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Life with my “distraction-free” phone

Earlier this summer I read two posts by Jake Knapp (a design partner at Google Ventures) about his “distraction free” iPhone: how he started it, and what it felt like a year later.  In a nutshell, he found himself getting constantly distracted by his iPhone, and consciously made choices to take key applications off his phone: Safari, Email, Twitter, Instagram, etc.

I decided to try it for myself and my Nexus 5 Android phone.  I didn’t want to be that guy that always had his phone six inches from his face, even when out to dinner or playing with my daughter.  So these are (some of) the apps I deleted from my phone:

  • Chrome
  • Twitter
  • Instagram
  • Kindle
  • NYTimes
  • Google+
  • Facebook

All of these were apps that had a strong risk of the “infinity” effect, where once you get started you just get lost.  I had a particularly bad habit with opening tabs in Chrome (from Twitter, e-mail) that I then left open, always meaning to go back but never actually closing.

Apps I kept include: Calendar, Music, Maps, Camera, Photos, SMS, WhatsApp, Hangouts, USAA, Todo.txt, Voxer, Slack, Beeminder, Runkeeper, and a few others.  The one app where I chose differently from Jake and did keep was Gmail (and now Google Inbox).  E-mail in my job is just too important, and living several time zones away from the majority of the people I work with means that I can’t rely on just dealing with e-mail during the UK business day.

What I’ve learned

I’ve noticed a few things from this experiment.  First, I’ve started to see how critical a web browser is to a mobile phone experience.  Disabling Chrome means that a small number of apps (that aren’t well designed) just don’t work well, if at all.

Second, Google has made Google+ a key layer of infrastructure.  I can’t use the modern, built-in “Photos” app on my mobile because it requires the Google+ app to work. Instead, I use a previous version of the stock Android Gallery app to view my photos.

Third, it’s fascinating to watch human behaviour.  Pulling out a mobile phone, even when out with good friends, has become a reflex for (seemingly) everyone.  The number of times that a conversation over dinner goes down a thread where once person checks their phone (to look something up or Tweet something), and then a second person does, and the next thing I’m looking at a table of people that are all staring at their phones instead of interacting with each other.  I even find myself feeling like I should join in, but then realise I don’t have to stress out about it and can just enjoy the moment… even if no one is paying attention to me or each other! 🙂  I’ve become comfortable with momentary moments of boredom.

Fourth, you have a different relationship to a mobile phone when it’s purely a tool for messaging, navigation, health/fitness and not a tool for broad media consumption and broadcasting.  I liked feeling that I had a less “emotional” tie to my phone.

How I cheat

It’s not like I’m no longer using a web browser, or Twitter, or reading Kindle books, or checking Facebook.  But I decided that I would make my Nexus 7 tablet my “distraction” device.  I have all of those apps there, and so then I make a conscious decision to consume media and be distracted.

Also, when I’ve traveled to the US I’ve had to cheat and re-enable a bunch of apps.  I don’t want to have to buy and use two SIMs, one for my phone and one for my tablet, and I need to have a phone connection when I’m traveling.

Going forward?

I’m definitely going to continue this going forward.  I may re-enable Google+ just so that I can use the full functionality, and because I think I can resist any G+ distractions.  But I like constraining myself to use my mobile phone purely as a tool and not as a magic sinkhole of time.

 

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