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Smartphones Are Toys First, Tools Second

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If you time-traveled to the 1960s, or even the 1980s, and tried to describe smartphones to the people you met, they wouldn’t believe you.

It would simply seem too good to be true—an affordable, pocket-sized device that provides:

  • instant telegrams or phone calls, from anywhere to anywhere, usually free
  • maps of virtually every city or rural area, even showing current traffic conditions
  • searchable encyclopedias
  • up-to-the-minute news about anything in the world
  • step-by-step instructions for doing virtually anything
  • quick translations between dozens of languages
  • endless articles, courses, movies and TV shows
  • a camera that takes stills and video, and can transmit them to anyone instantly
  • the means for anyone to create their own regular column or newsletter, or audio or video broadcasts
  • the ability to adopt new functions at any time, usually for free

These are just a few basic smartphone functions, but to your new friends, they would all sound like life-changing superpowers. Their imaginations would run wild at how much easier such powers could make their lives.

They might assume that due to these devices alone, people of the 21st century will be achieving their most important goals at multiplied speed. It would be hard for them to believe that even one of those superpowers—the ability to find decent instructions for virtually any task, for example—wouldn’t make a person vastly more capable and fulfilled. Imagine what would they pay for those powers.

They certainly wouldn’t guess that a growing number of 21st century people find these devices barely worth the trouble, and frequently consider getting rid of them.

Yet here we are. If you Google “getting rid of your smartphone,” you’ll find countless personal stories, especially from the last three years, mostly with few regrets.

The smartphone should be, and perhaps still could be, the most personally empowering device ever invented, yet many people are now trying to reduce or eliminate their role in their lives.

I’m one of those people, and I still wonder: why is it such a close tradeoff? Why do these superpowers outweigh the downsides by such a small margin that anyone would consider giving them up? The downsides must be pretty bad.

Our phones are in many ways empowering. They can help us do more of what makes us happier and more capable. They can (theoretically) save us a lot of time and trouble, making more space for family, friendship, creative work, study, or whatever else we find truly fulfilling.

They are also disempowering. For most of us, they easily soak up far more time than they save, capturing our attention dozens of times daily, and directing it to gratifying but mostly forgettable activities, usually infused with advertising. They get us repeatedly doing things we didn’t know we needed to do, such as perusing dozens of our acquaintances’ random photos several times a day.

It’s hard to separate the empowering functions from the disempowering ones. For me, Instagram (for example) seems pleasurable enough and relatively harmless. I can scroll through the new posts in a minute or so. This still makes me smile once or twice a day, and helps me feel a little more in touch with certain people. But I scroll through my feed not once or twice a day, but five or ten times, and more out of a lab-mouse-like pleasure-seeking habit than a conscious desire to connect.

And each of these seemingly harmless sessions may lead to an indefinite period of further low-level pleasure-seeking—flipping through screens for similar apps I haven’t checked in a while.  

Even when I unlock my phone for a decidedly empowering use—looking up a fact, entering something in my calendar—it’s unlikely I won’t also tap on Instagram, and maybe Pocket, Yahoo Sports, or whatever other icons pull the eye in that moment.

It’s this reflexiveness, this hyper-conditioned way I’ve come to use the device, that concerns me most. I’ve spent most of my adult life, including ten years writing on this blog, learning to be more conscious, more present, more intentional, and less reactive, which has all been very empowering.

But my phone, at least the way I currently use it, works against all that. It’s so strangely resistant to conscious, intentional use.

Why is this thing so compelling?

It’s not because of its unprecedented usefulness. It’s because of its unprecedented salience. The smartphone is utterly magnetic to the mind and hands. It might be the most compelling object ever created (at least outside of a Tolkien story) and not because of its value as a tool, but because of its value as a toy.

I’m all for “play,” as a concept and a virtue. But I don’t think I want playthings mixed in hopelessly with my tools. If I’m going to play, I’d rather do it with some paper and drawing pencils, or a Frisbee and some friends in the park, than repeat the same engineered swipe-and-reward patterns another hundred thousand times.

We don’t play with tape measures, envelopes, maps, dictionaries, or calculators. We don’t go to staple something and end up watching a movie review.

We don’t play with our keys or debit cards when we’re waiting for the bus—but we do play with our telephones, because they are now 90% toy.

Our phones remain as powerful as ever, but every utilitarian function they have is compromised by the presence of these weirdly magnetic recreational functions. I can appreciate a slick, portable multi-tool, but I no longer want to carry in my pocket the most compelling toy ever created.

Separating Tool From Toy

Here’s my plan. I’m going to see if I can make my phone into the empowering digital supertool it would sound like to a 20th-century person.

I want it to be as useful, and as boring, as I can make it. I want it to be attractive for intentional, practical uses, but not for a reflexive diversions—a Swiss Army knife, not a carnival, in my pocket.

This is my latest lifestyle experiment. I will make my phone as utilitarian as possible, for 30 days, and see what I learn.

Aside from freeing up some hitherto poorly invested time and attention, and beginning to de-condition some of my information-age habits, I’m interested to see how hard this actually is.

Is it even possible to separate tool from toy? In the “attention economy,” app makers have every reason to mix addictiveness in with the usefulness—is some degree of mind-control always going to come with these digital superpowers?

Or perhaps I am personally too far gone to train myself out of reflexively cycling through my apps for sporadic lab-mouse treats. Seven years of daily conditioning will be hard to uproot in a month.

There will surely be moments of frustration, neediness, and FOMO. I expect to not know what to do with myself in certain situations, and that’s probably good. I’ll interpret these moments as simply what it feels like to re-adjust to living without a pocket supertoy (which is how I lived most of my life).

This experiment begins today. I’ll report my discoveries periodically in the experiment log, along with more details of how I’m actually doing this. As usual, you’re welcome to join me, and report your discoveries in the comments too.

The more unexpected difficulties this experiment entails, the more worthwhile it probably is to do. We don’t know how deep the hooks go until we try to pull away.


Photo by Andrew Neel

Michelle May 23, 2019 at 1:34 am

So, good to hear you are giving this a go, will be interested to hear how you get on. This is a hard one for me to understand though. I have a smartphone but just haven’t ever used it like most people seem to, I just don’t feel that pull. So for me, it’s all the upside and no downside – and yes, it is an amazing tool to have with me for when I need it. So I hope you find your way through to breaking your habits into something positive for your life as I don’t believe giving them up is a smart ( ha…ha…) way forwards.
Perhaps it’s because I’m not a big social media person at all, have pretty much zero interest in Instagram/FB/Twitter/etc, they don’t have enough depth for me, prefer blogs with a bit of meaning to them – as in this one! And I really don’t get the whole FOMO thing, zero value in comparing yourself to others, just make the most of your own time how you like best.
Hope it goes well for you.

David Cain May 23, 2019 at 8:40 am

I know not everyone caught the “bug” — in my case, I did really appreciate the connectivity of social media in the early 2010s, and a few years of that was enough to keep me looking to my phone needlessly even after those apps lost their real-life value to me. I suppose each person who has gone too far into phoneland has a different history.

Michelle June 11, 2019 at 6:24 am

Yes, there’s a lot that’s good about them too so I like the “don’t throw the baby out with the bath water” approach you are taking. A lot of people adopt the opposite and can appear to look down on smart phone owners, which is missing the point of ensuring you are the one managing how you spend your time – not your phone or laptop!!

Dave Hughes May 23, 2019 at 1:51 am

Excellent, thought-inspiring article, as always.

I find it interesting that one of the things I and most other people use our smartphones for the least is … as a telephone.

Good luck with your experiment! I look forward to reading about what you experience.

David Cain May 23, 2019 at 8:42 am

Also, that telephones are part of that “boring but useful” toolset. We never really played with phones until they started coming with functions aside from phoning.

Ron May 23, 2019 at 2:00 am

Lots of terrific insights, David. The tool/toy distinction is excellent. I will be most interested in following your experiment.

Murr May 23, 2019 at 2:22 am

You describe the problem so well. The play functions cumulatively far outweigh the useful functions.

One tweak I’ve used in the past is to set my phone to display in grayscale, under the accessibility settings. Instagram is no fun at all in black and white. I’ve just done it now again – thanks for the reminder. I wish you success with this experiment.

David Cain May 23, 2019 at 8:43 am

I have done the grayscale thing, and it does make it more boring. In particular it makes app icons less appealing. But I found I had to keep turning it off if I ever wanted to watch a video, or take a picture (and know what it actually looked like to anyone else) so I stopped.

Ollie May 23, 2019 at 3:15 am

Hi, enjoying read. Maybe the common denominator here, like the comment above is I also have no interest in social media so have none on my phone. However I did escape to it for a while, rather than enjoying the view, or the sound of the rain, or just the moment. For unlearning the reflexive Phone flick I did the following. My WhatsApp groups which are my only social app are muted within the app. All functional apps are separated out on the first or second screen. All other go-to tools are further on in logical groups. All entertainment apps are right at the end and buried in groups. Handy for the occasional long wait. All notifications that aren’t *critical, including email, are disabled as are the little red app dot call-to-action notifiers. I will choose if and when to check them rather than being summoned by them! And I browse in private mode so my history doesn’t keep suggesting interesting things that I’d happily read again. I love my device since I did this. For me it is the knowledge within the device that makes it worth everything. But u have to steel urself one day and make the conscious decision to turn it from being an unruly pack animal pulling at the rope back into the whetted sword that is hidden within (Master Shifu would quote me on that!). Don’t disconnect completely. You lose out. Silence the chatter and release urself to enjoy the potential.

David Cain May 23, 2019 at 8:46 am

These are good suggestions, thanks Ollie. At the moment my screens are disorganized and full of holes from all the apps I deleted. I’ll arrange them in a similar way to how you did.

Rohan May 23, 2019 at 3:20 am

Delighted to read your efforts towards this! I’ll follow along with your experiment and conduct a similar one on my phone.

Ameen May 23, 2019 at 4:15 am

I’m also curious to see not only how much you’ll be able to utilize your smartphone as a tool but also how much more capable or knowledgeable you would be on your own without your smartphone after using it.

We keep hearing how we have all the knowledge and information in the world at our fingertips now that we have smartphones and other devices that we can instantly access the internet with. But instant access to information or knowledge doesn’t make you a more capable person per se, if anything it makes you weaker and increasingly dependent because you no longer need to learn or remember things like we used to since all we have to do nowadays is Google whatever it is we want to know.

The information finding process has become quicker and easier than ever before but the learning and possessing of new knowledge or skills hasn’t as much but they’re often conflated as both becoming an easier task compared to the past. The fact that I can instantly be transported to a digital classroom in the internet, still requires that I sit, read, pay attention and practice in that classroom everyday for hours if I want to learn something such as speaking a new language for example.

Maybe one day we can instantly download a new skill into our brains and immediately know how to use Jiujitsu like Neo in the Matrix, but we’re not there yet. In the meantime, we still have to spend a lot of time and effort into learning a new skill as much as we did in the past even though we have instant access to information and resources with our smartphones and other internet enabled devices.

So we shouldn’t beat ourselves up for not being smarter or more skillful when we have Google and smartphones because they only have made finding information quicker and easier and not learning itself.

David Cain May 23, 2019 at 8:53 am

Yeah, I think we need to distinguish between knowledge and information. Convenient access to information is probably making us worse at some knowledge skills, like navigating a city, and so on. But the ability to look things up anywhere and communicate in real time is still extremely powerful, or would be if we could do those things without getting distracted. Abundant information is helpful but it doesn’t replace necessary skills and in some cases can erode them.

Anne May 23, 2019 at 5:23 am

Good article. I’ve confronted this issue with both phone and iPad. I realised that my default when I had any space had become going onto one or the other and browsing. One suggestion – think about alternative activities. I make sure there’s always a book or magazine within reach. In the past I would always pick up a book in the way I now go to phone or iPad, so I’m trying to get back to that. And I have set times – after meals – to check social media. I’m a keen user of FB, Instagram etc, and value them for keeping me in touch with far-flung friends and for the positive resources they offer among all the dross. But I feel challenged to keep them in their place and not let them take over my life and time.

David Cain May 23, 2019 at 8:55 am

Good advice… there will be holes and something has to go in them. I have put books everywhere I habitually use my phone, and I carry around a novel.

Anne May 23, 2019 at 9:16 am

Exactly! I found that getting more reading done was a great reward for making the effort to stay off the devices. Good luck with your experiment.

Kevin May 23, 2019 at 5:29 am

Great article, and a timely one for me, as I’m both wrestling with this myself and have a 13 yr. old with a phone. Even just taking the FB and Messenger apps off my phone helped, but I’ve still got a long way to go. For my son, it’s SnapChat.

Best of luck to you in your experiment, and I’ll definitely be following along/cheering you on!

David Cain May 23, 2019 at 8:57 am

I really wonder about the fate of the next generation, who have never known a world without these devices. It’s possible that by the time they are adults we will have addressed some of these issues, since more and more people are getting fed up with the status quo.

Cynthia Gibas May 23, 2019 at 5:41 am

I have been wrestling with this both with my phone and my computers. The computers are an integral part of my job, and have been since I was in my early 20s, when I worked in the same building where NCSA Mosaic was being developed, so as you might imagine, I was a very early adopter of terrible intermingled work/distraction habits because we thought it was the coolest thing in the world and we didn’t know what would happen to our brains.

Mostly because I am wrestling with it and not at peace about it, my therapist (who I just went back to start talking to recently) suggested that I try for a week to write down every time I do a thing with it that I feel is not beneficial (in this case, the thing was checking on politics news). I soon discovered that both at work and at home, me doing useful things is completely intermingled (to the point where it’s even hard to track them) with doing recreational things and also crappy obsessive things. Even when I am getting productive things done I am also doing 10 other non-productive things in bursts at the same time. Anyway, no solutions over here yet, but I have implemented the Cold Turkey blocker, which costs $20 and may be the most flexible and brutal blocking software I’ve ever found. I’ve set my computers at home up for solid blocks of time where they will actually be completely unresponsive. I only wish it worked for my phone, or certain apps on my phone, anyway. I’m a fan of using technology to make me use my technology better rather than trying to make an active decision every time the temptation rises.

David Cain May 23, 2019 at 9:03 am

Being a writer I have been using a browser-blocker for a while now. It has been very helpful, and has mostly killed the reflex of “get stuck writing” >> “go web surfing.” I’m trying to consider the phone problem in isolation, but respond in the same way — just cut off that channel so I have to find a new response.

A C Harper May 23, 2019 at 5:59 am

There’s a philosophical view that ‘how we decide to live’ depends on a knowledge discovery phase, and a design phase for putting that knowledge into use. (Felix Guattari ‘ecosophy’ and Mark James ‘eco-behavioral design’).

You could make the argument that we now *have* a design surfeit of a bazillion bits of knowledge and we are exhorted over and over to find out more… ‘ten things you need to know…’

What we *feel* is a lack, of how to adopt that knowledge into a design for how to live.

So good luck with experiment. Perhaps you can let us know if you feel more able to determine how to live?

David Cain May 23, 2019 at 12:44 pm

I think you are right on here. We definitely have an overabundance of information, far more of it than we’re able to use meaningfully. But I think we’re highly habituated to seeking out more of it for the novelty and low-level gratification it provides (the tiny pleasure of seeing that there are new emails, even when we don’t know what they say) rather than what we can do with it.

Ellen Symons May 23, 2019 at 6:36 am

So timely. I’m just back from 2+ weeks away, with limited access to WiFi, and I returned feeling refreshed and as if I am free to start a new relationship with my phone and with social media. This morning I was journaling about exactly this opportunity. I’m looking forward to the discoveries.

David Cain May 23, 2019 at 12:45 pm

Every time I go on silent retreat it becomes extremely obvious that there’s something great about being disconnected. But habit forces are strong and I slip back into it.

Rocky May 23, 2019 at 6:42 am

Howdy David…..
Thanks for confirming what I’ve suspected all along…
These Smartphones, clearly, are
The Anti-Christ.

Ashley Kung May 23, 2019 at 6:55 am

I think I’ll try this experiment too and follow along.

Daniel McDougall May 23, 2019 at 6:55 am

Hi David

It was great chatting with you in Winnipeg and I am happy to hear that you are going to turn your phone into a tool only.

What type of phone do you have?
Will you use any tracking software like RescueTime?
What are the rules that you have set up for yourself?

I am back at work now after the sabbatical and am trying not to fall into those old distraction habits when I don’t want to complete a task.


David Cain May 23, 2019 at 12:47 pm

Hi Dan. I have a Samsung S7. I’m trying not to use rules or tenets to do this, but rather just remove certain kinds of functionality so that I learn not to turn to my phone except when I want to accomplish something with it.

Welcome back to work — I hope you can use it as a clean start on those distraction habits.

Kent Fackenthall May 23, 2019 at 7:28 am

I did this experiment awhile back with satisfying results. I basically stripped my iPhone to the ‘default’ apps and used it as such. I recorded the results on my blog some time back – I’ll include a link below if links are allowed. This was all initiated by a friend who pointed me to the Light Phone 2.0 product. Since then, I’ve even removed my email app without much issue. Yes there are times I miss it, but I’ve become more regimented and intentional about checking mail once or twice a day on the desktop and addressing or responding to anything then, and forgetting about it the rest of the day. I keep reminding myself that there was a time when people didn’t have immediate access to email anywhere, and we all survived. Overall for me it’s been a very fulfilling – and so far sustainable – experiment.

Blog post link: http://www.kentfackenthall.com/light-phone-experiment-observations/

David Cain May 23, 2019 at 12:52 pm

Email was one troublesome thing I decided to keep — I use it too often for looking up information in archived emails, concert tickets, that kind of thing. I will need to learn to manage it, because it is something that’s tempting to “check” but so far today I’m not getting caught up in my phone at all.

DiscoveredJoys May 23, 2019 at 1:03 pm

I’m old enough to remember not having a phone in the house. People would have to write a letter (real paper, pen and stamp) or ask someone else with a (rare) phone to pop around and let us know we needed to contact the caller.

Somehow the world managed to survive.

David Cain May 23, 2019 at 1:38 pm

I hope much of these analog customs will come back. But it’s also true that we can’t quite live the same way. A business that insists on postal correspondence and doesn’t accept emails is pretty much impossible. My secret hope is that the tech-overwhelm we’re experiencing now will lead to a renewed interest in things like letter-writing.

John Gorsica May 23, 2019 at 7:43 am

As a phone designer for 20 years, I’ve given this topic a lot of thought. First, I love the tool/toy distinction. Second, as the smartphone replaces 20+ separate devices we used to own, I think it’s ridiculous that they all clamour at us with notifications, while we are trying to mindfully use one of them. I’m currently exploring some concepts to make phone usage more intentional.

As part of your experiment, you might try asking (or typing) to the assistant as your primary method of starting a task. It adds a sniper like precision to intended usage.

David Cain May 23, 2019 at 12:59 pm

I kind of feel like we’ll probably look back on this first decade of smartphone designs with some horror. We too easily lose our intention, and frankly most of the tools the phone is replacing are better than the phone is. Touchscreen isn’t the best interface for a lot of applications, including typing, using a calculator, stopwatch, etc. I really love using single-purpose tools compared to trying to do it on my phone.

Liz May 23, 2019 at 7:44 am

Good luck David! I deleted the Facebook app off my phone several years ago and I feel so much better without it. That was the only app that really sucked me in, but I do find myself losing hours to reading a particular website. I have gotten better about limiting that as well when I realized that it was making me feel worse rather than entertain me. I’ll be really interested to see the results of your experiment, I think you will feel much lighter!

David Cain May 23, 2019 at 1:00 pm

I removed Facebook a long time ago, but the habit transferred to other apps, particularly YouTube. Now they’re both gone. It’s early on but today already I’m noticing how little my phone can do to entertain me.

GRS May 23, 2019 at 8:00 am

Remove the apps you can’t resist.

Bob May 23, 2019 at 8:05 am

Interesting read. You should try setting up a gaming PC :) I have one and it makes my smartphone seem like a kids toy. Smartphone games seem boring to me, and all my friends are in game, so social media is kinda useless too. My smartphone is basically used to make calls, find out what I don’t know, and where I’m going. And take the odd photo. I have about 20 of them.

David Cain May 23, 2019 at 1:02 pm

My relationship to video games is stable and not troublesome so I’ll just stick to my console and the 2-3 games a year I play. I never got into games on my phone, thankfully!

Jamey MacIsaac May 23, 2019 at 8:14 am

I started this experiment earlier this year by deleting my Facebook account and removing it from my phone (which, all on its own, increased my overall life satisfaction significantly). I also have a really good eBook app that I’ve had forever but never used, that I’ve started using. In the last month, I’ve read two novels just by using that as my go-to ‘waiting for the elevator’ action rather than opening Chrome.

But this article has inspired me to go a little farther. So I’ve deleted or uninstalled (or at least removed the desktop shortcut for) everything fun. All the games. The Playstore app. Chrome itself. All I have easy access to are my eBooks, and the few things I depend on for the occasional emergency message. Everything else is gone or hard to find.

I’ll be following along your experiment.

David Cain May 23, 2019 at 1:09 pm

Let me know how it goes. I’ve kept my ebook app but never used it much. I’m trying to surround myself with offline reading opportunities.

Irene May 23, 2019 at 8:54 am

Cool, David! It’s been working for me. I rejected cellphones for quite some time until they caught me in a previous job I got. Now I have a very nice tool, as you say. I use it mainly to take nice pics, then to answer messages from potential clients via one app and the Calendar for my personal and labor responsibilities.
I check Insta once a week and share someth to keep it ‘alive’. The same with my too-old-now-to-mention blue socialmedia account. I don’t twit. I keep ma tumblr coz I still enjoy it… As for IMessaging I’d prefer to use other apps but everybody here use Wasapp, so I can’t get rid of it yet… :/
I think milennials got it worse coz they do everything in the cellph… :/
Hope you enjoy the Experiment :)

Tim May 23, 2019 at 9:33 am

I never got too bad with my phone partly because of two reasons: 1) most of my notifications were turned off (except for text messages) thus I only checked an app when I wanted to, 2) I keep my data off – so I have to activity turn it on to do something which also helps me with a second of thought along the lines of ‘do I really need to check Facebook now’ (by the way texts still come through without data on but I need to turn it on to download attachments like a picture).

Then of course there is the brute force method of dealing with your cell phone of buying one with less memory (~8GB) since your OS eats up like half your memory. Therefore you have to pick and choose what apps you REALLY NEED on your phone vs what you would like on your phone. I also did this and honestly I don’t regret it.

In the end, it comes down to exerting control over your device and telling it how you will use it and not letting the default notifications control you. Best of luck David…I look forward to the results.

Rose Pearson May 23, 2019 at 9:53 am

Remarkable serendipity. My friend and I just spent hours brainstorming ways to relate to these devices as sovereign beings and not addicts. The addiction to this device is like the secret we all share. At least most of us .

We also decided to start logging our discoveries.It feels very exciting that this came up at the same time.

Something we talked about is seeing the internet as a war zone. Even if your walking to the library or a church or a grocery store, if your doing that in a war zone you’ve got to be focused, careful and work deliberately to create an experience that is positive. This is only possible if you never forget that you’re engaging with a war zone. You can’t really “relax” without a solid plan. It’s a war for your attention and the consequences are not light. Though the content that snatches us up might be ulitmatey inconsequential, loosing sleep, loosing focus, distracting ourselves from our feelings, all have serious and painful life-altering consequences.

Seeing the phone more as a portal to a war zone that can serious damage to my life is a perspective I’m playing with that, I think, is reflective of the reality that these toys have been designed not with our quality of life in mind but with making us addicts. In this way they can be seen as a kind of psychic weapon.

David Cain May 23, 2019 at 1:14 pm

I like that analogy. It really is a portal to another place, and I don’t want to go to that place without a reason. There’s also no question that your attention is being targeted by powerful corporations the moment you open that portal, and they’re good at getting what they’re after.

Diane May 23, 2019 at 10:05 am

I’m trying the same thing on for size for the month of June. I did for the month of March and April and in those two months, I learned a lot of Spanish, made quite a lot of improvement in my Math skills and started playing the saxophone. My phone helped with all of those things, but ONLY after I got rid of Reddit and Instagram.

David Cain May 23, 2019 at 1:39 pm

Reddit was the worst one for me, and that’s why it was the first to go — over two years ago. But the general pattern has continued and now I’m taking a more drastic step.

Patrick Byrne May 23, 2019 at 10:13 am

I’ve been on this kick for a while. I’ve taken virtually every addictive, multi-use app off of my phone, with the exception of Safari, which I keep behind a password-restricted wall to make myself hyper conscious of when I use it. I keep only essential apps on my home screen and place everything else on the second page.

Another thing that has been essential has been the “do not disturb while driving” function. If you’re an iphone user you can set away messages for incoming texts. This has allowed me a great deal of peace, knowing that I can take a couple hours away from my phone and people will receive messages saying when I’ll get back to them. All in all, I feel like I’ve gotten control over what was once an enormous addiction and impediment to productivity and, more importantly, peace, stillness and happiness.

David Cain May 23, 2019 at 1:40 pm

Ah I didn’t know that was a thing — I’ll look into it. Thanks Patrick.

Beverly May 23, 2019 at 10:25 am

David, you have described the problem perfectly. I have gone to war with my smartphone addiction several times, with varying degrees of success, only to end up losing the war again and again. You’ve inspired me to gird up for another battle, and I feel strangely optimistic. =) Good luck!

David Cain May 23, 2019 at 1:40 pm

Let us know how it goes!

Brenda A. May 23, 2019 at 11:21 am

I’m always amazed at how addicted people are by their phones. I view them with great interest in public spaces, always wondering WHAT they are so absorbed by! I haven’t found much of anything that compelling to be honest. But I also realize that I handle it quite a bit differently than some. The only notifications I allow are for messaging. Most internet usage I prefer to do on my chromebook at home. I find it to be too troublesome and annoying on my phone. Instagram is the one app I prefer to view on my phone because my screen is more vivid on my phone. But I limit my usage to a couple of times a day, and ironically at home. I don’t whip out my phone for no good reason. My love of people watching, observing life is much stronger than my desire to “check up” on social media or to play games. I have a pretty limited number of apps due to both disinterest as well as not wanting to clog up my memory. It may be that not being able to afford the phone with the most-est is to my benefit here. I’m also 55 and have reached the age of great realization of what does NOT serve me. My interest in following the masses has waned for sure. I mean I still enjoy new technology and new ideas; just don’t feel the need to have or use any that are not “me” specific. Fitting in is not the goal anymore. lol

David Cain May 23, 2019 at 1:41 pm

People who are not phone-addled must find it extremely strange! There is much more to observe in real life, definitely agreed there.

Patricia Stoltey May 23, 2019 at 12:13 pm

I kept my old flip phone and resisted the smartphone, but I had the same problems with my computer–leaving too many tabs open when I should be focused on a writing project, obsessively checking my email, researching one thing that led to reading about multiple other things. At least I can’t browse on my computer while jaywalking across a street as a crazy pedestrian did to me a few months ago. Luckily, I had no smartphone to stare at so was actually paying attention to my driving and did not hit the guy.

David Cain May 23, 2019 at 1:43 pm

Yes — I think the overall problem isn’t strictly confined to smartphones, but to ubiquitous connectivity. A person can have very similar problems with desktop web browsers.

Matthew Liggett May 23, 2019 at 4:09 pm

I have this problem too, and I’ve had it for years. It’s a major hazard in my ability to actually do work at work.

Paul Wenzel May 23, 2019 at 1:02 pm

In addition to deleting Facebook and Instagram apps from my phone, I took the added step of adding “facebook.com” and “reddit.com” to my list of blocked websites.

You can do this by searching settings for “Content Restrictions” and adding your vices to the “Limit Adult Websites” filter set.

Thanks for the inspiration!

David Cain May 23, 2019 at 1:43 pm

I have done this for twitter.com, as deleting the app did not prove to be enough :]

Will Martin May 23, 2019 at 2:52 pm

Thank you for the encouragement. I worked as a psychotherapist and taught addiction counseling at the college level. With all that background it was only a few months ago that I realized that my computer(smart phone) was part of a deeply intertwined addiction process. I’ve given up many of the more addictive uses and am still discovering more and more levels at which the addiction exists. For me it has some of the qualities of a 12 step program in that I don’t think I can take a “tinker with this and that” approach. Abstinance, at least from particular functions, seems necessary to me – Love Chellis Glendinning’s book “My Name is Chellis and I’m Addicted to Western Civilization.

Matthew M Liggett May 23, 2019 at 3:00 pm

I would like to write a bit more here, but I have taken a few steps in this direction myself lately. And a few steps back. I will watch with interest.

Below are links to a few things I read or at least came across (I didn’t read the book) as I started my attempt to make a distraction-free phone.

https://medium.com/s/story/six-years-with-a-distraction-free-iphone-8cf5eb4f97e3 is a useful set of ideas.

Letty May 23, 2019 at 7:52 pm

Your post is serendipitous personally, as just a month ago I finally used the password security setting on my phone — the textual one, with captials, symbols other than words — complicated enough to make it enough of too much a bother to check on Instagram, Facebook, etcetera, for no good reason. I did it for the security — came close to losing my phone and so took the plunge with this “annoying” security setting. Anyway, it had the consequence that I think you are aiming for in your experiment here: I no longer compulsively open up the screen every time that my calendar, Facebook, Instagram, or Medium app’s (I’m sure I’m forgetting a couple of other app’s but oh well) light up the screen with their now-hidden content.

Anyway, I’m glad, though it can be irritating to be locked out and have to type my password in a gain mid-reading of an absorbing article or mid-watching of a video. May work for you so worth a try? Oh — also before that, I also went into my settings and nixed the alerts from Facebook because they were just so damned *often* so to speak. Great read as usual and I hope you get the outcome you’re looking for :)

David Cain May 24, 2019 at 12:15 pm

I have a “swipe pattern” type of password and I think I’ll leave it at that — after all, once typing a complex alphanumerical password I’d still be liable to check all the “fun” apps once I do my “useful” business. My strategy is to make the device itself useful but not fun.

Jennifer May 23, 2019 at 8:53 pm

Tonight, as I picked up my dinner after an exercise class, I did the unthinkable: I left my phone in my pocket! There was an older gentleman also getting his dinner. As we waited for our respective orders (this was a non-drive-thru barbecue place), we had a conversation! Just a simple and small but very human interaction, and it was entertaining and enjoyable. So nice to just chat with someone and not have to pull out the pocket boob-tube!

David Cain May 24, 2019 at 12:16 pm

I love these conversations, and I’m having more of them than ever. But we can be sure that they can’t happen when one person is engaged with a screen.

Deanna May 23, 2019 at 11:45 pm

I’m going to do this experiment with you! Yeehaw!

Jon May 24, 2019 at 1:57 am

Hi David,

Hope this finds you well! I’m glad to see that you’re continuing to follow your curiosity with experiments. I’m surprised, however, that no one has mentioned the book Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport (author of Deep Work). It seems like it might be a useful read for the conundrum that you’re outlining in this post.

David Cain May 24, 2019 at 12:18 pm

Many have mentioned it in emails I received — I’m a big fan of Cal’s and will definitely read it in the near future. I believe he’s someone who’s looking in the right direction as far as technology is concerned.

Kevin May 25, 2019 at 4:04 pm

I’m a huge fan of his as well, and “Digital Minimalism” is a fantastic read.

Alan May 24, 2019 at 2:15 am

Well i’m a yoga instructor and a number of times I’ve had to ask people to turn mobile phones off part way through a class when I’ve caught them thumbing through social media, such is its addiction.
What I always recommend is, if at all possible, to keep social media off mobile phones and just keep it on a desktop. That way at least its use is constrained to when at home. Easier said than done if you like to photograph and post your life as you go along I know, however that’s part of the addiction…

David Cain May 24, 2019 at 12:21 pm

Totally… along with the personal struggles of using our phones too much for our own good, there is the parallel issue of the creeping normalization of phone use everywhere. Social taboos are one of the few things that constrains our personal use, but they are breaking down as people become more and more audacious about using their phones everywhere.

Joy May 24, 2019 at 4:15 am

I’m 40 next year and have recently gone back to university for the second time. It amazes me to see all the kids now sitting in the lectures staring at their phones and laptops and barely glancing at the poor lecturer. I don’t know what they’re looking at but I’m fairly certain it’s not the lecture notes.

I don’t use social media on my phone, partly because I have no idea what my passwords are and my password manager is only installed on my laptop.

The first thing I do whenever I install a new app is go to the settings and disable all the notifications. I learned this the hard way after being woken countless times in the night by beeping from apps which mistakenly assumed I shared a time zone with them.

I don’t have any games installed as I know from experience that if they’re any good I tend to get addicted. The biggest time waster on there is my library e-book reader. I’ve told my 5yo that “mummy’s phone can’t play any games or videos” which has her extremely perplexed because daddy’s phone does that just fine. And he wonders why she’s always bugging him to let her use it!

David Cain May 24, 2019 at 12:23 pm

I now have no social media and no notifications, and that will go a long way. They might be the “big two” as far as cutting down the phone’s magnetic effect.

Dave May 24, 2019 at 6:28 am

I’ve been trying to wean myself off this for some time now. I don’t think I can do cold turkey. The problem with most electronic diversions is they give you the illusion of accomplishment. When in fact they are keeping you from accomplishing anything. This past Sunday they imploded the largest building in our area. We went down early and camped out with others from the community to watch it. Many people said they wouldn’t bother to get up early and leave their house to watch it because they could see it on YouTube and Facebook. First, they don’t know what they missed. Second, YouTube is not a true experience. But then how do I know I wasn’t experiencing FOMO? I won’t go down that rabbit hole.

David Cain May 24, 2019 at 12:24 pm

Haha… clearly watching it on Youtube is no replacement, but I guess we can always fool ourselves. I always wonder about people who spend concerts with their phones up, filming the whole thing — did they ever watch it?

Dusanka Woods May 24, 2019 at 8:56 am

Hi David, much-appreciated insight. I am often amazed when I see on the bus people, mostly our poor citizens who are holding their phones in front of them like an altar waiting for that next call. I feel that for many who do not have the means for live entertainment, and other forms of news the phones seem to be a welcome form of communication and entertainment. I am always amused by how some continuously talk loud on their phones on the busses and upon finishing one conversation scroll back and forth for more news, diversion, etc. I became more understanding and less judgemental once I realized that for some it’s the only form of connection, diversion and perhaps entertainment… mt best to you

David Cain May 24, 2019 at 12:27 pm

I am always so curious about what exactly people are looking at on their phones. I know what I get hooked on, but everyone is responding to different incentives. I try not to deliberately peek at people’s phones but I usually see the blue of the Facebook app whenever I catch a glimpse of someone’s phone.

Su May 24, 2019 at 9:03 am

Hi David, hi readers,
unfortunately I can’t remember where I found it – but it was an article some time ago written by someone about a minimalistic approach when setting up your smartphone. One of his/her (?) was a gamechanger for me: Just have 1 homepage and keep this one as empty as possible. Therefore group your apps as much as you can. Additionally look for a launcher which gives you power to arrange the apps in a slim manner (I use “total launcher” which allows you even to hide your app groups, making them transparent. So I willingly have to remember, where to press the screen for a certain action.) With this I now have just 1 homescreen, almost empty inkl. some areas “invisible” I can press for further action. And I got back to a wrist watch, allowing me to leave the house without a mobile if I’m just going for a coffee. Last but not least, the minimalistic homescreen looks pretty. Lemme know if you have any questions I’d like to share more details on request. cheers, Su

David Cain May 24, 2019 at 12:28 pm

In the past day I’ve learned there are a number of these sorts of approaches on the web — how to minimize your phone’s intrusiveness. I’m going to see how far my simple approach goes (no toys just tools) but I will also check others’ approaches as the month goes on.

Scott May 24, 2019 at 10:13 am

It’s interesting to consider the implications of this experiment in the context of “The power of vulnerability” (absolutely amazing recommendation), which is presently perched in your side bar. I just finished listening to the first part of that audiobook for the second time, and then happened upon this post.

How many of the distractions that our phones provide just buffer us against feeling vulnerable, or imbue us with a (probably overinflated) sense of belonging? I would contend that the answer is “most of them”.

Either way, re-calibrating our relationship with smart phones seems like a good call.

One very helpful tip that a friend shared with me is to organize your phone hierarchically: empty the dock completely; essential daily use apps on the first screen (calendar, reminders, etc.); useful but not as essential apps on the second (weather, contacts, e-mail, etc.); and finally the fluff on the third/subsequent screens – if you don’t delete all of the fluff outright, that is.

The catch is that anything that doesn’t belong on the first two screens gets placed into a folder that logically groups apps together. I have been blown away by how effective putting just a tiny bit of effort into accessing anything that’s not completely essential can be. Simply introducing some friction in the form of scrolling and opening folders can go a lot further than you might expect.

David Cain May 24, 2019 at 12:31 pm

Totally — I know I have certainly used my phone as a defense against vulnerability. I’m more conscious of this than I used to be since discovering Brown’s work. You can really *feel* a shift when you put away your phone in those moments. You feel more exposed, more susceptible to judgment, for some reason.

I haven’t yet organized my phone like you suggest — right now It’s just a random grid with holes in it where I deleted apps. But I’m excited to optimize it as the tool I want it to be.

Anita May 24, 2019 at 10:39 am

I hate smartphones, but I still upgraded to one from a flip phone for the calendar, the notepad app where I keep my to-do lists, and the music app. I recently deleted Instagram because of how much time I wasted looking at random pictures, and I’ve never downloaded the Facebook app. I do use my phone for entertainment – music and a texting app with my two best friends – but otherwise I try to keep it for usefulness. I don’t download any game apps, and if I want to use Pinterest I’ll get online on my computer. There are definitely some aspects of smartphones that are convenient – the calculator, the calendar, the camera – but as far as entertainment, I prefer to read actual books, I like to watch DVD’s or Netflix on my TV, and if I want to hop on Facebook for a minute, I’ll do it on an actual computer. I never wanted to be chained to this little device, so I’ve tried to take steps over the years to keep myself from being too dependent on it. What has been most helpful is turning off all notifications except for texts, and just not downloading any of those time-suck apps. It is nice, though, to have Google at your fingertips if you need to quickly look up your doctor’s phone number, or navigate your way somewhere.

David Cain May 24, 2019 at 12:34 pm

It’s interesting that almost all of us, even if we’re not especially attracted to these things, still recognize that we need to in some ways defend ourselves from them. Because there are thousands of possible functions, there’s something out there for each of is that can steal our time and attention if we’re not vigilant.

Khurt Williams May 24, 2019 at 11:11 am

Good of you to take personal responsibility. It’s so easy to blame the tool when the real problem is the person in the mirror.

David Cain May 24, 2019 at 12:37 pm

I think “taking responsibility” can have two meanings. It can mean accepting that nobody will fix the problem but you, and it can also mean asserting that you caused the problem. I know nobody is going to fix this issue but me, so of course I’ll take responsibility for taking the steps I think I need to. But I don’t think it’s true that the users are entirely at fault for the problems they have with phones. These devices and many of their apps have been engineered to be addictive to a point that’s clearly detrimental to individuals and the public, and there’s an important discussion to be had about the ethics of that.

Obarth May 25, 2019 at 12:32 am

I’d say smartphones are handbags first. A lot of people seem to be buying them not for what they can do, but for the message (no pun intended) they send about their owners.

PJ Blue May 25, 2019 at 1:36 am

I hear stories like this all the time and wonder what all the fuss is about. I don’t have any social media on my phone and therefore don’t feel the need to constantly check to see if I got a “like” or a “follow” or whatever. So, in my case I would say my phone is more tool than toy.

Steve Bennett May 25, 2019 at 2:21 am

A gentle way to start might be by having two separate phones. One that is serious, one that is fun. Maybe the fun one is pink. Be disciplined about when and how you use the fun one.

R June 15, 2019 at 5:13 am

horrible idea to have a second phone – think about the environment and how buying pointless phones just adds to the destruction of our planet.

When you discard the useless second phone, when you throw it ‘away’, there is no away – that goes in someone’s back yard.

Karen Trefzger June 17, 2019 at 5:54 am

So absolutely true. One phone, not a toy. I don’t have social media or games on my phone either, so I’m not constantly enticed to waste time on it. I actually usually use it as a PHONE (or to text). I know, shocking!

efinr May 25, 2019 at 5:03 am

I have never understood how adults can almost unconsciously install the 23rd game on the phone and I have always thought of my phone as primarily a tool.
But a few months ago I realized: Even the RSS-App that I use to get updates to specific topics and a selection of news that I specifically chose for being boring and simple. Even I open that app around 3-5 times a day.

Does anyone have a recommendation for a parental-app-kind-of-thing to control the time spent in apps that is suited for adults?

Tor May 25, 2019 at 6:09 am

8 billion people on Earth.
1 billion using Internet.
“Countless” stories about every shit.
This article doesn’t have numbers, any references, just an opinion.
Nothing interesting.

Peter May 25, 2019 at 6:29 am

I hope this article hits home for many people, the same way it hits home for me. Coincidentally, I had resolved to make my phone more utilitarian and less exciting to use each time I pick it up. Just a few days ago, I removed color from my phone. There isn’t a single app, website, or advertisement that “pops” the way it used to when I had color on my phone. So far, so good!

David Cain May 25, 2019 at 12:33 pm

I had done the “greyscale” thing before, and it does work. But I ended up removing it because I realized I couldn’t tell quite how the pictures looked that I was posting to instagram. But now that instagram is gone, I’ve put it back on.

NickD May 26, 2019 at 3:51 pm

With something like MacroDroid you might be able to enable and disable greyscale when you enter and leave apps.

Jim May 25, 2019 at 10:44 am

You hit the front page of Hacker News.
Some good comments over there.

David Cain May 25, 2019 at 12:31 pm

Thanks Jim. Heh… I can always tell when one of my articles hits hacker news or something similar, because I get an unusual number of dismissive/snarky comments here. So I’ve learned to see it as a good thing :)

Shane MCLEAN May 25, 2019 at 11:38 am

I agree with this. Separate the tool and the toy.

However, if you lack self control the phone can and will rule your life and be something you can’t do without.

Personally, i have blocks in my day where I don’t check my phone. I tell myself ‘is there anything important’ and if the answer is no. I leave it alone.

Susan McLeod May 26, 2019 at 11:20 pm

I have a similar, but not identical, problem. My phone is a tool, so it’s not that compelling for me. However, I have been almost literally addicted to an on-line game for about 8 years, which consumed at least a couple of hours of my day, every day. A week ago, I went cold turkey. It’s the hardest thing I’ve done since I quit smoking, but I WANTED MY LIFE BACK. Since I didn’t have the self-discipline to moderate my habit, I just had to give it up.

Michele Kendzie May 27, 2019 at 2:19 pm

I wonder if it’s personality or age that makes some people feel like they have no control over the use of their phone. I am 47 and identify strongly with the 20th Century people in your time travel scenario. I haven’t used the phrase “superpower” to describe my phone, but I call it my external brain. I switched completely to the digital calendar a couple of years ago, I make extensive use of Reminders and Notepad apps, I connect with other people on social media (homeschool groups, photographers, etc), listen to podcasts on my daily walks, keep a digital journal (Day One) which automatically records several metadata items, making journaling so simple, etc.

I am compelled by my phone, sure, and may sometimes scroll or play longer instead of moving on to something more productive, but I am finding the organizational and communication benefits far outweigh the playtime. I definitely consider the phone a tool first. By the way, back in the 80s and 90s when I was young, I DID play with calculators, envelopes, keys, and dictionaries. I think we make use of what we have. And I like that if I have a short wait I can choose from many ways to pass the time, including reading a book, checking social media, making a photo and journal entry, or playing Word Wow (my current favorite word game).

david smith May 28, 2019 at 11:23 am

Seems like an easy start would be to define what the tools are…phone, contacts, email, sms, maps. Any others? An authenticator? A note taker? A web browser?Are you sure? Camera? How many pictures do you take that qualify as “tool output”? Lots? Some? Almost none?

Having done that, delete/disable all the other apps that your master, er, service provider will allow you to. Cut down on the remaining features that can interrupt you…phone? SMS? Any others? Can emails wait for you to check on them now and again?

Sara May 29, 2019 at 2:10 pm

I finally unhooked myself from Facebook and almost instantly got addicted to Twitter. I knew that I wanted to get off of all social websites and I knew that Cal Newport’s book “Deep Work” was anti-social websites so I went cold turkey on the day that I started reading it. Reading a couple of pages a day kept me on the straight and narrow and by the time I was done the book I no longer had impulses to check my feeds. I’ve been off Twitter for three months. I have my smart phone on me all the time and I only use it for utilitarian functions for the past 3 months. I go to plug my phone in at the end of the day and it is still 70% charged. My life is much better in many ways.

Peter Clark May 30, 2019 at 12:24 am

The post you submitted here is very informative. A toy is an item that is used in play, especially one designed for such use. Playing with toys can be an enjoyable means of training young children for life in society. Different materials like wood, clay, paper, and plastic are used to make toys. Many items are designed to serve as toys, but goods produced for other purposes can also be used.

Steven May 31, 2019 at 3:20 am

I’ve been growing in this direction for a few years although I hadn’t yet considered the explicit toy/tool angle you present here. I must say that I like where I am at now. At present I have no social media apps or games on my phone, and I have turned off all sounds and vibrations. I have messaging apps installed (facebook messenger, whatsapp, signal) but they can’t interrupt anything I’m doing. I’ll check every few hours (3 to 4 ish) if anyone has specifically tried to reach me (most of the time no one has) and will respond then. All group conversations are muted in addition, so that even if I turn my sound on because I am expecting a call/text that I want to know about they won’t make any noise. I now only pull my phone out when I need it as a tool, not as a distraction.

I found that eliminating the sounds really helped in fighting the conditioned response. An especially egregious example was Tinder. Three years ago I was on there for around 4 months and I could actually feel the dopamine hit when the match sound played from my pocket, it was electrifying in the most literal sense of the word. Even now, if I hear that specific bell sound somewhere my heart skips a beat before I realise that it’s not for me.

JR June 5, 2019 at 8:15 am

Oh boy, you’re hitting on a biggy here. I couldn’t agree more with the toy first tool second concept. There’s so much computing power, such incredible technology in these little devices, yet most use it for angry birds (or insert something). I try to be willfully ignorant of apps, unless they truly bring more utility and value to my life. I try to use it as little as possible (except for music, podcasts and audio books which are nearly constant, haha!) The biggest trade-off is the occasional: “Why didn’t you answer my text for four hours?” from my girlfriend. Copious apologies and a decently cooked dinner usually get me squared up here.

izzy June 5, 2019 at 2:06 pm

Smartphones are the current ultimate expression, but the entire project of digitizing and connecting every function and aspect of life gained its original traction from the popular computer revolution of the 70s & 80s. The technology has simply exceeded the human scale, a real thing, and beyond the limits of which we become overwhelmed. Content, now so cheaply and conveniently created, has in many cases been reduced to distracting junk. An entire industry, with little or no redeeming value. In pre-online days gone by, life moved a little slower, but things generally worked better and made a bit more sense.

Kaila Searl June 12, 2019 at 5:21 pm

I’m sure there are many stories like mine – about three years ago, almost exclusively because of the election, I unplugged Facebook. I promptly replaced that with Reddit. I eventually realized that and took it off as well so now only a tool. The absolute hardest part for me were those little moments, like waiting for the bus, waiting in the elevator, waiting for my partner to come out of the bathroom. I had to train my muscles to stop that reflexive action of reaching for my phone, and once I had done that, everything was easier.

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Katherine Polhamus June 18, 2019 at 7:44 am

I like the way you referenced the cell phone as having a magnetic force in our lives. When I’m waiting in line somewhere, I never pick up my phone. I leave it in my bag and prefer to people watch everyone on their phone or make eye contact with someone not on their phone. I also prefer to be alone with my thoughts during those moments of waiting. Those are my Zen moments.

Many people are spiritually empty so they’re always looking for that next thing online to fill the void, the time they see as empty space to be filled by technology rather than alone in our head.

Sarah June 18, 2019 at 1:46 pm

Loved the article! I’ve had the same concerns and recently went through a similar experiment.

I deleted all my social media accounts and switched to this phone: https://www.amazon.com/Unihertz-Smallest-Smartphone-Android-Unlocked/dp/B0752BYRHM

It’s still a smartphone (runs on Android) but it has a 2.5 inch screen. I realized I still needed a lot of the tools smartphones have to offer as you mentioned ie. GPS, Spotify, rideshare, mobile banking, etc. I just wanted to take away some of the convenience that leads to mindless and nonessential screen time.

So far it’s been great, I love my tiny phone and have gotten comments from close family and friends that I seem a lot happier. The method might not work for everyone but I think our relationship to our smartphones (and the digital world in general) is something we all need to reflect on and address for ourselves.

Thanks for writing!!

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