Facebook timeline.

Short and useful stuff get done in seconds
I can set a timer, an alarm, a reminder, or add a calendar event without having to search for and access my phone. Not only is it far more convenient for times when I don’t want my phone nearby (such as cooking), it also saves me countless opportunities to get swallowed up by my iPhone and engage in time-wasters.

Working on my laptop
No longer worried I would miss a personal text or a Skype notification from a colleague, I now leave my Messages and Skype desktop applications closed and my phone put away. This keeps my workstation and desktop screen distraction-free. I focus better knowing that if something important comes up, I’ll feel a gentle (and surprisingly uninstrusive) tap on my wrist.

The Apple Watch has one magical, ill-advertised feature: it doesn’t just show you the time, it can reclaim a lot of your time. That is, if you suffer from a less-than-ideal relationship with your smartphone. It does this by enabling us to focus on and complete essential, common actions without getting sucked into the universe that is the iPhone.

An iPhone isn’t a phone. It’s a mini-computer that puts the whole world at my fingertips. It’s wonderful and fun, and it’s brought utility and enjoyment into my life. But sometimes (perhaps even most times) I don’t want a computer or the whole world. I just want to know if I need to pack an umbrella.

The iPhone is an all-in-one phone, notification system, entertainer, workstation, and workout partner. Unlike this mega-station of utility and distraction, the Apple Watch is a refined, focused device. If you ask me, the Watch is far closer to what a truly mobile product should be about.

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Psychology of Stuff

Interesting thoughts at the intersection of technology, psychology, and business

Evgenia (Jenny) Grinblo

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I like design, people & the relationship in between. I do #UX things @futureworkshops, talk a lot,& wish teleportation existed. @grinblo.

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Interesting thoughts at the intersection of technology, psychology, and business

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