A digital diet: Or why I deleted nearly all of the apps from my smartphone.

Photo by Michael Marcinek

Deciding to live on a sailboat has presented us with interesting challenges and has been a wonderful way to reassess how we approach our daily life. We have been discovering what minimalism means to us, and challenging ourselves to whittle away extraneous objects with the intention of having more time to enjoy making art, writing, exploring our little lake and eventually the world beyond.

Moving out of ‘the city’ and onto the boat brought a generous change of pace. The days feel longer, the nights are darker with more stars above to light our way. Overall, I have welcomed these new opportunities, however, I still found myself distracted. It was as though something was gently tugging me away from being fully in the moment.

Why am i so distracted?

It turns out there was a good reason I was feeling distracted. My smart phone was constantly buzzing — carrying on like a pinball machine with notifications, alerts and rings. Even worse, it seemed like every attempt to ‘respond to a message’ resulted in a refresh of my email, a scroll through Instagram or a quick hit of the web (sometimes disguised as actual research).

What is truly frightening is that I already am a modest app user. I am not an adherent of Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat or many of the big social apps that often capture our collective attention. I am saddened by a trend of dinners with family and friends being illuminated by the glow from a phone screen. Often, albeit privately, I beat myself up when I allowed my attention to be pulled away in social situations, even if it was only for a moment.

I tried to not be sucked in by my device, and despite protests, ended up with a pocket sized computer turned pacifier.

I was overcome by my phone’s calls for my attention.

Photo by Giles Lambert

The problem is the product

It turns out there is a very good reason for this. According to research provided by dscout, the average person touches their phone 2,617 times a day for a total consumption time of 2.42 hours, while heavy users will touch their phone 5,427 times a day, spending 3.75 hours a day.

That is some serious phone time, nearly 15% of a day spent on our phones(23% for heavy users), presuming we all get an average of 8 hours of sleep.

Buzz.

“I need to check that, maybe it’s Esther?”

Bing.

“Maybe it is an email response…”

Bong!

“I have never heard that before, what is my phone trying to tell me?”.

Then came the nervous tick, maybe it grew out of boredom, or maybe from conditioning due to the constant drip of notifications — the need to look at my phone just to be sure I didn’t miss anything. Without fail, I would be rewarded with a badge, an alert or even better yet a “like”.

Even worse, my phone’s application’s are reacting to my use(or lack thereof) and prodding me to engage as Catherine Price, author of the recent book How to Break Up With Your Phone, points out in this Vox interview:

In Instagram, for example, there’s an algorithm that determines when you are most likely to quit Instagram. Then it will deliver “likes”… a bunch of “likes” all at once. So you’ll see them, your brain will love it, and you won’t want to get off your phone.

Yikes! How desperate of Instagram to need us to need them that they would spend vast resources determining how to urge us to log back in. What do they get from this all of this engagement?

Thankfully, that question is easy to answer:

A treasure trove of data points on the things that I like compared to the things that you also like. This translates into a large slice of a billion dollar market.

The question is, what do we get from this transaction?

You may not admit it, but, statistically the answer to this question is depression, anxiety, and an overall sense of distraction which some believe is actually affecting and lowering our IQ.

Photo by Jacob Ufkes

The insider’s response

A growing number of people who helped create the applications that we all seem to enjoy seem to think that we are being ‘hijacked’ by our devices, including Justin Rosenstein, the engineer who helped to create Facebook’s like button, who has gone through extreme measures to “radically restrict his access to social media”.

Also, Leah Pearlman, the designer behind Facebook’s like button, has also rejected the platform she helped create. What was Pearlman’s solution to mitigate the effects of application addiction? She hired an assistant who maintains and monitors her social media network.

Tristan Harris,former Google Design Ethicist and possibly the loudest critic of current design trends believes that “All of our minds can be hijacked. Our choices are not as free as we think they are.” After leaving Google in 2016 he went on to form the non-profit Time Well Spent, aimed at “reversing the digital attention crisis… through public advocacy, the development of ethical design standards, design education and policy recommendations to protect minds from nefarious manipulation.”

I am incredibly grateful to the voices who have stood up as user advocates in Silicon Valley. Change comes slow, particularly when profits are so readily linked to usage. My brain needs relief, now, not in the future.

Setting Boundaries with my phone

I heeded the advice in this New York Times article, in which the author, Nellie Bowles, suggests turning your phone’s screen mode to grayscale to make the screen less stimulating. Understanding that colorful objects command our natural attention, going grayscale reintroduces some choice by the user. It should be no surprise that this recommendation comes from Tristan Harris.

After several days with my phone on grayscale(Android instructions, IOS instructions), I noticed that I was checking my phone a lot less. My battery was not as depleted at the end of the day. I felt the urge to look at my phone less frequently.

This break in my usage made me think about why I have a smart phone to begin with.

I do think that text messaging is great for asynchronous communication. Of course, the phone is a great feature — and ironically the least used feature on most people’s phones. However most apps I had seemed novel, and not very useful considering how much attention I gave them.

After reflecting, I wanted a device that excels in direct communication, unfiltered by any media platform. So I accomplished just that by removing nearly all of the apps from my phone. The apps I did leave:

  • The Phone
  • Text Messaging(Google Hangouts)
  • Google Duo
  • Google Keep, for notetaking
  • Basecamp 3
  • Google Maps
  • Camera
  • Google Sky Map
  • Useful Knots (well, I do live on a boat after all)
Enjoying the day untethered — Kaylana in our cockpit!

DO I miss anything?

It has been a few weeks since I removed nearly all apps from my phone and it is great. My phone hardly ever makes a sound, and when it does, it is usually for a good reason. My phone no longer lives in my pocket by default, as a matter of fact, I have been enjoying not carrying it. It reminds me of the days before we were hyper connected.

I honestly feel more present, and less on edge. I don’t think I realized how much I felt like I was always missing something. I needed to be up to date.


Originally published at Wayfinders Now.