Smartphones and Social Media are ruining our lives, say the press. It's not smartphones or social media itself. It's that we're biologically unprepared for how to deal with them. Smartphones and Social Media are designed to hijack the attention and reward centres of the brain. They do it so well we don't notice how our brains are being altered.
In this post I write about how I changed my Smartphone use, and how this helped me reclaim my time and my attention span. It's about my ability to be present in the moment. Something I lost, then regained.
I won't talk about everything I do. Instead, I'll focus on things you can do. There's no talk of compiling your own firmware, mainlining F-droid or micro-g here. That's for some other time.
Instead, this post is about what I did that you can do without changing your phone.
I never felt more connected to friends through my phone, but so absent in their presence.
How Things Got Out Of Control
A few years ago, I had an iPhone 6. It was the digital tool I used more than anything else. If you could think of a pointless app, it'd be on there. When a notification came I'd hear a noise. The screen would light up, and, in pavlovian style so would my neurons. My phone went to bed with me, it woke up with me, it went to work with me.
I started to find that I was getting less happy. I felt less able to concentrate. I never felt more connected to friends through my phone, but so absent in their presence. My attention span shrivelled. I couldn't watch whole films. Reading books was impossible. In pockets of free time I'd check Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Email ad nauseum. I've missed buses and trains because I was so absorbed in something I don't even remember reading. I had forgotten boredom. There was no time for my mind to wander. I became an angelheaded hipster, burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.
I lost the buzz of low-effort connection, but gained the ability to connect with purpose.
When Apple pulled the plug on the headphone jack, I realised my time with Apple's products was over. I didn't want to jump from Apple's walled garden into Google's. Instead I tried to degoogle my life (which is definitely another post in itself).
In the process I found ways to make my phone work for me rather than against me. I found a whole new world of ethical social media. So far, I've gained happiness, time and space for myself. I lost the buzz of low-effort connection, but gained the ability to connect with purpose.
I wanted a sustainable phone experience. This isn't a minimalist experience. This isn't a phone pared back to the basics. It's a phone experience that works for, not against me. Everyone's sustainable phone experience is different. It's a journey, not a goal. A journey I encourage readers to travel.
Stage 1: Do Not Disturb
The first thing I did was reduce the volume and timing of notifications I receive. One of the best features on both Android and iOS is Do Not Disturb. This isn't enough alone, but combined with sane rules makes the break between you and your phone.
Since the early days of Blackberry, people were chained to notifications. Notifications have many problems, the worst of which is the impact on sleep. Do Not Disturb helps you take back your sleep. It also lets you take back your time.
Here's how I use my Do Not Disturb settings:
- No calls, messages or notifications from 8pm – 10am
- Notifications from Tusky, Signal QKSMS and calls on Saturday and Sunday daytime
- Exceptions for specific contact groups over specific services
Using contact groups to manage exceptions lets family and friends reach you in your own time. Calls also come through if someone calls 3 times in 5 minutes. This works on both iOS and Android.
Stage 2: Notifications
I also restrict notifications. I restrict which apps can send notifications. I restrict when apps can send notifications.
On my iPhone I used IHG's app to book hotels. The app used notifications to update me about bookings. It also advertised to me. Many apps use notifications for adverts. This doesn't happen on my current phone.
The only apps that can trigger notifications on my phone are:
- Tusky for Mastodon notifications
- Mail notifications
- Calendar notifications
- Signal Messenger for messages
- App update notifications from F-Droid and Yalp
For everything else, I can check the app when I feel like it.
Imagine caring what people you barely know are up to while the most amazing person in the world lies next to you.
Stage 3: Reduce Interaction
A major try to get social media to notify me by email. This increases the amount of steps needed to respond. I use a dedicated mail account for low-value mail such as notifications and sign-ups. I now respond to notifications on my own time, not when a light pops up.
If I have an email notification, the app will still show it as unread when I visit. I set aside time to use social networks. I try to use them with purpose instead of passively scrolling through every 15 minutes.
Marizel and I noticed we used our phones when we woke up, and used them in bed before sleeping. Imagine caring what people you barely know are up to while the most amazing person in the world lies next to you.
Our phones stay outside of the bedroom now. In fact we use no technology in the bedroom beyond a light and a radiator. The room is now only used for about 3 things, none of which need complex technology.
Stage 4: Trimming Apps
Wanna see my home screen?
I deleted Facebook in light of it's continuous commitment to violating privacy. The Cambridge Analytica scandal was the last straw for me. I understand that for many people that's not an option. For example, I'm still a heavy twitter user but it often makes me sad. That's why I keep it off my home screen.
Reducing the amount of apps I have helped a lot. Most of the time, you don't need an app. I started by removing apps I hadn't used in 6 months. I removed apps that had functioning mobile sites and bookmarked them on my home screen. I switched to lighter non-official social media clients that didn't bug or track me.
There are alternatives that will help you get your time back. If you can't delete Facebook, remove the app from your phone. If that's too much, replace it with a dedicated browser app only used for Facebook. Set Facebook's mobile site as the home page in that browser. Bonus points if your dedicated browser app supports ad-blocking.
If you find social media makes you angry or upset, consider consider using it from your Laptop only. Laptops tend not to stay online, unlike phones and tablets. Using a laptop requires a conscious decision to engage instead of a passive default. You can still catch up with friends and family on Facebook, but need to make a little effort to do so. Friction is the best tool to control social media control use.
Setting up ad-blockers on a laptop is often easier than on a phone. Having said that, there are great apps like Better that are worth looking at. Android Firefox supports add-ons on mobile, such as uBlock Origin.
Stage 5: Seasonal Cleaning
To keep things light, I created a 3 month folder on my home screen. Every month I go through my installed apps. If I haven't used an app that month, it goes in the 3 month folder. This means the app is on my home screen but not taking up space.
If I use it, it comes out of the drawer and off my home screen. If I don't use the app in 3 months, I uninstall it. This keeps my phone light, quick and clean.
I'm pretty brutal about my home screen. My wallpaper is black, I use dark mode where I can and I keep the screen brightness low. I have 11 icons on my home screen, along with two folders:
- The 3 months folder discussed earlier
- A folder named “Don't”.
The Don't folder holds apps I want to use less. Don't doesn't mean, “Don't use this”. It means “Don't make this your default action”. In my Don't folder currently, I have the following apps:
- Red Reader
Once I feel my relationship with an app is back on track, I take it out of don't and decide where to put it next. If it doesn't improve, I'll consider removing it. I don't have to remove it. I just have to make an active decision about that app's future.
As I mentioned, my wallpaper is black, but I've found some great options for lockscreens.
You might've wondered what Tusky and Mastodon are. Well, I used to use Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. I find that these apps would encourage me to vomit thoughts, argue with people or share things that upset me. I decided to find alternatives, and I'm glad I did.
I use Mastodon as a much happier alternative to Twitter. Mastodon is a bit like a friendlier, happier twitter. It's not the same, but that's a good thing. Instead of Instagram I use Pixelfed but that's still new, so I'm waiting for an Android app. For writing I use writefreely. You're using it now to read this.
These applications are all part of something called the Fediverse. It's a non-commercial, open way of sharing with each other. Nobody's incentivised to get you to like or share. Likewise, nobody's incentivised to like or share your stuff. These spaces tend to be smaller and sometimes less active, but are way healthier.
Ethical social media is less invasive. It avoids the dopamine-feedback loop you get with commercial networks. People can still contact me via social networks on Mastodon and Pixelfed. Of course, there are plenty of options for email.
I've got rid of most of the more evil social media around, how do I reclaim my life? Well, I start by setting particular times to use social media. I check social media on my phone mostly at the start of the day, and about an hour before bed. The rest of the time it needs to be a conscious decision to use it on my laptop.
It takes time to reclaim your attention span. I've found Kindles to be amazing devices for this. I just wish I could find a more open alternative that did what I wanted. I've also found little things to reclaim my attention span.
Instead of using a phone when I get up, I try to make sure Marizel is the first thing I see. If I'm up first I'll spend a few minutes watching her sleep. Sometimes I think about random things. Other times I just watch her. I find this helps me focus on what's important.
I usually make us coffee first thing in the morning and I'll look out of the kitchen window while the kettle boils. It's not an amazing view, but the phone stays in the living room. It gives me time every day for my mind to wander. It's only 5 minutes while I wake up, but it makes a real difference to my perspective.
The biggest thing I've had to accept is that this is a work in progress. Sometimes I'm going to fail. I'm going to get into arguments on twitter. I'm going to spend too much time on an app for no good reason. There will be times when I'm physically with people, but mentally absent. It's ok. What's important is that I recognise it, and try to stop it happening next time.
But in a life surrounded by bells and flashing lights I can find the time to be present with those I care about. That's worth more than all the likes and shares in the world.