My year with a distraction-free iPhone (and how to start your own experiment)
In 2012, I realized I had a problem.
My iPhone made me twitchy. I could feel it in my pocket, calling me, like the Ring called Bilbo Baggins. It distracted me from my kids. It distracted me from my wife. It distracted me anytime, anywhere. I just didn’t have the willpower to ignore email and Twitter and Instagram and the whole world wide web. Infinity in my pocket was too much.
I wanted to get control, but I didn’t want to give up my iPhone altogether. I loved having Google Maps and Uber and Find Friends and an amazing camera.
So I decided to try an experiment. I disabled Safari. I deleted my mail account. I uninstalled every app I couldn’t handle. I thought I’d try it for a week.
A month went by, then two, and I was loving my newfound freedom. I wrote up a post about my experience on Medium, called The distraction-free iPhone.
Then a lot of people read the post. It got over 80,000 views on Medium. Lifehacker ran it, and it got 70,000 more. Gizmodo ran it, and it got another 150,000. Obviously, other people were interested in the topic. (It’s not because I’m an interesting writer. For comparison, the next thing I wrote, about zombies, got less than 500 views.)
Sure, most of those bajillion readers — especially on Gizmodo — wanted to talk about what an idiot I am. “Why doesn’t he just buy a flip phone?!” (see below)
But a lot of people were supportive. And a lot of them actually tried it. Even some of my friends gave it a shot.
The biggest victory was when my wife made her own iPhone distraction-free. This, after 6 months of telling me I was nuts. You bet I was stoked! (Only you can’t really gloat in that situation. Not the “enlightened guy who’s too good for his iPhone” thing to do, is it?)
Anyway, I still get a lot of people asking: am I still doing it? Some of those people are probably too impatient to read this long boring intro. So for all you skimmers out there, here’s the answer in big letters:
Yes, I’m still doing it. Over one year later.
Oh great. Here comes the self-righteous part.
Over the last 12 months I’ve learned to enjoy (or at least, be OK with) moments of boredom. I reach for my phone a lot less often. It’s probably just my imagination, but it feels like it’s easier to concentrate when I need to get things done or tackle a big project.
Times on the bus when I would’ve checked email, I listen to music or just look around. I even started meditating on the bus (yes, really! And, uh… please don’t mug me) using an app called Calm. I can’t believe I’m the hippy dippy weirdo meditating on the bus using an app. But I’m actually a lot happier doing that than I was with my tweets.
At home, the phone becomes part of the stereo, and nothing more. At work, I set the thing down a lot. Nearly once a day I forget where it is — something I’d have never been able to imagine in 2012.
The weird part is this: This experiment was supposed to be a hardship. Now? It feels like the easy way out. I not only don’t want to go back, going back sounds really… difficult. Think of all the things I’d have to keep track of. Managing notifications and streams and pings and bleeps can add up to a lot of work.
The 24 hour experiment
If you’re intrigued, I encourage you to try going distraction-free for 24 hours. It’s pretty easy to set up on the iPhone, and most people who’ve done it really enjoy the break.
Now — there’s no pressure here. Some people seem to handle their smartphones just fine. For the rest of us, this is a worthy experiment.
1. Remove Safari
Safari is a big problem for me because it opens a window into a limitless universe of, y’know, everything. Infinity. At any given moment, there’s something super interesting on the Internet I haven’t seen before. Actually, I’m gonna go check real quick. NO! Must… finish… iPhone post.
You can’t delete Safari, but you can do this: Go into Settings, then Restrictions. Turn ‘em on, and then you can turn off Safari. Yes, I know, Restrictions — as if you yourself are a person you don’t trust to use your own phone. Kinda awkward, right?
2. Remove Mail
Email’s another big problem for me. There’s some good psychology behind this: our brains have a glitch that makes random rewards incredibly appealing. It’s a slot machine where the big payout is… a note from my boss, I guess.
I can’t give up email, but luckily with my job I really don’t have to have it on my phone. Over the last year, I’ve encouraged people to text or call me if they need a fast response. As an added bonus, most people have a much higher threshold for texting or calling than they do for firing off an email.
You can’t turn the Mail app all the way off on your iPhone. The easiest thing to do is delete your email account in Settings.
3. Remove “infinity” apps
Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, even the New York Times — all of these have a potentially endless supply of new and interesting stuff that I could check at any time. So none of them belong on my phone.
You can delete these apps the old-fashioned way, of course. Jiggle, jiggle, ✕!
4. Consciously decide what to keep
Having a blank desktop on the phone is surprisingly calming. Once I’d cleared off so much stuff, I wanted to keep it clean. I found it really useful to ask myself why each remaining app was on my phone. Was it a tool that made my life better? Or was it dragging me along for the ride?
So what made the cut? Here’s my list:
- Apps that make me feel like I live in the future, kept in a folder inventively called “The Future.” Dropbox, Google Maps, Uber, Rdio, Instacart, and so on. There are a lot of non-distractors that are amazing. (Even the weather app is pretty cool, when I stop and think about it. I mean, in the 1980s, I had a Walkman. That’s my point of reference: a freakin’ Walkman. It’s totally amazing that you can get a weather report in your pocket. And I would never, ever get addicted to it.)
- Useful things I rarely use, like a New York subway map or the compass.
- Useless things you can’t delete, like Passbook and Game Center.
What’s left of the iPhone is still fantastic — far better than a flip phone, and getting better all the time.
I want a sensible phone, not a smart phone
This whole exercise has left me feeling like I took the iPhone into my life without ever really thinking about what it was gonna take from me. Internet, all the time, everywhere? Sign me up. Games, news, photos, popularity? Yes, please, more, please! It’s an all-you-can-eat buffet of excellent gourmet food. The trouble for me? I will always eat more than I should.
Since my line of work is helping companies build software and hardware, I’m trying to take this philosophy to heart. So I’ll leave you with a little preaching.
60 word sermon
When we invest our time and energy in technology — as creators or consumers — we should invest in products that belong in “The Future” and not those that make our lives disappear faster than they already do.
Personally, my life’s already going by at the speed of light. But this past year, it felt just the tiniest bit slower.
Tell me if you try it
Thanks for reading. If you do the experiment, I’d love to hear about it. Take a screenshot and drop me a tweet. I’ll check it on my laptop.
Update: Here’s how to do set up a Distraction-free Android.