I recently read Ryan Holiday’s post A Radical Guide to Spending Less Time on Your Phone. The post is full of great advice to help reduce your phone use and well worth a read. Holiday is spot on — our phones have become an instant escape, and a constant burden. We find it easier to whip them out in moments of idleness than be alone with our thoughts. We feel compelled to find out what the latest ping was irrespective of what we’re doing in the moment. This behaviour becomes compulsive. We reach for our phones without thinking, reinforcing those neural pathways that keep us from being fully present with our friends, family, children… our lives.
What struck me most about the post was how evolved my own phone reduction habits have become. I have already implemented most of what Holiday suggests, and in some instances pushed the boundaries even further.
With this in mind I thought I would follow up with my own strategies to reduce the time I spend on my phone. Some of these overlap with Ryan Holiday’s strategies, some have spawned from Cal Newport’s blog and book Digital Minimalism, while others I’ve devised on my own by simply becoming more aware of my behaviour. I have much healthier, productive relationship with my phone as a result.
Turn off all alerts
This is crucial to avoid interruptions, which destroy focus and your ability to be present. How many times have you picked up your phone to do something specific, seen an alert/notification, clicked on it, ended up down some rabbit hole, and when you finally surface you’ve completely forgotten what you were doing in the first place? I turn off all notifications except messages, phone calls and calendar events. Even those are muted and hidden when I’m in Do Not Disturb mode, which is most of the time.
Reduce the channels through which you’re reachable
I’m only accessible via phone calls, SMS, and Telegram. That’s it. I don’t even have email enabled. SMS and phone calls are what the original mobile phones were built for and the main reason we carry one. Telegram is installed so I can keep in contact with my family and friends in Australia without incurring charges. I removed WhatsApp due to my dislike of Facebook (Facebook owns WhatsApp in case you weren’t aware), for data privacy reasons, and because it’s yet another way I’m kept tethered. The more channels through which you’re reachable, the more you have to manage, and the more overwhelmed you become. Think about what is truly essential and remove everything else.
Sleep with your phone in another room
When I go to bed I leave my phone downstairs in a mode that prevents all notications. I haven’t slept with a phone in my room for years — except when I travel and have no other option. When I don’t have a choice I quickly rediscover why this practice is so crucial, because I inevitably end up reverting to old, bad habits. By making your phone difficult to get to, you’re far less likely fetch it in a moment of impulsivity, and thus far more likely to get a good night’s sleep.
Avoid morning alerts (or your phone entirely)
Akin to Ryan Holiday’s tip Start phone-free mornings, when I go to bed I switch my phone into Airplane, Battery Saver and Do Not Disturb modes, and leave my phone downstairs in a closed drawer. Airplane and Battery Saver modes prevent unnecessary data usage and battery drain, and Do Not Disturb stops notifications popping up first thing. Why don’t I turn it off completely? Because I would be bombarded when I first turn it on in the morning. I don’t want to my morning routine to be interrupted by messages or notifications that arrive overnight. When I’ve completed what I need to — meditation, journaling, exercise etc. — I turn on normal functionality. This routine is crucial, prevents my morning being hijacked, allows me to get done what I deem most valuable and helps me win the morning, win the day (Tim Ferriss quote).
Remove all non-essentional apps
I noticed years ago the negative impact social media apps on my phone were having on my life, and so I removed them all. In fact I haven’t had a social media account for years, let alone a social media app installed. What about the benefits that apps and services like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter provide? My view on this is captured well in Cal Newport’s book Digital Minimalism…
… time and attention with too many devices, apps, and services creates an overall negative cost that can swamp the small benefits that each individual item provides in isolation.
I’ve carefully curated the list of apps I have installed on my phone, removing anything that I’ve found to be compulsive or an attention stealer. Here’s my list:
Calendar, Camera, Contacts, Maps and Phone are pretty obvious. Google Drive for scanning documents to PDF. Monzo and Starling are my banking apps and don’t have web based alternatives. Google Photos for photo backup. Play Store for app updates. PodcastGuru for my morning meditation (same one every morning) and for the odd podcast. Met Office for weather. I use Signal for messaging, because it does both SMS and messaging, and Telegram as an alternative to WhatsApp.
Notice I have no entertainment apps installed, apart from PodcastGuru which I use for mediation and educational purposes. I try to view my phone as a utility for being productive, removing everything intended for consumption purposes.
Disable the browser
Internet browsers are just another tool for consumption; if you have one installed you’re more likely to… browse. On the rare occasion I need a browser — when another app opens a link, or when I need to sign in to cafe wifi — I enable the default browser, get done what needs doing, and then disable it. By having the browser disabled by default it is slightly more laborious to fire it up in a moment of weakness.
I find it more efficient to batch-clear my inbox during scheduled time blocks on my laptop, and I’m more likely to compulsively check email if the app is installed and readily accessible. Much like the browser, if I urgently need to access a message and I don’t have access to my laptop, I’ll enable the app, do what I need to, and then disable it.
The same approach can be applied for any app that drives urges to ‘check’ or browse. Make it invisible and make it difficult (these are the inversion of the 1st and 3rd laws in Atomic Habits, or how to break a bad habit).
Use a cheap phone
I currently use a Nokia 1. It costs around £70 and has only 1GB RAM. The performance limitations mean I can’t use it like a full-blown computing device. My phone lags on occasion, which can be frustrating but means I don’t use it as much. Yet it is powerful enough to do the essentials. Cheaper phones also have the additional advantage of not costing the earth if you damage or lose them, something I’ve had to do several times with more expensive phones.
Don’t sync your computer and your phone
This is one of Ryan Holiday’s suggestions, and one which I agree with. I used to think it would be useful to be able to answer messages or take calls on my laptop, but I’ve since learned the value of Deep Work (if you haven’t read this book I highly recommend it). I now fully appreciate the power of long, uninterrupted periods of concentrated work. The thought of getting notifications on my laptop is just insane now.
I’m a minimalist at heart so find it therapeutic to remove unnecessary clutter. I’ve got a total of 17 apps on my apps screen; when the list grows to more than 20 and I’m forced to scroll, and I know I’ve become complacent. Simplify, simplify, simplify. Don’t use an app regularly? Uninstall it. Hate default apps cluttering up your app list? Disable them. Is there a web based version of service? Goodbye app.
Principle #1 of Digital Minimalism is Clutter is costly.
Digital minimalists recognize that cluttering their time and attention with too many devices, apps, and services creates an overall negative cost that can swamp the small benefits that each individual item provides in isolation.
Use “Do Not Disturb” most of the time
My phone is in Do Not Disturb mode more often than not. Why? Because the majority of my time is spent working, sleeping, or with family or friends. When I’m immersed in these activities I want to be totally present, fully engaged. Everything else can be dealt with at a time that is convenient to me.
Whenever possible, replace your phone with another solution
I couldn’t agree more with Holiday’s final suggestion. The ultimate goal of all this is to pare down the use of your phone to the bare minimum, freeing yourself from its deliberately-engineered, attention grabbing clutches.
Use your watch’s alarm or a dedicated alarm clock. Use the timer built into your oven or microwave, or buy an egg timer. Print e-tickets. Read paper books or use a dedicated e-reader device, not the reader app. Disable your phone’s calculator and take the time do calculations in your head or on paper (your ability will improve over time). Find another solution. Sure, there’s likely to be an app for that, but it will make you that bit more dependent, susceptible to the hijacking, the compulsion to scroll, browse, watch… consume.
I find it interesting that Ryan Holiday uses the word radical to describe his guide in the post’s title. I wonder if he believes this to be so, or whether he simply expects most of everyone else to? He doesn’t strike me as being someone who struggles with phone overuse. Having employed similar strategies to reduce my own phone usage for some time now, I certainly don’t consider his strategies to be radical. Instead I view them as normal, sane, necessary.
My life is significantly better when I disconnect. As Ryan Holiday finishes… who wants to spend their life staring at a screen?
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