The ‘dumb phone’ experiment to improve productivity, concentration and creativity

If we were to name a technology which has significantly changed our lives over the past decade, the smart phone would probably be number one. Information is now quite literally at our fingertips for the vast majority of the day. If we ever want to know something, we can now find out the answer almost instantaneously.

However, after a decade of having one, I’ve found that I’ve become a slave to my smartphone. Despite all its benefits, I think my love of my smart phone (smart phone addiction?) is starting to have some negative effects:

  • I’ll compulsively check the news every 15 minutes without thinking about it. Once I check the news, I’ll open up tabs and enter clicking sprees. Meanwhile, my attention span becomes shorter and concentration becomes incrementally more difficult.
  • While I’m at dinner with friends I find I can get sucked into the smart-phone vortex by firstly looking up something relevant to what we were discussing only to end up reading about the most random/irrelevant stuff (“World’s Tallest Tower Recreated in Lego”), all the while ignoring the conversation at the dinner table and not engaging with my friends.
  • I’m no longer comfortable with being bored. Previously, boredom was a time to think, ponder and imagine. In essence, it was time spent being creative. And now, given that the smart phone has opened the door to a world of new ideas and opinions, we’re never bored. Hence, the struggle to find the time to just think and be creative.

I don’t want to suggest that smart phones are an incessant evil. I think smart phones have undoubtedly improved our lives in many respects. Google Maps/CityMapper is just one great example of this. It makes getting from point A to B incredibly easy. We no longer have to search through train/bus timetables or a physical map to work out how to get around.

However, my aim was to re-assert control over my phone – to stop compulsively checking it every time I have onset boredom, to stop ignoring my friends when I’m at dinner, and to reverse this continuing shortening of attention spans that a lot of technology seems to thrive on.

I thought the best way of doing this was to make my phone a ‘dumb phone’.

I wanted to balance the productivity enhancements of a smart phone with my desire to re-assert control over my phone. This precluded completely ditching the smart phone for one of those old-school black and white brick phones (e.g. the Nokia 3310). I viewed that option as simply being impractical.

I trialled the ‘dumb phone’ experiment for one week because honestly, the thought of not having access to the internet or the news on my phone made me a little anxious. I thought I could put up with this for a week, but anything more than that would be a real challenge.

These are the steps I took:

  1. Delete all superfluous apps

I went on an app deleting spree. If you aren’t sure whether you’ll need an app or not, just delete it. You can always re-install it if you realise you do need it.

  1. Disable the internet

I disabled the internet browser on my smart phone. And yes, believe it or not, you can actually disable Safari from your iPhone. Just go Settings > General > Restrictions > Disable Safari.

This was to prevent mindless browsing. For a similar reason, you should have deleted youtube and Wikipedia from your smartphone in Step 1.

If I suddenly had an urge to look something up while I was away from my computer, I’d make a note of it in the iPhone Notes application and look it up once I got back home. Most of the time, the impulsive things I wanted to look up were simply a waste of time. I found that giving yourself time to think about the usefulness of having that information (i.e. on the commute home from a night out) was quite useful. It made me question whether I really need to waste time looking that thing up and in most cases I never did.

          3. Delete social media from your phone

This is another big one. I deleted all social media from my phone (admittedly I don’t have much). The point isn’t to be completely unconnected from the world, but the point is not to be a slave to connection with the world. Remember, social media is incentivised to make you addicted to it. That’s how they can show you as many ads as possible and maximise their own revenue. It’s part of the business model. Social media is essentially a multi-billion dollar industry that pours money into researching and developing the most effective ways of addicting you to their service.

Hence, I wanted to push back against this, and limiting social media to simply the time you spend at home on your computer is one way of doing so.

         4. Keep your messaging apps (WhatsApp, Viber, etc.)

The original purpose of a mobile phone is to contact people while you’re on the move. Here in the UK, most people use WhatsApp more than their phone’s native messaging app. It’s therefore important to keep these apps as you’ll be able to contact friends if you’re running late to a meeting, to take an urgent call, etc.

I think deleting these apps would be impractical and make life more difficult for both you and your friends.

         5. Email

This is one that I pondered over quite a bit and I ended up keeping my email on my phone but disabled notifications. I know there’s a whole movement about limiting email intake but I (thankfully) don’t get too many emails. I’m not a busy executive – I’m a phd student and a researcher.

I think if I was getting bombarded with emails and felt completely overwhelmed by them, I would probably remove emails as well.

  1. Podcasts and audiobooks

Again, this was a tricky one. While I wanted to become comfortable being bored, I do enjoy listening to podcasts and audiobooks if I’m on a long commute/journey. For me, podcasts are like books – you get drawn into a compelling narrative about a particular theme and don’t have to worry about distractions in the form of recommended videos, hyperlinks or distracting banner ads. I also realised that I wouldn’t get distracted by a podcast while I’m at dinner with friends. I obviously wouldn’t just plug in my headphones and start listening to a podcast halfway through a dinner conversation (although at some dinners I’m sure we’ve all at some point wished we could).

So, I ended up keeping my podcasting and audiobook app.

Results

  1. It forced a restructure of my day

I thoroughly enjoy reading the news and previously, 95% of the time I spent consuming the news was through my phone. I’ve been spending the past week in a French language class and spend most of the day away from my computer. As a result, I was forced to restructure my day to consume the news in one solid chunk.

I would wake up at 6.45am (which is much earlier than my usual 8.30am start) and spend about 30 minutes reading the news on my computer. That would be all the news I would read for the day. I spend typically 2-3 hours reading the news on my phone every day (inefficiently reading different news sites reporting the same thing), so this automatically freed up about 1.5-2.5 hours of my day.

  1. I don’t pick up my phone as much

At the beginning of the experiment, I’d compulsively and subconsciously reach for my phone whenever I got bored. However, whenever I did this I realised there was nothing on my phone to distract me so I put it away again. By the end of the week, I found that I was reaching for my phone significantly less. I was becoming more comfortable being distracted and I wouldn’t get caught in a cycle of website reading when at dinner with friends.

  1. I’ve had more creative ideas this week than in the past two months

The time spent being bored allowed my mind to wander and for me to daydream. I came up with several great ideas for my research and for future articles and blog posts. I consider this a bit of a win.

  1. Improvements in concentration?

I’m not sure I can say I’ve had any significant improvements in concentration. It’s hard to tell and I suspect that any long-term visible boost in concentration and attention span would take at least a few months to cultivate.

  1. Less spontaneous purchases

I’m a big fan of Amazon Prime because it makes shopping quite easy. I didn’t realise this at the outset, but I’ve noticed I’ve bought much fewer things impulsively through the Amazon app. Previously, it was incredibly easy to just purchase a book with a single swipe. The ease of purchasing things really leads to impulsive purchases. For me, my biggest vice is books. If I read about a book recommendation I typically buy it on the spot to avoid forgetting about it later.

Not having the app on my phone forces you to think more deeply about whether you actually need the purchase and whether you need it immediately (instead of waiting a few months).

Summing up

Weirdly enough I don’t miss having the news on my phone and I don’t miss having the internet. I thought this would’ve been one of the biggest challenges I have done so far, but it’s been surprisingly easier than expected. However, the main downside is not being able to check a fact immediately.

For now, I haven’t reinstalled the apps that I’d deleted so I’ll continue with this set up for the foreseeable future. For me, the best type of experiment is the one that’s the most sustainable. And I think I’ve found the appropriate balance for treating my phone as a powerful productivity device while also asserting my control over it.

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