I deleted every app from my phone for 30 days. Here’s what happened.
A couple of months ago, I downloaded the iOS 12 Developer version to try out a new feature that I was excited for: Screen Time. This feature promised to give iPhone users analytics on how much time they spend on their phones and in what capacity. I had long worried about my increasing phone usage, especially since moving to San Francisco and working in venture capital — the forces behind many of the attention-seeking apps that we spend our errant moments obsessively checking and scrolling through. After a week of recording data with my regular use, I was shocked at what Screen Time revealed: In the course of an average day, I used my phone for 5 hours and 36 minutes, picking it up 230 times per day.
Now, part of this extreme use is attributed to my job as a VC at Sinai Ventures. Venture Capital isn’t so much a job as it is a lifestyle — I’m constantly on the go between meetings, reading industry news, researching trends / companies / founders, don’t have an office job where I’m limited in phone usage, and in some capacity, am always working. In fact, my phone is one of the most powerful tools to stay in touch with a distributed team of five people and with others in the venture and tech community. (Also, prominent VCs are great at interesting Twitter content & conversations, which can be a major time suck…)
Still — I realized that this level of use was not healthy, and that there were steps I could take to significantly cut back my dependence on information and distraction in any given moment. I decided to take an extreme step — going cold turkey — and delete every app from my phone for a period of 30 days in order to recalibrate myself.
I’ve long believed that smartphones have a multitude of negative effects on the human mind — from decreasing positive human to human interaction, to shrinking our attention spans. Although they are incredibly empowering and productive, I wonder at times if in some ways, people were better off before they had always-on information and communication portals connected to them. I was curious to find out how my day-to-day life changed, but also how my behavior, mood, and mindset adjusted without the option of checking my phone so often. My more specific goals included:
- Higher quality sleep: I regularly used my phone in bed, both before I fell asleep and first thing in the morning. Often, I’d spend significant time delaying either going to sleep or getting up in the morning by reading articles or checking News, Twitter, and Instagram. There’s no doubt that this was unhealthy for my circadian rhythm. I hoped that removing this option would allow a more regular sleep pattern and improve my energy levels first thing in the morning.
- Increased focus / attention span: The distraction apps are broken down into small bite-sized portions of content that you can endlessly (and mindlessly) scroll through, occupying any errant moment you have — whether waiting for an elevator or while you’re eating a meal. This habit of consuming short-form content distracts us from having long-form thoughts.
- More human interaction: I’ve written before about my beliefs that regular in-person human interaction is a necessity for positive mental health. Frankly, I think we often hide behind our phones to avoid talking to people, whether that be listening to music / podcasts or checking our email / instagram / twitter / facebook / news at every opportunity, signaling to the outside world that we’re “busy (and therefore important?).” I was curious to see if I was more likely to strike up conversation with a stranger when I had nothing else to do. In a world where we increasingly look to quantify everything, the impact of everyday interactions remains nebulous (which is probably why it isn’t highly valued in society).
- Improved vision: When I backpacked through Europe for four months a couple of years ago, I did not have a data plan on my cell phone and therefore barely used it. I noticed a remarkable improvement in my vision, presumably at least partially due to not staring at an object inches from my eyes for hours a day. Certainly, five and a half hours of staring at a phone each day can’t be healthy.
Before I began this experiment, I had a remarkable 136 apps downloaded on my phone — most in a haphazard and unorganized manner, and many which I probably never used more than once. The full list (and embarrassing screenshot) is below, but here’s a summary of my general usage:
First thing in the morning, I would start with the News app — reading through tech / entertainment articles that I found interesting for some period of time. I’d also check Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook (almost exclusively for the “On this day” feature) in the morning, as well as throughout the day in moments between tasks or meetings.
Spotify and podcasts were used heavily during travel — whether I was driving to our office in Palo Alto or riding in an Uber somewhere in the city. I also used them when I went for a run in order to distract myself from how much I hate running. Part of that hatred stemmed from Strava, another app I’d use to track my runs and be disappointed every time I didn’t hit a personal best.
I’d rarely use entertainment apps (Netflix, Hulu, HBO) on my phone — but would instead Chromecast them to my TV.
Headspace, a meditation app, was a lifesaver - although I was terrible at consistently using it.
Ridesharing, banking, airline apps, etc were used only when needed — and even then, for very short periods of time. Although the time on-app was short, UberEats had a significant financial impact on a monthly basis, as it was just so darn convenient compared to 1) going to the store and making a meal or 2) deciding on a restaurant I wanted to walk to (that could just deliver via UberEats anyway…).
Being single and somewhat new to San Francisco, I used dating apps — but not too heavily, as I had been disillusioned over the years of use in LA.
Messaging platforms all had their own purpose: Text messaging for a majority of friends and family, Facebook Chat and WhatsApp for friends overseas, and Google Hangouts for one five-year long thread I use daily with two of my best friends in Los Angeles.
Most of the other apps I had downloaded over the years were used rarely or never. Many of these were consumer apps created by startups that I downloaded to check out in a work capacity and never deleted after use. Overall, my phone was a disorganized mess.
Full list of apps pre-deletion: Calendar, Clock, News, Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram, Google Hangouts, Spotify, Podcasts, Slack, Google Maps, Twitter, Strava, Google Sheets, Evernote, Headspace, Uber, Wanderlust, Mail, Google Chrome, August, Ring, Quick Print, Sonos, Jibo App, Instacart, Amazon Alexa, Nexkey, Netflix, HBO GO, FaceTime, Calculator, Compass, Tips, Voice Memos, Find Friends, Chase, Ally, NetBenefits, Amex, Discover, Google Photos, Google Drive, Measure, Notes, Reminders, TV, Books, Google Home, Google Assistant, Soduku, Lyft, 23&Me, Amazon, Heads Up!, Charades!, Tomorrow, Google Docs, Reddit, Sketchfab, Within, Medium(!), DoorDash, Grin, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Gmail, Venmo, Coffee Bean, Swype, Google Calendar, Hinge, Shazam, Yelp, Google Translate, Pizza Hut (don’t judge), Oblique Strategies, Hulu, Award Wallet, PriorityPass, Coinbase, PayPal, Starbucks, Postmates, Saucey, Handy, Just a Line, MoviePass (RIP), MuniMobile, TaskRabbit, Metaverse, Equinox, Expensify, Wealthfront, TestFlight, Dropbox, Bird, Detour, United Airlines, Bumble, Telegram, iTunes Store, Google Rewards, Ventra, Panda, Crossword, Airbnb, Universe, Bump, Snackpass, Stocks, TicketMaster, American Airlines, British Airways, If Only, Podcast App, Google Tasks, Tingles, Uber Eats, YouTube, Perksy, CBS, Wildlink, Zoom, PayByPhone, Kapwing, IRL, Affinity, Omni, Product Hunt, Punday, JoyRide, splish, TapeACallLite, Feedback, and Huddle.
EXHALE. Woof. Okay.
Since I still needed to be a functioning and productive employee, I allowed myself to retain all necessary apps for work. This included: Mail, Calendar, Slack, Google Chrome, Google Maps, and Uber. My new home screen looked so clean! I attempted to limit my browser activity to work-related research and tasks to avoid utilizing it as a copout to access the unlimited entertainment value of the internet.
I must admit, the first few days were hard. I was constantly pulling out my phone, only to realize that there was nothing I that could do on it, which was an extremely frustrating feeling. I would do this minutes, or even seconds apart from each attempt. The thoughts of “I wonder what’s going on on Twitter / Instagram / in the News” tortured me for the first few days, but I held strong.
There were definite hiccups along the way. Within the first week, I had to pay a friend for an airbnb reservation over Labor Day Weekend, and was surprised to find that the web version of Venmo is essentially useless.
Similarly, I found that checking in for flights was an unnecessary pain — using email links, signing into airline websites to send myself an email with another link to my ticket… was just so much more frustrating than opening an app, clicking “check-in” and “add to wallet.” Checking bank accounts and paying credit card bills was similarly unnecessarily frustrating (I know, life is hard sometimes).
The first time I went on a run without Strava or my distraction methods (Spotify / Podcasts), my mind was focused on how much I was not enjoying running, and I cut the exercise short.
I was also reminded how awful FM radio is during my occasional 1 hour + commute to Palo Alto. Constantly switching stations to avoid ads, hearing only half of songs, and listening to the same Top 40 songs over and over again made me sincerely appreciate the audio options we have today. On the bright side, I was reminded of the greatness of Uncle Kracker’s Follow Me, but was unfortunately subsequently informed by a friend that it’s apparently about heroin addiction. Ten-year-old me did not pick up on that at the time.
After the first week or so, I had adjusted to my new normal and began to notice some positive effects. For one thing — I had absolutely no urge to check Facebook / Twitter / Instagram. This was positive because I’ve had the fortune to befriend a lot of diverse and talented people, many of whom at any moment are traveling the world, speaking at events, or celebrating other life successes — all displayed on a daily basis on these platforms. Usually, I was only looking at these apps when I was bored, and would compare my current state to the highlights from everyone else, which in turn made me feel anxious that I wasn’t doing enough, or should be doing more. These feelings disappeared once I no longer had a window into everyone else’s world — and I noticed that my anxiety levels decreased substantially. I was more focused on what I was doing rather than what everyone else was doing.
I also began to have more human interaction, including a few brief conversations in elevators (I may have tried some jokes), and some more substantial conversations with Uber drivers. While I’ll likely never see these people again and we didn’t share personal information, I walked away from most of these interactions with a smile on my face, feeling as though my mood was improved.
My time management ability multiplied, as I started to have a longer attention span and would not be distracted or derailed by hundreds of notifications and urges to check apps per day. I ended up reading four books over the month, an improvement over the one or two I would usually consume. Similarly, long-form thoughts became more common. When I didn’t have short-form content to distract me, one thought would lead to another, and another, leading to deeper insights on topics I was considering.
In successive runs, I became used to not having Spotify or podcasts to distract me, and would instead pick a topic that I wanted to think deeply about for the duration of a run. Not only was this effective at distracting me, but it also led to some insights and ideas that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. I was extremely happy to not have Strava tracking each run — when I went running, it no longer mattered how far I went or at what pace, because I simply didn’t know. I ran as far as I wanted and then returned, without feeling like a failure for not reaching a certain distance or pace. Running became less of a chore.
There were little things, as well: one day while walking between meetings — a time I would usually be deep in thought about a podcast I was listening to — I started to notice some really beautiful buildings in San Francisco. I had walked by these many times before, but as cliche as it sounds, I had never really stopped to appreciate them.
At the end of thirty days, here was my new average usage: 2 hours and 35 minutes per day with only 91 pickups. I was saving a full 3 hours per day (1,095 hours — or 45 days per year) and picked up my phone 139 times fewer than before.
Of the outcomes I had hoped for, nearly all of them were realized. My sleep cycle definitely improved, and it was easier to get out of bed each morning. I had a significantly longer attention span, which not only led to more focused and intentional work, but also decreased anxiety. I also found some of the human contact I was hoping for, albeit in small doses. The one difference I did not notice was improved eyesight — but to be fair, I still spent a majority of my days working on my laptop.
My main takeaway from deleting every app from my phone for a month is that there are two types of apps: 1) Utility and 2) Distraction.
Utility apps provide a positive function that remove significant friction. Generally, these are used sparingly and don’t require long screen time. Ordering an Uber, checking-in for a flight, and paying a credit card bill are all quick processes that empower us to be efficient and productive.
Distraction apps seek your attention at every spare moment. They have constantly updating feeds of short-form content which can be checked all day, every day. They constantly send notifications to get you back in-app and don’t have any tangible positive impact on your productivity or life.
My time and attention are two of my most precious resources (behind relationships), and the realization that I was allowing companies and products to steal these resources on a daily basis was an alarming one. This experiment illuminated how easy it is for products that are designed to be addictive to alter my daily habits — and in turn, my mood and mindset. At the end of the 30 days, I decided that the benefits enjoyed from being less distracted and more focused were worthwhile in the longterm. Therefore, I only re-downloaded 17 apps, most of which I consider “utility” apps: Chase, Amex, Ally, Discover, Venmo, NetBenefits, Starbucks, Netflix, Hulu, Spotify, Podcasts, Drivetime, MoviePass, United Airlines, American Airlines, PayByPhone, and Headspace. Critics may argue that Netflix, Hulu, Spotify, and Podcasts are distraction apps that similarly take up significant time — and they’re not wrong. I think, though, that longer form content is a different beast, and I’m now more vigilant about how I consume it. Also, as a recovering entertainment industry veteran — let’s tackle one societal addiction at a time.
I’m currently an investor at Sinai Ventures in San Francisco. Previously digital TV strategy at 21st Century Fox in Los Angeles. Northwestern Alum. Chicago Native. Feel free to reach out here, on LinkedIn, or Twitter.