in Geekery

Using a distraction-free experiment to deal with iPhone overload

Props to this post for the inspiration.

On the standard morning commute I’m sure many can relate to, the train pulls up and I settle into the regular ride to work. As soon as the train gets moving, I  instinctively reach for the iPhone nestled in my front pocket. I unlock the screen and start the content consumption journey, a trip which can last anywhere from 5 to 45minutes.

  • BBC News to get the headlines.
  • Twitter to check the feed (for what, I’m not really sure)
  • Facebook, quickly. Just quickly. Incase I’ve been tagged, or had an invite for “Gem Crushing Bell Ends” to decline again.
  • LinkedIn. It popped up with a notification, better check and clear it off the app, right?
  • HackerNews.. Oh dear god. So many cool things. And comments. Just.. one.. more.. article.

I started to notice when I got to the end of each ‘trip’, I was rarely any wiser or had any concrete takeaways I could implement to improve my well being, or bring anything beneficial into my life. Occasionally I’d remember something to check later and make a note, but in most cases I slipped into this blackhole of endless content and emerged with nothing.

I knew about that war breaking out and the earthquake along with the other news headlines, the occasional cool blog post or mind blowing tech story on hacker news – but that was about it. Oh, and what some of my Facebook ‘friends’ have eaten for lunch recently. Facebook friends differ from normal friends. Like many I can count my real friends on my left hand, and I’m in touch with them outside the walls of Facebook. For everyone else, I don’t really care what they have eaten for lunch. So why is it part of my daily routine?

Smarter people than I are researching and writing about the negative effects of social networks, so I won’t go there – but even though I’m mentally sound, you do start to question what is your brain doing on these trips, and the long term impact this white noise might be having on your health.

But right now, this empty void of instant self gratifying actions (I wonder how many retweets I’ve had…?) is unproductive and just… well, a complete waste of time.

Ironically, it was on one of these ‘trips’ I stumbled across this blog post and the follow up post that diagnosed elements of, although not as extreme, my situation.

I was sold. I was going to strip back my iPhone, delete as many apps as possible and muster the will power to restrict the use of any black hole apps. The smartphone would be in my control.

A few caveats:

  • It’s a work phone, but we use them (within reason) for personal use, so I haven’t stripped it back as much as Jake has, but feel its a pretty good compromise.
  • Apart from Facebook, which I’ve now nuked, I haven’t deleted the black hole apps (Twitter, YouTube etc) as I need them for my profession, but I’ve relegated them into a “naughty folder’ on the last screen.

So, here’s how it looks

photo 5photo 4photo 3

photo 2
photo 1














Neat eh? The phone and WhatsApp are the heavy weights, but here’s a quick break down on the rest of the screens.

Screen 1

  • Stuff I need at the start and end of the day. Alarm clock and train tickets/timetable. Not that the trains in Switzerland are ever late, but I use it most days.
  • Notes – Any brain fart, idea or task I need to do that pops into my head, goes into a note to review later (e.g. On a Sunday afternoon when my son is sleeping) and not into opening a new Safari session. Already this is proving a huge time saver.
  • Train toys – No more social networks or ’50 must have tools for marketers’ type blog posts. It’s either language learning, music or brain training. Not convinced yet on the brain training fad though.

Screen 2

  • Work stuff. Moving email away from the home screen reduces the temptation to check it after hours, and hides the notification icon.
  • SMS is the norm where I work, so that stays.
  • Probably don’t need the calendar here as everything is fed into email anyway. Might move that.
  • Safari tucked away into the folder to reduce those twitching impulses.

Screen 3

  • Real world social stuff. Checking out a place/directions, showing friends photos and controlling the stereo at home. Some useful bits and bobs like a currency convertor. Etc.

Screen 4

  • System stuff and default iOS apps I can’t uninstall.

Screen 5

  • Black hole time wasting apps are way out of sight. ‘Junk food’ might be another nice analogy.

And so far, I’m loving it.

The feeling you get when you close an app is that of clarity. To see the sparse screen and no other immediate options or time fillers is extremely refreshing. I can’t imagine going back.. and its only been 48 hours!

We’ll see how it goes over the coming weeks, stay tuned for more updates.

Follow up notes

  • I’ve moved the camera and calculator app into the iOS default folder as you can reach them anywhere by swiping upwards.
  • Had an idea to buy an old school alarm clock to replace the iPhone’s throne in the bedroom. That way the iPhone is removed from the bedroom completely and can charge elsewhere. Also means I can shift the clock app to the default iOS folder.
  • I’ve convinced my wife to take part in the experiment. Already we seem to be having more conversation and time together, which is nice.
  • Having the Notes app on the home screen is really great, it instantly gets the thoughts out of your head into actionable items. I’ve streamlined this further with four main notebooks – Todo List, Interesting Things, Work and App/Business Ideas. Like so:notes
  • I’ve moved the clock to screen 4, system stuff, as I don’t actually need it everyday once the alarm is set for the week.
  • Deleted the brain training app – decided its a fad with too many in-app purchases. Resulting in more home screen space! Here’s how I’m rolling at the moment, I can’t really see this changing for a while:home

Update: That was a week already!

Just to clarify this experiment has been a huge success.

My iPhone usage is way down, my head clearer and I don’t miss any of the old habits. I still get the ‘twitch’ to open the phone and check something (but I’m not sure what, exactly) but that’s fading as the habits change. It plays out like this:

Brain: You should check your phone
Me: Ok Ye..Woah there. Wait a minute. For what?
Brain: ….
Me: ?
Brain: *shrug*

As a result I’m listing to more music, becoming more disciplined with language learning and reading more good books.

I’m definitely sticking with this setup – so consider this experiment complete! Next I’ll be looking at ways to work this strategy into the desktop environment.

How about you, have you tried it yet? What have you found challenging? Drop your comments below.

Thanks for reading