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How I designed distraction out of my phone

I was determined to digitally detox. But after trying two different “light” phones, I realized that the simplest solution was to change how I used my old smartphone.

How I designed distraction out of my phone
[Illustration: FC]

A funny thing happened when I recently upgraded my iPhone to iOS 12: The Settings menu items got rearranged, and it completely changed my relationship to my smartphone.

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Sometime in the last six months, I’d gotten the idea that I could put the brakes on my mindless mobile-web surfing by using iOS’s “Restrictions” settings to deactivate my web browser. Of course, the only thing stopping me from reactivating it whenever I wanted was a simple passcode. So I developed an objectively silly habit: Every time I wanted to mindlessly surf the web on my phone, I’d open Settings, input my “Restrictions” passcode, and have at it. It took a little longer than just tapping the Safari icon, but pretty soon my fingertips could accomplish it with an equal amount of nonthinking.

But after upgrading iOS, the Settings menu was suddenly different–just unfamiliar enough that my silly, habitual maneuver to unlock my web browser didn’t work anymore. If I was going to access the web from my phone again, I’d have to dig through the new menu structure to locate that “Restrictions” screen, like finding a set of lost house keys.

I never bothered. Instead, I seized this weird mental opportunity to just let that particular screen–the “keys” to my phone’s main source of distraction–stay “lost.” This meant I no longer knew how to mindlessly unlock my mobile web browser, which . . . drum roll . . . had the effect of breaking my mindless mobile web browsing habit.

I’m telling you this story because, after several weeks of testing two phones meticulously and expensively designed to do the same thing–that is, break my digital distraction habit–I ended up achieving that very goal, using the phone I already have, by accident.

There’s a lesson here: Nothing against Palm or Punkt, but this whole “smartphone detox” business is a lot less complicated than we’ve been led to believe. You can, actually, redesign your relationship to your smartphone without redesigning your life–and you can do it all with the phone you already have.

[Illustration: FC]

1. Stop giving yourself a choice

One thing I learned from testing Punkt’s hotspot-enabled dumbphone: When you physically can’t do something on your phone–or it simply becomes a colossal pain in the rear–you don’t do that thing on your phone anymore! Shocking, but true. If you want to stop mindlessly browsing the web–or tweeting, or texting, or checking Instagram–take it off your phone. Full stop. The end. It works! As one Co.Design reader told me via Twitter, “It’s easier to avoid temptation than resist it.”

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A phone like Punkt’s MP02 takes the “no choice” mantra too far for my liking–it throws the baby out with the bathwater. But when I saw how powerful it is to set up black-and-white, nonnegotiable, physical barriers between me and mobile distraction, I realized how easy those barriers are to set up on a normal smartphone. Take the web, for instance. If you want to “lose the keys” to your mobile browser like I did, you can install an app like Freedom and perma-lock yourself out. Or you can just have someone you trust (best friend, spouse, whoever) set up a restriction code on your phone and not give it to you.

I can sense you rolling your eyes already. But I’ve been living without a web browser on my phone for weeks via this method, and I don’t miss it at all. (The Google Maps app has a mini-browser inside it that lets me access things that are useful or necessary in specific mobile contexts, like restaurant menus and business home pages.) The point is to remove all choice you have in the matter. Using a dumbphone is an extreme way to remove distracting choices, but it’s not the only way.

[Illustration: FC]

2. Size (and place) matters

Smartphones have gotten bigger for a reason. Not only are those giant screens harder to resist, the actual physical footprint of the device helps it dominate your moment-to-moment life. (Can you really ignore a phone that’s so big it permanently juts out of the top of your pocket, or requires a special accessory just to hold it comfortably?) Palm’s phone might be too teensy-weensie, but it was small enough to put away and genuinely forget about.

But if you already have a giant phone, there’s one thing you can do to minimize its physical dominance: Keep it away from your body when you’re not using it.

I know, it sounds weird. We’ve been conditioned for more than a decade to keep our smartphones literally pressed up against our flesh at all times, usually in a pocket. Granted, it’s a very convenient spot. But I’ve found that simply moving my smartphone off of my physical person–into a side pocket of my backpack, or instance–greatly reduces my urge to fidget with it. Keeping it just out of sight, just out of reach–removing the literal feeling of it on me–gives me a fighting chance of forgetting about it unless it needs me.

And that’s the key here: the forgetting. Smallness alone doesn’t really do much when the dinging, pinging source of “connection”–like, say, a smartwatch–is perma-mashed against your skin. Sure, the watch lets you put your phone on the shelf and walk away. But that thing on your wrist (or stuffed in your ears–yeah, I got your number, Airpods!) is still physically and cognitively tethering you to the source of the problem. Getting used to my phone being fully “out of sight, out of mind” took time, and I found that getting it off my body was a powerful and useful starting point.

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[Illustration: FC]

3. Make it boring

My colleague Mark Wilson was onto something when he demanded that smartphones all come with a “dumb mode” that locks out all nonessential phone functions. After testing the Palm and Punkt–and then spending a week trying to recreate their strengths on my regular iPhone–I’d modify that request. All smartphones should have “boring mode.” The good thing is, you don’t have to wait. You can–and, if my experience is any indication, you should–make your phone boring right now.

By “boring,” I don’t mean turning your screen to grayscale. (That’s just ugly and sad.) I just mean turning it back from a toy into a tool. There are smartphone apps that live on my phone that deliver tons of real-world value and convenience without constantly tempting me to “play” with them. What’s wrong with Lyft, Venmo, Simple, Google Maps, Dropbox, and Dark Sky? Nothing! These apps pose no threat to my attention. Why? Because they’re “boring.” They’re tools. And tools stay in their drawer until I need them.

As with all of my recommendations, the reason this “works” has nothing to do with maintaining willpower. I simply deleted everything from my phone that I might fire up solely to alleviate boredom. (In practice this meant anything with a “feed” or “content” in it.) Now my phone is exceedingly useful and entirely boring. It’s a tricorder, not a television. And, unsurprisingly, it stays stowed most of the time.

And that, dear readers, is how I ultimately “won” the battle against my phone. The Palm and the Punkt had great ideas at work in their design that I learned from, but in the end they took more than they gave back. You don’t have to defeat the phone you already have. You can settle for taming it. As it turns out, that’s more than enough.

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About the author

John Pavlus is a writer and filmmaker focusing on science, tech, and design topics. His writing has appeared in Wired, New York, Scientific American, Technology Review, BBC Future, and other outlets

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