Search results

1.2. My initial rules and reasons for intentional smartphone use

Last updated: Apr 16, 2022
In my last post, I described an awakening about how my smartphone had fragmented my attention span, and I described my goal to recapture my long-form concentration. This section explores more specifics about “intentional” smartphone use.

Download PDF

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 to 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 as getting pulled into distracting paths 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 public freakout 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 time on page.

Making your own rules

Newport recognizes that intentionality can involve various 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, or maybe even a print-based news source, such as The Economist, as Rolf Dobelli says. In contrast, the 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 developed a list of my own rules. I knew that I’d probably change, modify, and adapt my rules over time based on what I found to be working. I was still in the early [honeymoon] phase of smartphone abandonment at this point, and whatever rules I developed would likely evolve and mature over time. Nevertheless, I drafted up a list of draconian rules and abundant reasons why (to remind me if I later changed them).

Rule 1: Use a basic phone instead of a smartphone

Using a basic phone would reduce the frequent checking of news and information on my phone, which would in turn avoid attention fragmentation. Reducing that constant stream of incoming information would also ease cognitive load and help me be present with others.

Rule 2: Carry the phone in a bag, and don’t sleep with it on your nightstand

Keeping the phone in a bag (out of sight) would keep it out of mind. Removing it from my bedroom would remove the chances of endless scrolling during sleepless nights.

Rule 3: Prefer calling instead of texting

Calling would provide richer, more meaningful communication with my family. Not to mention, texting from a 9-digit number pad would be impractical anyway.

Rule 4: Turn off notifications (except from family)

Turning off email, chat, and message notifications—except from family—would avoid the constant attention fragmentation and interruption that had come to punctuate my mental state.

Rule 4: Stop reading the [daily] news

Avoiding the daily news would reduce the cognitive demand for constantly processing often trivial, ephemeral information. It would also help eliminate the exploitation of my negativity and novelty bias.

Rule 5: Unsubscribe from newsletters that don’t have high value for you

Unsubscribing from newsletters would reduce the chances of being pulled down paths that subverted my intentional goals. An empty inbox would also reduce any dopamine hits from frequently checking email and getting something new.

Rule 6: Avoid social media

Avoiding social media would reduce the likelihood of having my intentional goals for using the computer hijacked by clickbait and other sites that just wanted to pull me toward more time on page and link clicks. It would also free up more time for reading books instead.

Rule 7: Don’t rely on mapping applications for directions

Avoiding GPS apps for navigation would allow me to learn the streets and roads in my area, allowing me to become more self-sufficient. It would expand my spatial awareness and environmental understanding.

Rule 8: Use a separate camera

Using a separate camera would avoid pulling out my phone each time I took a picture. I wouldn’t be tempted by incoming information if the camera was disconnected from the device.

Rule 9: Use a tablet or smartphone only for specialized apps when there’s no alternative

For those unavoidable situations that required an app, I could use an old tablet. This would avoid the mentality that owning and carrying around a smartphone everywhere was inevitable.

What I hope to get out of this

What do I hope to achieve by removing smartphones?

  • Regain long-form attention to read a book without mind wandering
  • Sleep through the night without randomly waking up 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

About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.

If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the tech comm, be sure to subscribe to email updates below. 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.