How I Achieved Peace by Crippling My Phone

Getting over the myth of productivity

James Kwak
Mar 10, 2015 · 6 min read

Productivity. A million products have been sold on that promise. It’s what every business wants: employees who can do more, faster, and longer (for the same pay).

Businesses adopt computer technology because they think it will make them more productive. And in many cases it does. Call center software routes calls to service representatives when they become available, feeds them prompts to help them handle calls, and monitors call times to encourage them to be more efficient. Online reservation systems enable airlines to handle more customers with fewer people (although they don’t always work so well). And so on.

When the smartphone was invented — back when it was called a Blackberry, not a smartphone — it was also sold as a productivity tool. Now your employees can respond to email while waiting in the check-in line at the airport! As I argued at the time, however, this was nothing more than the illusion of productivity. Now you could make yourself feel busy all the time even while making yourself and your company less efficient, for all sorts of reasons: you chime in on email threads that would have been concluded just as efficiently without you; you write short, unhelpful emails when a more thoughtful email written from your computer would have been better; without access to your files or a real browser, you end up saying things that are wrong or incomplete; you spend more time on your email than you need to, because you can; and, of course, you do it all on a phone keyboard that makes everything take longer than it should.

By now, when everyone carries around the equivalent of a supercomputer in her pocket, I’m not sure that anyone still believes that these portable data centers actually increase productivity. What we’ve done is take the Internet’s immense potential for distraction — once confined to a computer with a network connection — and package it in a form that is always less than three seconds away. Once upon a time, companies bought Blackberrys for their employees to make them more “productive” (or at least more accessible). Now companies support smartphones because they know their employees will bring them to work anyway so they can use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and SnapChat.

For years I’ve had the typical love-hate relationship with my phone (currently a Verizon Droid MAXX, for those curious about such things). It’s an incredibly powerful tool — flashlight, tuner, bike ride or ski run analyzer, classroom lecture recorder, home alarm system control, restaurant booker, two-step authenticator, and parking meter, not to mention the dozens of more common uses. But I know that its enormous powers of distraction also make me lose focus on work, tune out in meetings, stay up too late at night, and, worst of all, ignore people in the same room with me. We all know this. We’re addicted to the dopamine hit we get when we look at our email and there’s actually something good in there, so we keep checking our email hoping to feel it again.

I have periodically thought about going back to a dumbphone, but the biggest sticking point was that it’s virtually impossible these days to get a dumbphone with a decent camera. As a parent with two young children, I always want to have a camera, and the one camera I know I’ll have is the one on my phone.

The solution is so obvious that I wouldn’t insult your intelligence by writing about it, but I didn’t think of it and, from looking around in the airport, it seems like not many other people have, either. I found it the last time I was thinking about buying a dumbphone and stumbled on an article by Jake Knapp. Here it is: cripple your phone. Delete everything on it that could be distracting and just keep the apps that serve specific purposes and don’t sing their siren song to you from your pocket.

In my case, that meant deleting or disabling both email apps, Twitter, Facebook (although I virtually never used it anyway), the full suite of Google apps, Kindle, YouTube, four different video apps for watching soccer matches, some other stuff I can’t even remember anymore (that’s how useful it was), and, most importantly, both browsers. (If you’re Paul Ford, you have to delete a lot more than that.) I can still create light in the dark, tune my cello, track my bike rides, pay for parking, and do all the other things mentioned above — as well as navigate my way on the roads, listen to music and podcasts, keep track of my travel plans, get through airport security and onto a plane, get a ride from a stranger, deposit checks at my bank, connect to a video conference call, and pay for drinks at Dunkin’ Donuts. I just can’t, say, read eleven different articles about the previous day’s Champions League matches or the latest twenty-email thread about what we need to do to win some deal.

This is the point in every article like this where it’s obligatory to say that I really like technology. (I did co-found a software company, you know.) When I’m working, I want to have the best tools for the job, and that means I have a very nice computer, and I’m all in favor of being connected and having information available at my fingertips. But when I’m not working, I want to be able to focus on the people and things around me. Every moment counts, as a wise person said. I’ve found that, for me, that means I can’t have the accumulated knowledge of the world three seconds away all the time. I’m sure there are lots of software tools that will allow you to restrict access to apps on your phone (in a sense, that’s all I’m doing, since I could always download or enable them again), but I find that taking them off completely works best for me.

This shouldn’t be surprising. There are all sorts of contexts in which we know that we will make bad choices in the future and therefore it makes sense to commit ourselves to restrict our future choices. For example, people know that they are likely to raid their own long-term savings accounts, and therefore are willing to pay more (in the form of a lower interest rate) for accounts with less liquidity — completely in violation of basic principles of first-year economics. There’s even a website where you can come up with novel ways to lock yourself into a future course of action. (Peter Orszag used the system to motivate him to run marathons.)

Your mileage may vary, of course. Plenty of people are perfectly happy with constant access to all of their streams of information and entertainment. As for me, I’ve barely missed what my phone used to do. Like Knapp, I still reach for my phone sometimes when I have nothing to do, but it’s a self-curing disease: I find my phone is no more interesting and I put it away, and I reach for it less and less as time goes by. More importantly, I don’t reach for it when I’m with people, and I don’t feel guilty for looking at my phone when I should be playing with my kids.

If I do have my phone out when I’m with my kids, it’s usually because I’m taking a picture or a video. Which is one of the marvels of technology — one that has nothing to do with productivity.


James Kwak is, among other things, an associate professor at the University of Connecticut School of Law. Find more at Twitter, Medium, The Baseline Scenario,The Atlantic, or jameskwak.net.

Bull Market

A collection of finance and business writing by @alexisgoldstein, @delong, @dsquareddigest, @DuncanWeldon, @felixsalmon, @jamesykwak, @Mark__Buchanan, @WhelanKarl

Thanks to Evan Hansen

James Kwak

Written by

Books: Economism: Bad Economics and the Rise of Inequality, 13 Bankers, White House Burning. @UConnLaw, @southerncenter, @Guidewire_PandC.

Bull Market

A collection of finance and business writing by @alexisgoldstein, @delong, @dsquareddigest, @DuncanWeldon, @felixsalmon, @jamesykwak, @Mark__Buchanan, @WhelanKarl

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