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Blog // Thoughts
March 6, 2018

Light Simple Smartphones And Minimal Tech

The recently announced Light Phone 2 is an ultra-minimalist smartphone. Its design may be unique, but the problem it addresses is one many of us struggle with.

Last year, I deleted 122 apps from my iPhone. That might sound heroic, but the truth is it did little to really change my smartphone habits.

The irony of calling these mobile devices smartphones is profound and tragic. They often don’t make us any smarter. If anything they make us feel anxious, distracted, overworked, and possibly even misinformed.

The new Light Phone 2 is an attempt to address ths issue. Scheduled for release in April 2019, the Light Phone 2’s crowdfunding campaign has already raised $666,583, or 266% of its initial goal. Even though it’s still a prototype, this minimal solution, with only a few features and a calming e-ink screen, certainly has a lot of people interested and the tech reviews are surprisingly sensitive to the smartphone issues The Light Co are trying to address (Inc, TechCrunch, and The Verge).

Maybe it’s time for a change?

Brute Force Attempts To Limit My Smartphone Use

Inspired by the “Note To Self” podcast and their Bored And Brilliant challenge, I decided to try and scale back my smartphone usage last year. I installed the Moment app to track my smartphone usage. My hope was to limit my usage to an hour each day (as little as possible was my stretch goal), but the results showed my initial tallies were frequently over three hours a day!

That’s why data, especially data about our personal habits, is so important. It’s a hard kick in the pants. It forces us to face up to reality free from bullshit and excuses.

I could explain away some of this usage and how I managed to miss my daily target. After all, some apps get used several times a day and they do make life easier, like Calm (meditation), Google Maps (umm, maps) and Shazam (what song is that). And then there’s time spent reading news or watching football (in Japan, I have to watch the English Premier League via an app on my iPhone – it’s a long story).

So maybe, three plus hours on a Sunday when I watch a game, read all the opinion pieces on the New York Times, then go exploring an unfamiliar neighbourhood of Tokyo, makes sense. But the rest of the week?

The problem is there are moments in the day, many moments in fact, when we’re switching between things, or waiting for new activities to click into gear. These are like the start-up screen or spinning wheel moments of life. We used to fill those moments with thinking, day-dreaming, observing our environment, chatting with strangers or perhaps just boredom, which in a classic case of “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone,” turns out to be essential for creativity and problem-solving.

Nowadays, we turn to our smartphones, often many times in the day, because it’s entertaining to do and we get a little dopamine hit, experience a little feel-good moment, and it’s not harmful anyway, well at least we tell ourselves that, until we look at the data and start to wonder what we could’ve done with all those hours instead.

Rejecting The App Colour Salad

What can we do? One popular solution at the moment is to turn off the colours on your phone. There’s a good reason app logos are designed with enticing candy colours, good enough to lick as Steve Jobs used to joke. Turn off the colours, so the thinking goes, and you limit the apps’ appeal to our attention.

I found this hack helped, but only a little. I still wanted to use colour for photos and although you can set up the accessibility shortcut (triple click) to switch between colour and colourless modes, I prefer to keep that feature for the magnifier/loupe tool, which I use for everything from checking electronic component numbers to reading tiny characters in my Japanese homework.

Instead, what’s worked far better for me is keeping my iPhone out of reach as much as possible. I’ve given myself a few basic rules that worked well too with this method. I only carry my iPhone in a pocket, never in my hand. In a cafe, I leave the iPhone in my coat, or bag if I have one. I never put the iPhone on a table. I never have it within sight or reach while working or when doing anything that requires my full attention. I also make sure the place where I charge my iPhone is somewhere inconvenient, like a cold corridor in winter, or by a sunny window in summer.

Wouldn’t it be nice though, if we could change the nature of the smartphone itself, rather than just hacking the way we carry it through the day?

Light And Using Design To Tame Smartphone Use

The most elegant solution might be to rethink the device entirely, which is what The Light Co did with their original Light phone and are trying to do again with the Light 2.

The original Light phone was an intentionally simple device, which led some critics to perhaps unkindly call it a “dumb-phone.” It actually piggybacked on your smartphone, using outdated 2G networks to give you a distraction-free alternative for those times when you wanted to be contactable but not distractable.

It felt like the perfect smartphone companion for walks in the park, coffee with friends or maybe just for having near your desk while working. Unfortunately, it didn’t work in Japan (the 2G network it used doesn’t exist here), so I never got the chance to try one out.

Which was a shame because as much as I like to rail against mobile phones, the reason I don’t turn mine off, maybe permanently, is because being a parent means I need to be reachable at all times. Emergency visits to the school are thankfully very rare, but when they happen, being only a phone call away feels like the most important thing in the world.

The Light 2 adds some cool design features like an e-ink screen, as seen on the Amazon Kindle, but also some more smartphone-like features, such as messages, maps, possibly music, ride-hailing (Uber perhaps) and weather. But, they are still committed to leaving off email, news and social media.

While I find the addition of messages and maps appealing, the other apps, especially music, start to make me wonder where the distraction line is for any new device, especially if my goal is to use it “as little as possible” and to be more mindfully present during those “spinning wheel” moments in life.

Categories To The Rescue

In the absence of a new device (or at least until I’m sure it will work in Japan) I started to wonder if there was there any way I could turn my iPhone into something more like a humanPhone?

This got me thinking about what the categories might be. Tools for essential communication, like calls and texts, are still important. To a lesser extent email is still in there.

The Light 2 doesn’t have a camera or the ability to track personal activity data (like steps per day or distance walked). These are, for me, essentially good things that I love about smartphones. They also don’t contribute greatly to the time I spend on my iPhone every day.

But, sharing them does.

It’s the loop that acts as a time trap. Taking a photo only takes seconds. Editing it adds minutes, maybe. But then share it on Instagram and then start scrolling endlessly through the timeline, then before you know it, oh shit, I’m late.

The all-consuming loops and endless scrolling are the ultimate traps and time-sinks on our phones. It’s why we are prone to waste so much time on social media apps but not on looking through say Evernote, or rearranging files in Dropbox.

Therefore, the more we can do to delete these kinds of apps, or make them harder to access, such as moving them off the homescreen, or perhaps burying them in folders, the better. Even small hurdles can give us enough time to stop and ask, “why am I doing this?”

But, this still leaves the biggest trap of all, the web browser. You can delete all your social media apps from your smartphone, but that still leaves a backdoor through the browser! Not to mention all the other endless scrolling for your entertainment distractions.

Notifications And Do Not Disturb

On the iPhone, Do Not Disturb is an imperfect solution, but worth playing with nonetheless. You can limit calls, but not text messages. You can schedule times, but only one block a day, with no variation across the week. You can limit incoming calls to one group in your contacts, but you can’t set a schedule for that.

As for notifications, my approach has been to turn off as many as possible, so it’s frustrating that iOS updates sometimes override this and turn notifications back on. I currently limit notifications to missed calls, earthquake alerts, BandsInTown (music tour info for my favourite artists) and text messages, which are perhaps the most constant source of interruption, since my mobile carrier wants to text me meaningless ads on an almost daily basis.

Conclusion – Why Simple Smartphones Might Be The Future

I haven’t had a (reliable) landline since 2003. Plus, I like to travel and move around. So having a smartphone of some kind feels inevitable. The Light 2 might be the solution, something designed to fit my goals of living and working in a simpler, more distraction-free way.

Of course, Apple could ambush the whole simple smartphone movement by designing customisable simplicity into future versions of their iOS. We are already used to having modes, like Night Mode, which shifts the colours to a soothing, more night-friendly shade of yellow; Do Not Disturb mode, which makes us less disturbable (kind of) and Airplane mode, which turns off networking functions.

But, what if Apple allowed users to create a customisable Simple Mode with some of the features we’ve discussed here? You could go into Simple Mode and maybe have everything grey, have a different configuration of apps, organised around what makes you feel more productive, or at least less distracted. Perhaps even with timers and limits on how much you use some of these apps. All geared around helping us instead make the most of those times in life when you want to stay focussed on what you are doing in the moment.

That really would allow us to “think different.”

Responses
Dane Cobain 2 years ago

This is interesting because while I do of course have a smartphone, I also carry a book everywhere. I fill up a lot of the time that people would normally spend on their phones such as waiting for a doctor’s appointment or travelling on a train etc. by reading a book. But do you think that means that I don’t have that time that’s needed just to sort of mull things over and to come to realisations etc? A lot of other people might spend that time resting or thinking, and I’m potentially just reading some Stephen King or something which won’t necessarily help me to come up with solutions or new ideas. But then I’m also an author, so I guess I’m probably subconsciously learning something.

Speaking of books, there are also some great apps out there that are designed to help you to focus such as those where you grow a virtual tree by basically not touching your phone while you read or work or whatever you want to do. And there’s a great game you can play if you go out to dinner with people where you all put your phones in the middle of the table and the first person to check their phone picks up the bill… ;D

    fernando 2 years ago

    Dane – love the idea of the tree app! Will have to look that up.

    The kind of distraction that comes from reading (or doodling or daydreaming) seems quite different from that of smartphones, both in terms of fight-flight response, breathing patterns, or long term reflection. So, not sure I’d worry much about the reading habit, especially given the side benefits it gives you as a writer.

Stacy 2 years ago

It’s really interesting to observe and comprehend the amount of time we waste away knowingly or unknowingly on our gadgets. This goes to show how taken up we are by technology thus interfering with our productivity.

Keeping my gadgets away also works for me most of the time.

Nice read.

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