How To Stop Wasting Time On WhatsApp

The Art of Tiered Communication

Niklas Göke
Dec 12, 2017 · 6 min read

Over the last seven days, 53% of my iPhone’s battery usage has gone to messaging apps. About five and a half hours.

What’s surprising is that this is a lot for someone who uses his phone very little, but even more so that it’s still below average. Up to 65% of the 5 hours we spend on hour phones each day go to communication. Here’s a random sample of messages I sent in the past week:

"yo!"
"haha!"
"yes, that's right"
"this sucks"
"let's wait and see"
"I'm not sure"
"it doesn't matter"
"are you sure?"
"hmm"
"whatever"
"yeah, right"

Scanning your recent chat history, how many of those would you find? More than half? While this doesn’t show the full picture, it’s enough to show that much of digital communication isn’t communication at all.

But what is it then?

The Purpose of Mindless Communication

As Tim Pychyl notes, procrastination is mostly a problem that results from mismangement of emotions:

“Avoidance acts as short-term mood repair. It works in the short term but not in the long term. We may escape the task and its associated negative emotions — like anxiety, frustration, resentment, or boredom — but the task doesn’t go away.”

It’s easy to file digital communication under ‘productive uses of my time,’ because you can tick a mental checkbox each time you hit send. However, since so much of it is meaningless filler, it appears that most messages benefit the sender more than the recipient: mindless communication calms us down.

Whether the source of negative emotion is mere frustration with the task at hand or sudden awareness of a bigger problem in our lives, the outcome remains the same. Your present self gets off the hook, while future you pays the price.

As a result, we spend so much of our working day repairing our mood that by the time it’s fixed, the working day is over.

Here’s how to solve this problem.

Introducing: Tiered Communication

After recently arranging my apps by how often I use them, I noticed a positive side effect: the distinction of why I use which messaging app became clearer. The time delay in accessing some apps helped me realize that whether you’ll chat to procrastinate is decided long before you even unlock.

Essentially, if you don’t know why you open a messaging app before opening it, you’re going to waste your time. The following mental file cabinet helps.

Photo by Sanwal Deen on Unsplash

Tier 1 — Work

For me, the most important reason to use digital communication is to get stuff done. Hence, the apps that enable me to do so are not on my phone, but on the device I use to work: my laptop.

  • Email. Once or twice a day, I check Gmail directly in my browser.
  • Slack. Like email, I have bookmarks for relevant channels in my browser that I can check once or twice a day.

Not using apps for these tools, as well as opening them only after 11 AM, makes the process more mindful and helps integrate them into my work the right way.

Tier 2 — SPVs

In finance, an SPV, short for special purpose vehicle, is an entity created to isolate risk, for example a subsidiary that owns all your equipment and still will if your main company goes bankrupt. Translating this to messaging apps, I realized I use certain apps only to talk to certain people.

  • iMessage. The only people texting me through Apple’s native app are five of my oldest friends. When I open it, I know what I’m getting into.
  • WeChat. This serves the sole purpose of talking to one friend who’s in China right now.
  • Telegram. I use this exclusively for research on cryptocurrencies.

Knowing a specific app serves talking only to a specific group reduces the likelihood of me opening it when that’s not what I want to do.

Tier 3 — The Catch-All

Whatever doesn’t fit into one of the above tiers must still go somewhere. That somewhere is WhatsApp. On average, people who use this app open it every 40 minutes. They send 55 messages a day, the younger the more.

My family, my friends, former classmates and college acquaintances. All their messages land here, which means when I open WhatsApp, I’m not productive — and that’s perfectly okay.

The point is to know that’s what’s going to happen. As long as it has the right place in your communication hierarchy, there’s nothing wrong with funny family banter and sending selfies to your friends.

Tier 4 — Distractions

All other possible avenues of sending messages, like Facebook Messenger, Twitter, LinkedIn, Quora and others are, for the most part, distractions. That’s why these apps are not on my phone.

I can check all my social media notifications on the weekend and the world still keeps turning. Nothing urgent ever happens there.


Now all that is nice, but chances are, you don’t have the exact same apps as me. You also don’t have the same work schedule and you communicate for different reasons.

So what do you do with this idea?

What Bruce, Tim & Charlie Know About Apps

In a post about Bruce Lee’s philosophy, Zat Rana reminds us to practice self-expression over imitation:

“By first understanding yourself, you have a better idea of what is useful to you and what isn’t, and from there you build on only what’s relevant, not just everything.”

While this applies to all learning, it’s especially important when reading about systems like the one I proposed in this post. Copying it is a start, but only if you tweak it can you take it to the finish line.

Even before that, you might want to question the idea of tiered communication altogether. Like Charlie Munger, you can argue for the opposite side and see where it takes you:

“I never allow myself to hold an opinion on anything that I don’t know the other side’s argument better than they do.” — Charlie Munger

The opposite of someone who knows why they open all their messaging apps is someone who uses them solely on impulse. They never really know why they’re inside any app, because all they do is respond to their phone’s notifications instantaneously.

Without judging the behavior itself, we can say that this person acts almost exclusively in the moment. Naturally, their decisions help present self get all the benefit. But that’s the exact root problem of procrastination we’ve identified before!

By postponing uncomfortable feelings, this person is very likely to land in what Tim Urban from Wait But Why calls the Dark Playground:

“The Dark Playground is a place every procrastinator knows well. It’s a place where leisure activities happen at times when leisure activities are not supposed to be happening. The fun you have in the Dark Playground isn’t actually fun because it’s completely unearned and the air is filled with guilt, anxiety, self-hatred, and dread.”

Guilt, anxiety, self-hatred, dread. Those sound a lot like the emotions Tim Pychyl described, don’t they?

The Bigger Picture

The Dark Playground is a big place. Beyond the WhatsApp waterslide, Email Enterprise and Slack Slingshot, there’s the Spotify Shuffler, the Netflix Nightcrawler and the Safari Surfer.

Maybe that’s where the real lesson lies. Messaging apps are a particularly prominent example of how categorizing helps us clarify why we do what we do, but the idea extends to all apps and beyond that still.

When you know why you chat, you’ll say better things, but if you know why you surf the web, you’ll get more out of that too. Just like knowing why you watch a movie helps enjoy it more.

The clearer your why, the less you’ll need to repair your mood. If putting apps in boxes helps you do that, then maybe, some things are worth pigeonholing after all.

But that’s one for future-you to figure out.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Niklas Göke

Written by

I write for dreamers, doers, and unbroken optimists. I also publish daily micro-blogs to help you live a balanced life: https://emptyyourcup.substack.com

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

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