How I Turned My Smartphone Back Into a Tool

For the past 2 months, I've been trying to use my smartphone as a tool again, rather than a toy. Here's how it went.

Photo by Gian Cescon on Unsplash

Overall, I felt the experience was a positive one. I learned a lot about my smartphone usage, the times when I'm more susceptible to the pull to unlock and check my phone, and how to fight my own urges to check everything. I'm calling the experiment a complete success, because I feel I cut down a little bit on my overall smartphone usage (some days were not great, admittedly) and learned a lot along the way.

But first, why did I decide to do this?

Mostly, I noticed myself almost subconsciously drawn to unlock my phone and do something, anything to curb even a few seconds of perceived boredom. I noticed it was affecting my mood, my relationships, my work, my hobbies, and my attention span. While I didn't track anything scientifically enough to say that this experiment definitely improved my mood or attention span, I did notice that I felt more present in certain moments, I feel like I slept better, and I think my attention span is somewhat improved. The experiment was to see if anything would change, and I'm happy to report that although the changes are small and still ongoing, there were (and still are) positive changes in my life.

I'd like to note that this was not a challenge to go without a smartphone or try to never use it. I used my phone often for communication, for tools such as maps and the calculator, and for some entertainment like videos, music, and podcasts, as well as for work. This experiment was all about getting rid of the apps that I only turn to when I feel completely bored or have nothing else to do. I think we each have those apps that make us unlock our phones and then fall into a daze as we mindlessly scroll, watch, or play. I got rid of most of those apps during this experiment to see what would happen.

So, the experiment went well. I learned a lot about myself. I'm definitely going to apply some of the lessons I've learned and continue some of the habits I've built or broken. But I also learned some interesting things that I think can broadly apply to anyone looking to be more mindful of their smartphone use.

1. Delete the Apps

This was the most powerful tool for me. During the first week or two, I noticed myself unlocking my phone and then staring at my home screen for a minute, and then putting my phone back into my pocket. When I started this challenge, I deleted all the apps that I knew would be problematic for me. For me, there were a few games that I played when I felt bored, Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, and a few other apps that I only checked out of boredom. I deleted them all, except for a few that I hid in a folder far away from my home screen, to make them more difficult to reach. It was tough to delete the apps, but I didn't miss them after a few days. But when I unlocked my phone because I was bored, I wanted to open one of these apps. That was my trigger and routine. By deleting the apps, I broke the routine and eventually removed that habit. Now, I'm in the process of removing the boredom trigger, choosing instead to fill that boredom with other things like reading, playing with my daughter, or going for a walk. It's going well.

If you find yourself constantly unlocking your phone and checking apps, try deleting those apps for a day, a week, or a month and see what happens. See what else you can fill your time with.

2. No Phone Zone

We recently built a new deck in our backyard to replace some old steps that were falling apart. It's a nice, relaxing space that I love and cherish. It's quiet most nights and is the perfect place to watch birds come and go and enjoy some shade in the evening. A couple days after we had finished building the deck, we ate on it for the first time. I decided to declare it a no phone zone for myself (and for my wife, for that evening at least). With the exception of one or two nights and the occasional picture, this rule has gone quite well for me. I'm trying not to treat it as a tough restriction, but rather as a personal guideline to give myself some time apart from my phone and more aware of the world around me. I highly recommend setting aside some space in your life or home for a no phone zone. Having a physical space where you decide to leave your phone behind not only builds a strong habit but gives you mental and physical freedom from the constant stream of notifications and information.

3. Disable Notifications

This is something I've been doing long before I tried this experiment, but was still very helpful for these past 2 months. As soon as I get a new phone, I immediately turn off most notifications. When I download an app, my default is almost always to disable notifications (or never turn them on in the first place). I don't get social media notifications on my phone at all. I am very selective about how and when I allow my phone to interrupt my day. I've found that notifications are like fermenting fruit to a fly. They entice us to check it out, see what's going on, and pull us in with the allure of an unread message, new follower, or newly uploaded video. Once we're drawn in, like a fly to fruit, we gorge ourselves on information, consuming and consuming, losing track of time until some other need finally pulls us away. We allow our phones to control our attention and command our time. Every vibration or ding from our phone means our train of thought is lost as we switch tasks to glance at our phone. Even a quick reply to a text message or dismissing a Twitter notification can wreak havoc on our focus, taking several minutes to get back to our previous task. And with hundreds of notifications on average coming in every day, we're potentially talking about hours lost every week to the void of notifications.

To put things into perspective, in the time it took me to write that last paragraph, I received 5 notifications on my phone and several more on my laptop. One of them distracted me and caused me to switch tasks, which added about five minutes onto the time it took to write this. I recommend disabling as many notifications as you can on your devices. Be in control of your time and attention, instead of letting your screens dictate your focus.

And that's about it. I learned that I should put away my phone more often. I learned that I should spend a little less time worrying about what's on my social feeds and a little more time playing with my daughter and talking with my wife. A little less time looking at pictures that other people took and a little more time appreciating the beauty all around me. Let me know if you try this experiment or have done something similar in the past. Send me a message @quiethabits or nathan “at”