Digital Detox — An Interview with Nick Kuh
On digital detoxing, the story behind Mute, and Inbox Zero
At Mailbutler, we’re fortunate to be helping creative and professional individuals in different industries from all walks of life leverage their daily workflow. We wanted to get a closer look on how they plan their day, and for advice on balancing work and life in the digital age.
In our first edition of this interview series, we talked to Nick Kuh, a freelance iOS developer living in Brighton and the creator of screen tracking app, Mute.
Nick shared with us the story behind Mute, his views on digital detox, work-life balance as an indie developer, and his Mailbutler picks to achieve inbox zero.
Hi Nick! Please tell us a little bit more about yourself and what you do.
Hi! I’m an indie app developer and I live in Brighton in the UK with my wife Nicole and 15 year old son Finn. I make a living as a freelance iOS developer, building apps for clients but on the side I pursue my personal mission — to help people break their phone checking habits using my free screen tracking app Mute.
How and why did you start developing iOS apps?
I’ve been building iPhone apps since the launch of the App Store in 2008, when Apple opened up the platform to 3rd party developers. I’ve always been entrepreneurial — when I was 14 I raised a bit of money washing cars and started buying and selling games consoles like Sega Mega Drives at car boot sales and then selling them on at profit. I taught myself to code in 1999 — initially writing Flash games for fun. I got a bit lucky, connected with some other freelancers and was soon getting paid for building Flash games for Channel 4 TV websites.
Tell us more about your time-tracking app, Mute. Who is it for, and what makes it stand out from other apps?
Mute motivates you to look up, use your phone less, find focus and be more present. It makes you feel good when you hit digital detox goals and helps you break habits. Mute is for anyone who wants a little help to use their phone less: it’s used by students to help them stay focused and off their phone and by families, couples and individuals to help them stay connected in the real world.
What motivated you to design Mute?
As parents to a 15 year old son, my wife and I try to set screen time limits for Finn. One day after confiscating Finn’s iPad after yet another screen time row, we sat down to dinner as a family. *Bleep bleep* — my phone — notified me of some pointless tweet or social media update. I made the mistake of going to check it. Finn turned to me and said “You’re such a hypocrite dad. I bet you spend more time on your phone than I do on my iPad!” He had a good point!
That’s what sparked my creative juices to create an app that gamifies getting off your phone to help families to live less on their devices. Since then my app has evolved to become Mute — a Fitbit for digital detoxers.
Rather than shame you with your stats, Mute sets out to make you feel great when you do take time out from your phone. It congratulates you when you take a break.
How would you define ‘digital detox’, and why should we do it?
A digital detox can be 30 minutes, a few hours or a whole day or weekend off tech. My time is precious to me, and I regularly feel that there just aren’t enough hours in the average day. Life is so busy when you’re constantly connected. It’s important to take time out to stay sane.
Our smartphones are a constant source of distraction. Think about how long it takes you to refocus on your current task when a message or email comes in during your work day. I find that switching off all distractions leads to me being more focused and getting shit done.
Studies have shown excessive time on smartphones and social media can lead to depression and loneliness.
Disconnecting from your phone and spending face-to-face time with friends and loved ones leads to real happiness — not a short-lasting dopamine induced hit from a new like or comment on your latest selfie.
Walk us through a typical work day in your life. What are some apps or tools that are essential in your workflow?
My typical work day starts as early as 7am, where I spend a couple of focused hours working on Mute before cycling into the office to switch to client-work.
I wouldn’t say I plan my day as such, I just have a routine that works for me — some time working at home, most of the day in the office and then either an evening with my family or sweating it out on the squash court or football pitch — I love my sport.
My clients use agile workflow technologies like Microsoft Visual Studio to manage the teams that I’m part of. We use Slack for team communication and daily video chat stand-ups.
What’s the biggest challenge at the current digital age in balancing work and life? How do you tackle it?
I’m fortunate in that I’m my own boss ultimately. But I know that some companies expect their employees to be always available to be contacted. That kind of practice will only result in miserable, underachieving employees who can never get anything done.
🌟 I make a point of not checking email outside my work hours. I’m not a doctor or a surgeon — no one’s going to die if I don’t get back to your very important email until tomorrow morning! :-) I avoid installing distracting apps on my phone like Slack and my email is setup to only check when I launch it, not to be pushed to.
Sometimes I do find apps like Mail, Slack and Skype very invasive to my focus and flow. But of course they enable me to communicate and work with others. That’s why technologies such as Mailbutler appeal to me. I get to write and schedule my email efficiently — on my time and terms.
Let’s talk about emails — how much time do you spend in your inbox?
I get about 50 emails a day. It’s manageable. I simply quit Apple Mail for 1–2 hour chunks during my work day and open it up maybe 4 times per day to respond in my own time.
Has your workflow changed in the past years?
I must admit I like a zero inbox — it’s that OCD side to my personality! I try to reduce spam by unsubscribing from mailing lists.
The main change I’ve made to my email workflow in the last few years is to passively check email and not leave my email app running constantly throughout my day.
How do you use Mailbutler to leverage your workflow?
- I write and pitch Mute to journalists and use whatever tricks I can to get their attention. Mailbutler’s Send Later has been very valuable. If the journalist I’m writing to is based in San Francisco, they’ll be in a time zone 8 hours behind me. I might be writing to them on a Monday morning UK time. With Send Later, I set my email to be sent at an optimum time for them — ie. when I have more chance of catching their attention, such as 9am on a Tuesday morning West Coast time!
- Since launching Mute I get a lot of email from customers. Often they will be feature requests or asking how to use a certain feature. Mailbutler’s snippets and templates features have saved me a lot of time as I can quickly respond to emails with text that I’ve sent to other users previously.
What’s one important advice you’ve come across that made a significant influence in your workflow?
I read an article that claimed we have about 3–4 hours of concentrated focus each day. My tactic is to squeeze that focus and concentration out during my morning by switching off apps that distract and nag me for attention — then I’m left with more time to spare in my afternoon.
🌟 I accept that sometimes I’ll get less done as I’ve been efficient in the morning — and I don’t beat myself up about it! 😃