My initial rules and reasons for intentional smartphone use
What intentionality means
In Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism, one of Newport’s primary goals is to get smartphone users to switch to a more “intentional” use of technology. What does intentional use mean? Intentionality means that you make technology support your goals, not the other way around. When you use tech to achieve what you want, not what it wants, that’s intentional — your intent. In contrast, when we let technology define our path on the internet, such that we end up getting pulled into distracting paths that we don’t want to take, we’re not following our intent but rather someone else’s. In that case, we become used by technology (usually for commercial purposes) rather than using technology for our intents and purposes.
For example, we might start out trying to work on a novel but soon end up watching funny cat videos. We might want to send a message to a family member and then find ourselves scanning news feeds for an hour. We might try to learn about new events going on in the city only to find that we get pulled onto Amazon buying things we don’t need. In these cases, technology hijacks our intent and sends us on a wayward path to fulfill someone else’s intent — to accrue viewing time, product purchases, or other.
Making your own rules
Newport recognizes that intentionality can involve different strategies for different people, job types, roles, and needs. There’s not a one-size-fits-all intentional strategy — for example, he doesn’t say everyone should abandon smartphones entirely, but instead says things like, look at your goals and determine how your smartphone might support those goals. For example, few people have a goal of mindlessly scrolling social media sites with every second of their spare time, but maybe they want to stay updated about news. Well, you can probably set a rule for yourself of 20 minutes of desktop-based viewing time a day (enforced by Freedom.to), or maybe even a print-based news source, such as The Economist, as Rolf Dobelli says. In contrast, this same rule might not work for others.
To support more of an intentional use of technology, Newport recommends that people develop their own philosophy about how they will use technology and why. Based on this idea of more intentional smartphone use, I’ve developed a list of my own rules, which I’m sharing below. I reserve the right to change, modify, and adapt my rules over time based on what I find to be working or not working for me. I’m still in the early [honeymoon] phase of smartphone abandonment, and I’m sure my views will evolve and mature over time. I’m guessing that my initial rules are way too draconian, and that over time I’ll ease them up more, arriving at more of a middle ground.
Here are my initial rules/philosophies and the underlying reasons.
Use a basic phone instead of a smartphone
- Smartphones, especially carried in your pocket, encourage constant checking of feeds/news throughout the day, at every moment of idle time. This constant viewing time on the smartphone reduces your attention span and ability to focus.
- Giving every spare moment of attention to your phone also detracts from your ability to reflect with your own thoughts. You end up with “solitude deprivation,” as Jonathan Safran Foer writes. There’s psychological merit in allowing your mind to wander, to sort out thoughts in your head, gradually making connections and realizations. This solitude isn’t wasted time but is necessary for your brain to make sense of the world. When you deprive yourself of this solitude (by using every spare moment of attention on your phone), you lose out on an essential brain activity (it’s like a defrag process on a computer).
- Every incoming piece of information requires processing power that wears away at your day’s energy level and mental bandwidth. Every piece of incoming information requires you to decide its priority, relevance, importance, needed input, required actions, etc. This constant information processing often leaves us frazzled and exhausted by evening, since we spend our energy dealing with a deluge of this incoming information rather than focusing on a more singular task. Our brains weren’t built to take in this much information on a daily basis and process it throughout the day (constantly context-switching from our current task to sort an incoming item of information).
- We receive a tremendous amount of information each day by being plugged into news social/sports feeds and constantly assessing, sorting, and filing incoming information, so as to prepare for the next incoming piece of information. As a result, our long-term concentration on any single item gets discarded in favor of this short-term sorting activity, which we’ve taught our brain to do.
- In hijacking our attention, smartphones detract from our ability to be in the present. They pull us out of awareness, focus, and interaction with our current environment and those around us. This detachment while in the presence of other humans (our family, friends, colleagues) diminishes us as people. It weakens our ability to listen, respond, communicate, and share with others. This detachment moves us toward more social isolation, moving us away from human interaction and more towards screen interaction (even if with another person). This dehumanization leaves us feeling empty and lonely; it undercuts our social connections.
Carry the phone in a bag, and don’t sleep with it on your nightstand
- The easier it is to access your phone, the more convenient it will be to reach for it in times of waiting. If your phone is in your bag instead, it will be less on your mind and harder to get to. Putting your phone in your bag pre-commits you to interact with it less, as it becomes a hassle to dig it out of your bag during brief waiting moments.
- If you carry the phone in a bag, you won’t touch it 2,000 times a day (as studies show) and think about it. What’s out of sight is out of mind. In contrast, if you keep your phone in your pocket, you’re constantly reminded about it because you can feel it in your pocket, your hand frequently touches it, and you’re more apt to see it. As such, you’re more apt to use it.
- Don’t sleep next to your phone. Reading email at night sends your body a jolt of emotion that can help keep you up. The light from the screens also keeps you awake. There’s no reason to have your phone on your nightstand at night. Leave your phone in another room entirely.
- Don’t use your phone as an alarm clock. By using your phone as an alarm clock, you’re more likely to park it on your nightstand. And on your nightstand, you’ll see it and naturally interact with it (e.g., read it before bed), which makes it harder to avoid using it.
- While working at your desk, it’s okay to keep your phone in sight because your natural inclination is to interact with the larger computer screen. Also, it’s a lot easier to text others while using an emulator (like scrcpy) that projects the phone’s UI.
Prefer calling instead of texting
- Smartphones diminish our human-to-human connections by making it easier to interact in more emotionally distant modes, such as texts. In contrast, basic phones (with their compressed keypads) make it harder to text, which means you’ll be more likely to call on the phone. Voice-to-voice communication is more personal than text-based communication, which helps satisfy our need for human interaction. If we use diminished forms of communication, the relationships themselves become diminished (as Jonathan Foer writes).
- Texting is much more convenient at times, though, especially because it’s an asynchronous means of communication. It’s not practical to always call someone. It’s okay to text while you’re on the desktop.
- You can text as much as you want from the basic phone’s 9-digit number pad. Your patience will time out long quickly anyway and you’ll be inclined to just call the person.
Turn off notifications (except from family)
- Notifications from email, messaging, chat, etc., disrupt your ability to focus and take you out of tasks. The constant notifications fragment your attention and detract from deep work.
- You don’t need to be notified of everything all day long. Responding to each notification fragments your focus.
- You don’t need to see email and chat notifications after work hours. Most likely you wouldn’t respond anyway. All of these constant interruptions ruin your concentration on the task at hand.
Stop reading the [daily] news
- News exploits your negativity bias to get your viewing time. As such, news focuses on all the bad things happening in the world. This sustained focus on the negative sometimes saddens you, riles you up, makes you upset, angry, anxious, frustrated, etc. News also gives you a sense of learned helplessness.
- News doesn’t provide in-depth understanding of issues. If you want to be educated on an issue, read long-form in-depth articles from better sources.
- News exploits your novelty bias, causing you to seek out what’s new.
- News usually isn’t that relevant to your life. What’s going on elsewhere doesn’t tend to impact you, so you don’t need to spend a lot of time learning about the details.
- Listening to the news creates more cognitive demand to process, assess, file, etc, each incoming piece of information, which wears on your mental energy.
- You can get fully caught up on what’s happening in the world by spending 5-10 minutes a week on news. If you want to get more news, get a print subscription to The Economist or The Atlantic (or check them out from the library).
Unsubscribe from newsletters that don’t have high value to you
- Newsletters pull you through their defined path on the internet, not yours. Instead, define your own path across the web, based on what you want to see/learn/understand. Don’t just open email and click down whatever path a message steers you toward. When this happens, recognize that you’re being pulled off that path to check out something irrelevant to your goals.
- Newsletters rarely have articles that you actually want to read. You don’t often find value in what you’re receiving, and each email takes a crack at your day’s attention. Use the Marie Kondo method of asking, with each newsletter, Does this bring me joy? Most don’t.
- The more noise you have in your inbox, the less visibility you have for personal email that is actually to you as an individual.
- Even if you think email/news doesn’t affect you, it might be smoldering on the backburner of your mind and be what’s waking you up in the middle of the night.
- Email begets email (as Johann Hari writes). Use less of it and you’ll receive less of it.
Avoid social media
- Social media (e.g., Facebook, Reddit, Twitter) is designed to turn the content wheel that makes advertising work. Companies need frequent content to increase viewing time in their app/site because they’re driven by advertising models. The microposts that social media sites offer (created by consumers themselves), pulls people in to view content, especially when those people are tagged.
- These sites typically aren’t working for you. The content isn’t meant to connect you together with the world around you. The content is meant to generate more views on their site for advertising value. If you think about it, social media (web 2.0’s consumer-as-producer model) is an ingenious ploy to get consumers to create the needed content themselves to keep the content wheel turning. This content must constantly be new to get your attention, and when it’s from people in your network, the content also has the allure of being relevant.
- You’re better off forming connections with those around you in more personal ways.
- You can probably gather all the relevant info about events and other information in about 20 minutes a week in checking these sites.
- Fill your spare time with more reading of books.
Don’t rely on mapping applications for directions
- These apps detract from your spatial awareness to understand the landscape around you and your ability to navigate on your own.
- When you’re forced to navigate on your own, you learn the area and become self-sufficient. This makes driving more enjoyable rather than a series of responses to micro-commands all along the route.
- Learn where the streets are, the logic of the road layouts and naming schemes, and this will help you feel more capable with the area without a map. It will also boost your brain’s spatial and cognitive functions.
- You actually only need a map when you’re going to a new place, which isn’t that often. You can figure out the location using web-based maps. GPS might be necessary once in a blue moon, such as on a trip to a completely new area, or if you’re truly lost and without any other map. If you anticipate getting in those situations, be sure to bring your paper maps with you.
- Getting lost is okay (and even kind of fun). Sometimes, when you get lost you discover places you didn’t know existed, or you find a new route. Almost no one gets lost anymore — smartphones took that experience away from us.
Use a separate camera
- If you use your smartphone’s camera, every time you pull it out, you’ve got the whole information world right there to check in and interact with. And what do you do with the photos but post them on social media.
- The compulsion to document everything and share it with virtual strangers is weird and unfulfilling.
- We are amassing an overwhelming number of photos and videos of people and events that we will likely never use or review.
- Carry a small point-and-shoot camera with you in your bag. This will help you be more intentional about actually taking pictures, rather than doing it on a whim.
- In some ways, packaging cameras with smartphones is another mechanism that encourages social media use. The smartphone’s camera gives you another tool for generating and posting content.
Use a tablet or smartphone only for specialized apps when there’s no alternative
- Specialized apps (e.g., parking, banking, etc.) require you to use an iOS or Android app. There are legitimate times where it’s actually impossible not to use the app. In these cases, it’s okay to use a de-connected tablet or smartphone. As long as you’ve removed its cellular connectivity (converted it from the equivalent of an iPhone to iPod), it won’t be buzzing with notifications and other incoming media and information. Don’t throw your smartphone away, just convert into a dumb iPod-type device.
What I hope to get out of this
What do I hope to achieve by removing smartphones?
- Long-form attention to read a book without mind wandering
- Sleep through the night without randomly waking early
- Have more mental energy in the evenings
- Get into periods of flow and become more productive at work
- Have more peace of mind
- Have more realizations from reflection
- Be more present with other people
If you have any thoughts on any of these rules, let me know. I’ll add more posts here to provide updates on this experiment and share how it’s going.
Dobelli, Rolf. Stop Reading the News: A Manifesto for a Happier, Calmer and Wiser Life. Hachette UK, 2020.
Foer, Jonathan Safran. “Technology is diminishing us.” *The Guardian.” 3 Dec 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/dec/03/jonathan-safran-foer-technology-diminishing-us.
Newport, Cal. Digital Minimalism: Choosing a focused life in a noisy world. Penguin, 2019.
Continue on to the next post in this series: First experiences in moving away from smartphones.
About Tom Johnson
I'm a technical writer / API doc specialist based in the Seattle area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture, writing techniques, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation if you're looking for more info about that. If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the field, be sure to subscribe to email updates. You can also learn more about me or contact me. Finally, note that the opinions I express on my blog are my own points of view, not that of my employer.