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Experiment No. 26 — Making my phone a tool (instead of a toy)

In this experiment I attempt to make my smartphone into something that empowers me rather than endlessly tempts and distracts me. Read the original post here.

The first day of this experiment is Thursday, May 23, 2019, and the last day is June 21, 2019. After that I’ll decide what to do.

The Terms:

Essentially, I’m removing everything from the phone that I use in a reflexive or unintentional manner. I don’t want to cycle through certain dopamine-driven apps (Instagram, YouTube) every time I pick up my phone for a utilitarian purpose (texting someone). I want my phone to be as boring as a stapler, a printer, or… a telephone.

The goal is to begin retraining my mind to see my phone as a source of empowerment rather than comfort.

I’m keeping the calling and texting functions, obviously, along with utilitarian apps that I never check for fun or diversion—my gym app, library app, calculator, calendar, maps and so on.

I’ll also keep music, podcast and audiobook functions. This is technically “entertainment,” but I don’t get sucked into these sorts of apps or use them reflexively. It might seem odd, but I’ve also kept the Netflix app. I have never used it except while in an airplane seat, where it is extremely useful.

I’m keeping Gmail but turning off notifications. I use it to send myself notes, and I frequently look up archived emails when I’m out and about, for concert tickets and things like that. (This will be an interesting one to navigate… Email on a phone is very powerful, but it’s also a compelling thing to check needlessly.)

I’m getting rid of YouTube, Instagram, Yahoo Sports, and anything I ever “cycle through” habitually.

One tough decision was Pocket – an app that stores articles for later reading. While reading is a good thing, I have plenty to read offline, and Pocket alone inspires several needless phone-unlockings per day. Besides, I’ve noticed I’m more drawn to browsing and saving the recommended articles than actually reading them. I’ve started carrying around a novel.

I’m also getting rid of any innocuous apps that I don’t really use — the more apps there are loaded in there, the more the phone seems like a colorful toy chest than a trusty tool box.

You are welcome to join me. Feel free to report your findings in the comments below.

The Experiment Log

Day 1

It’s only mid-afternoon, but I did have a happy victory this morning. For a while now I’ve been in the habit of using my phone to transition me from “in bed” to “up and about” — usually I’ll check Instagram, and then (and I’m ashamed to type this) sometimes put on a YouTube video, which I will often have going while I make coffee. Often I’ll start another video, which eats into my morning reading time.

This morning, I habitually flipped through the phone, and found nothing I wanted to open (now that IG and YT are gone), and so I just got up. I was in my reading chair, with coffee, about 25 minutes earlier than usual, which indicates how big a brick that habit was in my routine.

I’m reading Robinson Crusoe, by the way.

Day 3

So far I’m having this experience a lot: pull out my phone, flip through it until I see there’s nothing to check out really, then put it away. It probably happens like 10 times a day. I think that’s good — each time I imagine my brain is associating flipping through my phone with a sense of “there’s nothing here for me.”

I flipped it into greyscale this morning — that worked quite well in the past to make my phone less attractive. But I had to keep turning it on whenever I posted a photo on Instagram, otherwise I wouldn’t know quite what the photo looked like; prominent colors somewhere in the frame (which just look grey to me) can change what it seems to be about. But now Instagram is gone so that isn’t an issue.

I am reading more. I put a book everywhere I tend to want to idly check my phone.

Day 4

Still doing well. I am still unlocking my phone through muscle-memory habit, and still finding there’s nothing really to do once I do that. So that’s good.

But I am noticing an impulse to find something to do. The browser is still on my phone, and part of my brain knows there is unlimited diversion to be found there. By the time I’m poised to find something to dive into, I’m quite conscious of what’s happening, and I put the phone away. I think that’s an important moment to get right — I’m still training myself towards putting the phone away and doing something else, and I want to minimize occasions of going the other way.

I am picking up a book several more times per day since I started, which is fantastic.

Day 7

Still doing well on the whole.

The impulse to unlock and start swiping has not abated. It still happens with certain triggers. Usually I remember immediately that my phone is boring now and I put it away. But I’ve noticed a stubbornness on some occasions, a kind of determination to latch on to something. I check the weather a bit more, for example, and occasionally find myself opening up random things like my workout app. There is a powerful learned drive somewhere in my brain circuits to find something gratifying, but I figure they are being trained to stop looking.

I have turned off email notifications, so I must check email to know if anything is there, and I see my reptile brain’s delight in this. So far it seems harmless enough, but I’m trying to fend off compulsive email-checking by making sure I don’t check the email most times I use it for other purposes. The majority of the time I open my phone aimlessly I end up just closing it just as quickly.

Mornings are still much improved. My getting up process has gone from 20+ minutes to about two. The most direct benefit of this is that I’m in my reading chair with my book a good 20 minutes earlier.

I’ll also add that I’m feeling more gratitude for my phone. When I take it out to look something up, send an important message, or find directions, then put it away, I do feel some sense of having a powerful 21st century supertool, without any of the usual love/hate feeling.

Day 12

I am cruising along in what feels like a new normal. No social media, YouTube, or anything like that.

But I still habitually take my phone out, and sometimes am quite driven to find something to “check.” I do check email frequently, although not an unreasonable number of times. In these instances I’m aware I’m using my phone as a kind of toy (i.e. I’m using it for gratification) but at the same time I do need to check email sometimes. I’m not sure how strict to be with myself in those instances. It seems okay.

I don’t miss scrolling through instagram, and in fact when I do scroll through on my laptop I find it really boring. So I don’t miss that at all. But I do miss posting on it, and I’ve learned you can’t really do that from the desktop version. I did, one time, enable instagram on my mobile to post something, and then disabled it, without checking my feed. That seemed harmless enough, and I don’t have much desire to look through my feed.

I am enjoying my phone as a tool, but the conditioned response to find gratification from this thing is going to take a loooong time to go away. Life is better all around without the toy-driven behaviors, but the impulses are still there.

Overall its presence is shrinking in my life, and that’s great.

Day 18

Some realizations are setting in. The impulse to take out my phone in random moments, and hunt for something to do with it, persists, and it will take a very long time for it to fade. And many times I do indulge that impulse in some (new) way. I don’t look at Instagram, but I do check email. I don’t pointlessly peruse sports scores, but I am taking my pulse in S-Health a lot.

On one level these replacement habits seem harmless — I don’t get lost in them, and it’s kinda neat to see how my resting pulse has decreased since I’ve started running regularly again. But on another level they perpetuate the itch-and-scratch pattern of reflexive phone use. By keeping the step-counter / pulse-tester widget on my home screen, I am giving my brain the little lab-rat reward when it seeks a treat from my phone. But I like the step counter. Separating tool from toy is tricky, and I think in the end I will have to throw out some of the tool to make sure none of the toy remains. Overall my life has improved meaningfully as a result of this campaign, but I can see that what I’m doing is not eliminating the “toy” behavior.

I also miss posting on Instagram, which you can’t do on the desktop website. I have argued that the connections that we only keep through social media (and don’t otherwise make time or effort for) aren’t worth keeping. But that’s not quite true — I have a few acquaintances and cousins with whom Instagram is my only connection, yet it isn’t necessarily fitting to phone them up, write them a letter, or ask them for coffee. For better or worse, distant electronic acquaintanceships are a part of modern life, and I’m not sure they’re worth chopping loose in an effort to defend myself from tangentially-related bad habits.

So I feel like I’m kind of at a crossroads. After this experiment, I can either continue what I’m doing, which keeps the “toy” factor in my life (though greatly reduced from before). Or I can take more drastic steps and make hard rules for myself, and maybe take the smartphones role in my life down another notch.

The next step I think will be to read Cal Newport’s new book Digital Minimalism. I know he takes a rather hard stand on digital distraction, and convincingly so. I’m sure I’ll end up feeling good about making some more serious resolutions.

Day 24

I think I have accepted that it will take a lot longer to recondition the “looking to my phone for stimulation” habit. It is a very strong drive, that I’m sure my long-running procrastination habits have taken full advantage of, even as I weed those out of my life. I still find myself flipping through the phone, looking for something to check, and I hate to admit that there’s always something. I check the weather a lot. I check email, which, now that there are no notifications, I have a reason to do.

At the same time, I have come a long way. I spend a lot less time on my phone, all told. My phone-checking sessions are fewer and shorter, and when I do check my phone, there is a persistent sense that there’s not much there for me.

I’ve decided that after the experiment, I will re-enable instagram. I like posting on it, and I do still like it for the most part. I just don’t like how often and how mechanically I checked it. My plan is to put it behind a long password, so that a little obnoxious labor is required to open it, which I hope will inhibit the reflexive checking but will still allow me to use it in the ways I still want to.

The clearest victory perhaps, is over YouTube. It had been a big part of my life. Now I can only access it on my laptop, and it’s blocked until the evening. So I only watch videos I really want to watch, and there really aren’t many of them. Most days contain no YouTube. Youtube was probably the app most responsible for my associating my phone with entertainment. It essentially turns it into a television with unlimited channels, which I most definitely don’t want in my pocket.

Day 30

Today is the final day of the experiment. I did learn a lot, and my phone behavior has become much less of a problem. Here are my final thoughts on the experiment.

The original goal was to make my phone into a utilitarian multi-tool, so that I pick it up when I want to use it to accomplish something (look up directions, send an email), and not for entertainment or self-stimulation. I don’t think I quite accomplished that.

The main problem is that there’s no fine line between those two modes of using the phone. For example, one utilitarian use of my phone is to map and track my runs. So I do. But I also enjoy looking at the running data — the distances and times and the graphs it shows of them. I might look at that even when I don’t need to, and I know it is the pleasure-seeking regions of my brain that’s behind that. I also need to check email for utilitarian reasons, but there is also some gratification involved in that. I also kept podcast and PDF-reading apps, so there was always some audio or reading “fun” to be had if I wanted it.

What I’m saying is that it’s probably impossible to surgically cut out the gratifying aspects of the phone. And of course it is. Even before there were phones, there was something fun about going down the driveway to get the mail. It’s intrinsically interesting. It’s just that the mail came once a day and required physical activity to check it, so nobody was checking it fifty times a day. Even though I was mostly picking up the phone with a utilitarian purpose, I noticed that every time I was engaged with the phone, there was still a strong impulse to find some sort of reward after that, even if it’s just the mild thrill of checking email.

I know I could try harder at that surgical-removal project — I could find ways to put brick walls between me and all such rewards, such as adding a long password that needs to be entered to open certain apps. But at the moment, that doesn’t seem appropriate, and would include removing a lot of the positive functionality of the phone. There are applications that contain “rewards” that I don’t want to get rid of, or inhibit my access to (the running app being one example). If my life was being destroyed by this phone that might make sense, but it’s not. So it doesn’t.

Overall, I like where I’m at with the phone now. The main improvement came from getting rid of YouTube. Twitter is still blocked and I haven’t had Facebook mobile for years. With YouTube gone, the phone has lost much of its candy-store feel. It’s definitely more boring, and I am definitely using it a lot less.

The final notable thing I learned is that I still like Instagram. I like sharing little details I notice in the world, and I seeing similar posts from others. I enabled it again today and posted a picture of my pepper plant in that garden, and it felt good, and not the unhealthy kind of good. It remains to be seen how my behavior will change now that it’s back on here. I’ve learned not to check it in bed or in the bathroom. That feels like a place I don’t want to go any more, I don’t think I’ll slip back into that.

Well, that’s all for this one folks. If you did something similar, what did you learn?

{ 32 Comments }

lo May 23, 2019 at 2:19 pm

GREAT! i, too, am on the path. two books i read recently that changed my life and my device habits: (1) How to Break Up with Your Phone by Catherine Price, which is an easy read, a little homogenized, but packed with simple and specific suggestions plus a handy-dandy 30 day guide; and (2) Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport which is brilliant, dense, and not for the faint at heart. the point-of-view is extreme but fascinating, amazingly researched and combines historical perspective (not on digital devices, per se, but, for instance, on human being’s primal NEED for spacious ALONE-TIME which the “carnivals” in our pockets have all but eradicated) with cautionary tales from 21st century life…

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David Cain May 23, 2019 at 4:21 pm

Thanks.. I am a fan of Cal Newport and will definitely read his new book, though probably not in the next 30 days. It will probably be good to read after the experiment shows me what is most troublesome about my phone use.

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Bernie June 11, 2019 at 2:43 pm

I listened to Catherine when she was on Dan Harris’ podcast a while ago talking about her book. I particularly liked her idea of “What for? – Why now? – What else?” as things you should stop and ask yourself every time you get the “phone itch”. I practised it for a short period but got away from it, and I think it’s time to give it a go once again together with other tips I will get from this very interesting and necessary experiment of David’s.

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Henna May 23, 2019 at 3:36 pm

How do you take care of the browser? I read the news (repeatedly) there, check for info I don’t reeeeally need, or if I needed it, get lost in checking something remotely interesting. But it IS a good tool to have. Just willpower? Wish me luck!! :)

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David Cain May 23, 2019 at 4:21 pm

I have a background app called SiteBlock that can block particular sites. So far the only one I’ve blocked is twitter.com

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Brandon May 23, 2019 at 4:26 pm

If you haven’t looked into it yet, RescueTime is pretty awesome. Years ago when I first realized how addicted to my phone I’d become, I used this.
https://www.rescuetime.com/

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Brandon May 23, 2019 at 3:43 pm

I like this article a lot!

A few thoughts & observations:

1) I have now been already doing this, to more/less success. I got rid of my FB back when I first started seeing you talk about it; just blew away my account and never really looked back. Still on Twitter, but I follow maybe a dozen experts in my field, no one for personal/entertainment reasons. I don’t really have any other SM apps either.

2) >> Pocket alone inspires several needless phone-unlockings per day
This is interesting. I never used Pocket much, until recently. But I used Medium. I don’t use Pocket like you, but I used Medium like that. I wonder why the difference? Maybe it’s just a matter of *your initial habit*. Like porn or drugs or anything else. If your first introduction to porn was born in a moment when you weren’t very aware of the negatives, you might have become addicted; but if it came later in life at a time when you were more self-aware, it might simply become a fun enhancement to your otherwise well-balanced life. Perhaps our digital addictions are similar, and not necessarily the result of the apps themselves?

3) Android phones now have the ability to have “personas”. I turned mine on for 5min just to check it out, turned it off later. But I wonder… what if you created a “Work”, “Social”, and “Life” profiles… in “Work” you might find my Twitter enabled b/c I only use it for work-knowledge… in “Social” you might find Facebook where I could maintain connections with F&F… in “Life” you might find mostly just utilitarian stuff… notifications could be tuned in each appropriately, and I could just switch *purposely* from one to the other, with my default being “Work” during office-time and “Life” all other times… better yet, maybe I could automate that based on days/hours/location? Thoughts?

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David Cain May 23, 2019 at 4:24 pm

The personas feature sounds like it might be useful in some situations, but I don’t think it’s the answer for me. I want to change how my phone appears to me, by reducing it to a tool in all circumstances.

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Brandon May 23, 2019 at 4:29 pm

The thing is, at least on my phone, switching Personas introduced a not-insignificant delay… and what I understand about addiction is that delays help break the habitual-action… and I think the root of all of these problems includes a massive amount of addiction.

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Rich May 23, 2019 at 5:53 pm

Hi David, great content (again!) thank you! Couple of quick hits: a friend of mine recommended turning on greyscale, which has a profound effect on the “carnival” affect of the iPhone. Also, you can toggle pretty much any function with three presses of the home key. I have set that toggle to greyscale on/off.

Recently saw this article and have put a WHOLE bunch of his recommendations in play: https://medium.com/better-humans/how-to-set-up-your-iphone-for-productivity-focus-and-your-own-longevity-bb27a68cc3d8

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David Cain May 27, 2019 at 9:04 am

If I can find a simple way to toggle greyscale like that on my droid I will probably do it. I like the home screen being in grey, but when I look up something that includes photos or videos, I want to be able to see the colors.

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Thijs May 25, 2019 at 3:22 am

One significant life improvement I made about a year ago was to ban the phone from the bedroom altogether. This can be as simple as moving the charger to the living room, and buying a $10 alarm clock. Checking your phone before getting up or just before falling asleep will instantly be a thing of the past, because it suddenly requires you to get out from under the covers. Does wonders for your sleep pattern and sex life. Just sayin’.

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David Cain May 27, 2019 at 9:06 am

This is probably something I’ll do eventually. I was going to make it a part of the experiment, but I didn’t want to make too many changes at once. Definitely a good idea though.

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JP Michel May 26, 2019 at 2:57 pm

Hi David,

Thank you for sharing your experience and insights with us. I too feel the need to play something (i.e. YouTube) in the background while getting ready in the morning. Have you come up with a good strategy to deal with this yet?

Thanks in advance,
JP

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David Cain May 27, 2019 at 9:07 am

Yeah basically my strategy was to delete youtube. Now I make my coffee in silence, which sets a good tone for the day.

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JP May 27, 2019 at 11:00 am

Thanks David. I had an amazing Day 1 morning with this new approach. Yesterday I invested almost an hour reading your post and another link in the comments (as well as changing many settings on my iPhone). Looking forward to Day 2!

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William Parker III May 26, 2019 at 9:31 pm

I’m several months down the road on the freeway you’re getting on the on-ramp to. Believe me, when I tell you, you’re in for one eye-opening ride of your life.

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David Cain May 27, 2019 at 9:08 am

I guess that’s good!

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Nick May 27, 2019 at 4:48 am

Hi, David!
Thanks for sharing your experiment with us! I’ve tried and failed (to a degree) to do something similar to your experiment. Now you inspire me to make one more try :)
One more thing – you might be aware of the book “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products” by Nir Eyal. It’s about driving customer engagement, but also an explanation how we all became slaves to our smartphones. In case you find it worth reading I would be glad if you share your personal thoughts on it :)

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David Cain May 27, 2019 at 9:08 am

Best of luck with your next attempt Nick!

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Robert Wringham May 28, 2019 at 10:41 am

Righto, David. I’m joining you in this one.

I’m relatively new to smartphones (it’s been maybe two years since I received a used iPhone 6 as a gift – my first ever pocket supercomputer!) and your description of the experience is uncanny. I too struggle with the spiritual connection to the thing, fingers and soul ever inching towards it, and I boggle at how the net gains of such a miracle device aren’t through the roof.

Mine is probably more tool than toy compared to most people’s experiences of smartphones, but I would sincerely like it to be 100% tool and 0% toy. I feel the tug, just as you report, when I go to do something useful and then end up opening Instagram. I deleted Twitter from my phone a few months ago when I finally accepted the strength of its pull, and I think Instagram might have to go next.

Thanks for throwing down the gauntlet, David. I’m in.

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David Cain May 29, 2019 at 3:45 pm

Good to have you on board Rob!

I would love to hear how it goes for you. Consider yourself lucky that you’re only working against two years of pavlovian conditioning instead of 7 (my case) or 10 (many others’)

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Laura May 31, 2019 at 12:44 am

Love this experiment! I’ve tried similar before in various guises after reading both how to break up with your phone & digital minimalism. I get so far – feeling good for it – and then start sliding back into bad bad habits, I might download Instagram “just to post one thing” or look something up and get lost in the Internet rabbit warren. From there it’s a slippery slope Back. What I need to address I think is having the alternative options there – like your idea of the book – as without one, it’s easy to undermine your intentions. It’s such a strong addiction that I’m embarrassed I can’t get a hold of it at 37 years of age! Watching your experience with interest – and inspired to commit again.

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Steve Brady June 10, 2019 at 12:01 pm

You can enable the Instagram app on your laptop and post from there. That’s what I do for the few times I feel the need to upload something.

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David Cain June 15, 2019 at 10:00 am

I have tried this but ran into trouble with my browser… in any case the real problem is that the photos are taken with my phone, so I’d have to send them to my laptop to post them, and that’s just a pain. I think I’ve determined that I do want Instagram on my phone, I just don’t want to browse it very often. I will try password-protecting it with a long password, which should block the reflexive checking, but allow me to post when I want.

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Patricia June 12, 2019 at 10:38 am

Hi David ;
As others , I have been following you on your path to attempt to make your Smartphone more tool and less toy . As one who deliberately has chosen not to be immersed in the digital world I would encourage you to
carry on with your experiment . As an example replace your ‘ step counter’ with a stand alone one if , after research you really believe it to be a necessary accoutrement in your life . Write a proper letter to your cousins to keep the connection, next time you are away send a proper postcard …. these gestures are sooo appreciated by others and delightful to receive . I have a regular written correspondence with 2 grand friends in England and it is every bit as meaningful to our connection and relationship as friends who extol the seemingly unprecedented ‘value’ of FaceTime and Skype . All the power to them but what we haven’t done is ask ourselves as a society what it is we wish technology to do for us …. how best can it serve us rather than us serving and being led by huge companies making heaps of money and being trumped by ‘ convenience ‘ .
Well done you David and long may this path continue .

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David Cain June 15, 2019 at 10:01 am

Thanks for the encouragement Patricia :)

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Walter June 15, 2019 at 6:56 pm

Hi David,

I want to share one bit of my ‘obnoxious labour’, which is using something like 1password as a barrier between me and social media like Facebook or Instagram. I have to unlock my phone, open 1password, consciously seek out the login and load the website.
It’s just enough, because I know it’s there and possible, but removes the reflex action – and the web experience is just annoying enough to keep sessions short!

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Katey June 16, 2019 at 7:27 am

I encourage you to step back in phone technology. Get a slider so you can still text because so many do not answer their phone except that way. My phone is a flip and text is difficult but those who call me know I don’t text. I do have a tablet , but use it as a toy and limit it my time to reading email which i give my email out as infrequently as my phone number. I limit my time spent on a device to less than an hour a day and I don’t own a tv. I still find there isn’t enough time to get all done but I am not down rabbit holes near as much. Those pixelated rabbit holes offer me too much guilt in how I spend time. The energy of hurry up and move onto the next thing does not offer me the depth of experience as a book or actual exploring something by jumping in there and doing it.

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Robert Wringham July 2, 2019 at 5:59 pm

Uncanny once again. I too experienced the phantom checking syndrome after removing all of the “fun” apps. Like your running data, I find myself pointlessly checking my bank balance and step count. It’s only because there’s no Instagram or Twitter or news app to gawp at anymore. I think, however, that I really have managed (thanks to your experiment) to turn the phone into more of a tool than a toy already. Remember, of course, that I was only two years into using a smartphone, so those checking habits and the general creep-into-all-areas-of-life might not be so ingrained yet?

After removing those apps, I have added one other: the WordPress app for on-the-go blogging. I’m trying to commit to blogging more frequently and so this should help to facilitate that. My blogging more is part of a wider social media replacement plan and a general desire to turn back the clock (by about twenty years!) on how I want to experience the Web. But that is perhaps a subject matter for another day. I do see, however, that blogging from a phone is another case of there being, as you describe, an unclear line between tool and toy.

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David Cain July 3, 2019 at 11:35 am

Hey Rob! Ah you have me pining for the early 2000s days of the internet, when it was just a bunch of websites. I also like the idea of blogging on the go — I’ve always made my blog posts such a huge production, so the image of keeping them brief and concise enough that I could write one on my phone is really appealing to me. But I think that’s just a part of the freewheeling wild-west sort of way we used to use the internet, which I miss greatly. I like to think we could bring it back.

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JP Michel July 18, 2019 at 9:56 am

Hi David,
Thanks for the encouragement to do this. Losing YouTube was definitely helpful for me. Although I still poke around the browser version in Safari when I am really exhausted in the evenings. I need to be better at identifying the moments when I feel tired. Then, I can identify a more positive way to relax than to browse mindlessly on my phone.
One of my best strategies is still turning the phone off in the evening at the storing it somewhere out of eyesight.
Thank you!
JP

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