How To Radically Change Your Phone to Reclaim Your Attention
My experiments with returning to a flip phone, going to a zero-data plan, and finally choosing a functional relationship with technology
It was April 2017, and I had discovered that I was pregnant. Contemplating a future where I would (hopefully) be someone’s role model led me to reconsider my relationship to social media. Soon after, a friend described coming home after work and scrolling through Instagram with her six-month-old in her lap, and I decided that I needed to wean myself from these services prior to giving birth.
Over a one-month period, I deactivated and then deleted my Instagram and Facebook accounts. These services do not represent all the social media in the world, but they were responsible for the majority of my scrolling time. I also deleted a defunct Twitter account for good measure.
After my son was born, however, I still found myself turning to my phone in moments of boredom (while nursing), moments of frustration (sitting next to the crib while the baby very slowly fell asleep), and moments of happiness (documenting my son’s adventures and immediately sending the photo evidence to friends and family).
I began asking myself the following question: how can I expect my son to cultivate a healthy relationship to technology, when, from an early age, he consistently sees his parents staring at their screens?
This lead me to evaluate my phone usage and make some radical changes. Along the way, I found I had to re-evaluate and change my practices.
If you have ever considered renouncing social media apps or even something as radical as returning to a flip phone, I have some advice to share, along with my experience of reclaiming my attention.
The Role of the Phone
There were numerous life-changing outcomes of deleting my social media accounts. The list is long, but it includes being a more supportive and involved friend, being remarkably more productive, and banishing toxic political banter and drama from my life.
Despite these changes, I wondered why my phone still played such a major role in my daily activities. Why, for example, did I reach for it while driving? Why did I immediately turn on the screen upon waking? Why did I feel the need to constantly monitor group chats to which I wasn’t actively contributing?
At last, I stumbled upon an arguably more valuable question: why was I paying $80 per month (I know, I know… phone plans here in Canada are rough!) when the essential functions of my phone were, in order of importance, Google Maps, texting, and making phone calls?
Paying $80 per month gave me the privilege of calling, texting, and sharing (sharing) 3GB of mobile browsing data with my husband. (Sharing 3GB of data with your spouse in 2019 is the technology equivalent of the time in high school when I shared a Nokia cell phone with my sister, who is three years younger.)
Experts in technology use, such as Cal Newport, argue that in order to permanently change our relationship to technology, it is not enough to complete a one-time digital detox or test out simple “hacks” to minimize screen time. Rather, one must assess the purpose technology serves in one’s life and define the limits of its influence. Only then can we reintroduce positive, functional interactions with technology into our lives.
A positive relationship to technology can be partly defined by a lack of compulsion inherent in mindless scrolling and constantly-updating feeds. In his recent book, Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, Newport writes that
The urge to check Twitter or refresh Reddit becomes a nervous twitch that shatters uninterrupted time into shards too small to support the presence necessary for an intentional life.
That intentional life is what I am after. I want my child to see me making purposeful decisions and meaningful actions each day. When I am interrupting my time by checking unnecessary notifications, I find myself slowly losing this intentionality.
Inspired by the findings of researchers like Newport, and curious about the experience of those still using flip phones, I considered what I could do to make my phone purely functional. Before doing anything, I had to define the essential functions of technology in my life. As stated above, I determined what about my phone was absolutely essential. The essential nature of the apps on one’s phone likely varies among individuals, but I would argue that my shortlist could apply to a wide population. Here it is again: 1) Google Maps 2) texting 3) calling.
This spring, while visiting my American family for three weeks, I decided to become a lab rat and test my reliance on my phone. I purchased a pay-as-you-go flip phone, installed WhatsApp on my computer, and downloaded maps for the state of Oregon on my now essentially “dumb” smartphone. On a daily basis, I would use these devices in the following ways:
- I used the flip phone to call or text regarding time-sensitive matters. While away from my child for the day, I felt safe knowing that I could be easily reached.
- I used the stripped-down smartphone during the day solely to get directions via the downloaded version of Google Maps. In the evenings, while connected to wifi, I would check Canadian news outlets, respond to emails, and Google questions I had thought of during the day.
- Finally, I used WhatsApp on my computer to send photos and updates to my friends and family back in Canada, engage in longer discussions, make plans with close friends, check on group chats, and download any photos that my family had shared that day to keep in my photo library
The results of this experiment were what I expected. They included
- a feeling of freedom from a physical device
- a decrease in the motor response involved in checking notifications
- a new sense of mindfulness
- increased productivity
- fewer instances where my child saw me staring into a screen
Upon returning to Canada, I was committed to finding a way to fine-tune and implement a similar system in my life.
Unfortunately, I encountered a few barriers, including expensive phone plans, logistics in cross-border texting, and limits to network coverage—but in the end, I found a workable solution.
My radical plan was to completely eliminate mobile data from my life.
Without mobile data, there was no reason to scroll through my phone at the doctor’s office or while waiting in line for a takeout pizza. I am no longer able to send photos and videos immediately after taking them, and I have to plan my days more carefully before heading out the door.
My new phone plan is provided through a company that offers month-by-month contracts. One benefit of this plan is that I never have to worry about signing a long-term contract for a plan I’m not happy with. In the first week of subscribing, I decided to change the plan from 4G of mobile data to 0G mobile data, which reduced the cost and gave me even more autonomy over the functions of my phone.
I have implemented this plan, and so far I am reaping the same benefits as I did from the experiment documented above.
Below, I have provided a straightforward guide to how you could consider assessing the functionality of your phone to make your own changes.
A Basic Guide to Making Your Phone Functional
Step #1: Assess and respond to barriers
Depending on your location, phone plan, work, and personal needs, you may face barriers in reducing your mobile data. Sometimes, dealing with phone companies can be horrifically complicated and frustrating.
Keep calm, and call that customer service representative. Explain what your needs are and see what is available. If your current phone company does not have what you need, consider finding a new one.
Step #2: Define the functionality you need
Consider what your phone does for you. Out of these functions, which among them are absolutely fundamental to your life, your work, or your school commitments?
Out of these necessary and fundamental functions, which once can be used exclusively at home (using a wifi connection) and which absolutely need to be available outside of the home and on the go?
There are many related questions you can ask yourself that will be specific to each individual, but here is a starter list:
- Communication. How do you communicate with friends and family? What apps facilitate urgent, time-sensitive communication, and which apps could be checked at home, during your recreational time? Can you fight the urge to post or share a photo instantaneously, or could you wait until you have a bit of downtime later in the day or the week?
- Entertainment. Which apps on your phone are essential for entertainment throughout the day? If you have a commute, what types of media make your journey bearable? Which of these could you download, rather than stream?
- Navigation. While reviewing updated traffic data and speed trap notifications during your daily drive might seem useful, consider how they may be impacting your focus on the road. Furthermore, do you truly need mapping programs for basic daily commutes? Do the traffic patterns change significantly each day? If you download maps for your area(s), what essential functions would you be missing?
Step #3: Review device options
I realize that it is not productive to suggest that everyone convert to a flip phone. While I admire the classic flip phone, I recognize the limitations inherent in using one.
I settled on using a relatively cheap smartphone instead. I own my phone outright because earlier this year I paid in full (around $120) for a really simple Motorola smartphone after my last phone broke. Therefore, I have no device contract, which allows me to get away with a cheaper plan. Yes, the phone is made of plastic; yes, it is a bit slow. But because I’ve stripped away all of the unnecessary apps and made my phone purely functional, the delays have decreased.
Choosing an inexpensive device relieves me of feeling any major guilt about underutilizing a pricier model. I also benefit from functions that do not exist or that are much more cumbersome to use on a flip phone.
My basic smartphone allows me to use the following non-essential, but important functions:
- Memory card slot (I downloaded my entire music library onto a memory card, eliminating the need to carry a music player.)
- Music apps
- Audiobook app
- Podcast app (I update the playlist using wifi before heading out)
- Google Notes
- Google Maps (download the relevant maps before traveling)
- Google Calendar
- Mobile data (while my current phone plan does not provide any mobile data, I can turn on this function in case of emergency/urgency, and am able to use it, for a fee)
There are specific apps that I limit to using only on my computer. This decreases my tendency towards mindless scrolling as well as unnecessary notifications that come from using them on a phone device:
- News apps
- Email (I still have the email app on my phone, but I have disabled notifications for the time being)
- Photo apps
My phone has remarkably terrible camera quality, which has prompted me to be more diligent in carrying my real camera with me to important events and to document daily adventures in the life of my child. I can no longer take selfies.
How many photos of your child do you need? When people take photos of my son with their phones, he protests. He does not like the phone in his face. Could I take candid photos of him on special occasions and while doing fun activities with a much higher quality camera? Yes.
Do we need selfies?
Step #4: Set goals and limits
Once you have determined the essential functions of your phone and relegated non-essential functions to a computer or to wifi-only territory, you can begin to think about your limits.
When will you check notifications on your phone? Is your device so purely functional that you can now leave it in another room and turn the ringer up, just in case? Could you sleep without your phone next to you?
Consider setting simple goals for yourself. “I won’t check my phone this morning unless it rings,” or “While I am laying on the couch reading this novel, I will keep my phone in the kitchen.”
Cal Newport defines the idea of “deep work” as the work in which we can engage when we are not busy multi-tasking, especially with technology. Deep work, in my opinion, can also include your recreational time or your time spent hanging out with friends or family. As Newport notes,
What’s making us uncomfortable… is this feeling of losing control — a feeling that instantiates itself in a dozen different ways each day, such as when we tune out with our phone during our child’s bath time, or lose our ability to enjoy a nice moment without a frantic urge to document it for a virtual audience. It’s not about usefulness, it’s about autonomy.
We want to be in control of our actions. Take the time to consider how you can exercise control over your relationship with your devices.
Step #5: Find replacements
When you have set limits for yourself, think of all of the things you can be doing with the time you’ve given yourself. Perhaps, instead of scrolling through Twitter for your news each day, you could use the money you saved on your monthly phone bill to subscribe to a real news outlet and read and interpret the news for yourself.
Could you read a book or listen to an audiobook on the subway, rather than sit tapping the “like” button on social media?
Instead of sending constant photo updates of your children or your pets to friends and family, what if you curated a digital album each week of high-quality photos and videos for them to peruse at their leisure?
Conclusion: Don’t Feel Discouraged
Jumping directly onto this bandwagon without prior self-reflection and consideration of your current needs and wants from technology would be unproductive.
I’ve had two years to embark on this journey, and I am still constantly working on improving my relationship with technology.
Read articles, read books, consider what others have done. Technology is not evil. We are lucky to have these tools — we just need to know how to control our responses to them.