It’s been one month since I turned my phone into a device that, for the most part, does not give me any new content. No email, no social media, no RSS, and not even any work communication. A few people have asked how it’s going.
In a word, lovely. Absolutely lovely.
Since iOS debuted Screen Time, our family has reviewed the numbers for anyone who owns a device (4 out of 6 of us). I’ve been tracking this since October and we mostly use it for talking about screen usage and addiction, not telling our kids how they have to use their devices.
Looking at my own numbers since dumbing down, there is a small shift. The 4 weeks before starting this exercise, I was averaging 96 minutes of usage, 64 pickups, and 25 notifications per day. Since the change, the numbers have reduced to 83 minutes of usage, 44 pickups, and 17 notifications per day. Not a huge reduction at first glance.
But there is more to these numbers than what you see on the surface. First, those numbers are probably not that high compared to a lot of folks. Second, picking up my phone 20 less times in a day means there are 20 times when I choose to put my attention into something else. Last, my book reading comes into play. I tend to switch back and forth between paper and digital books and I happened to start a new digital book that bumped up my averages over the past couple of weeks.
And I’m definitely ok with reading books on my phone.
But the more important aspect of this entire exercise is not necessarily made obvious by the numbers. It’s the feeling. After the first week of getting used to the change, the compulsion to pick up the device to check something, anything, starts to fade. I've had plenty of moments where I realized I'm not sure where my phone is.
And so the number of pickups drops, yes. But the feeling of not needing to constantly find stimulus far outweighs the change in statistics. That change started to dribble into my work day. But the distractions are still present in that space (or habit field, as Jack Cheng called it) so I still have to fight the urge to shift screens and check something when I bump into uncertainty or switch between tasks.
So the changes are positive. But there is still room to grow.
Related, Isaac Smith posted an update about how his own experience has been going.
The Wildbit team focused on focus for the month of June. We went through the exercise of being super mindful of our time with the goal of getting in 4 very focused hours of work each day.
Before we started, I spent some time tweaking RescueTime so that it would automatically show my overall productivity and how much focus time I was getting. As part of that process, I subscribed to their email newsletter and quite enjoyed some of the articles they referred to. This was one of them.
In this piece, they outline the difference between internal and external distractions. The ones listed in the title above are the external, but it’s the internal issues that are hardest to overcome.
It’s not the chatter of people around us that is the most powerful distractor, but rather the chatter of our own minds.
This was good to read while I was going through the exercise of dumbing down my phone (more on that below). And while that exercise is focused on the removal of external input (email, social media, Slack etc), it’s actually just making it harder to act on the inner impulse (I’m bored or unsure of how to move forward on the problem at hand).
Confessions of a 40-something default skin
I must confess that I’ve finally succumbed to the world of Fortnite.
Two summers back, we finally brought video games back to our home (I’d given them up in my mid-to-late 20s) as our boys were showing increased interest. We started with a used Wii to see how things would go, then picked up a Nintendo Switch last year. My thinking was that if they were going to have this be a part of their lives, I would join them in it so it was something we did together. And Nintendo tends to have games that are less “adult” themed.
It wasn’t long before our eldest son started asking about Fortnite. We held back for quite a few months in our usual Amish fashion (take a wait-and-see approach to new things, albeit with a much shorter timeline than the horse-and-buggy crowd). As our son showed maturity on the topic (i.e. disciplined himself enough to stop asking about it multiple times per day), we let him start playing over the Christmas break. Season 7 for you Fornite aficionados.
Me? I tried it once after his first few weeks. But the chaos and fast game play seemed like a lot of stress I didn’t need. And things stayed that way for months. Until the boys lost the cartridge to FIFA 19 🙄
Once that happened, I slowly started to get into Fortnite. And to enjoy it. Well, some aspects of it at least. A few thoughts that have come to mind in playing the game.
We try to limit the exposure to violence in our home. But Fortnite is not bad in this regard. It’s a shooter, yes — but when you eliminate a player, there is no blood or gore. Instead, some flying robot-type-thing pops out and the player’s “projection” is sucked up. I’m not sure if that is correct depiction, but that’s what it feels like. Fortnite is the Candy Crush of first person shooters
If there is a danger with this game, it’s addiction. Epic Games is employing a lot of the same tactics services like Facebook and Twitter use. And based on their revenue, they’re benefitting a lot from those tactics
There’s an entire culture around the game. The more my two boys played the game, the less I understood what they were talking about. Defaults, sweaty try-hards, mats… there’s an entire vernacular to learn (although it really chaps my backside when they claim a term that has been around for decades came from Fortnite users)
And there’s a real sense of community here. My boys will play with friends from school — often in creative mode where you can build a lot and play against only the people invited — but have also made friends with people from all over the place. It’s something to be careful of, but also something that reminds me a little of the early days of Twitter
It’s not an easy game. Since I grew up playing games, I’ve tended to be able to beat my kids whenever we play. They could play Mario Kart for two weeks straight, then I’d play one grand prix and blow them away. But that ended with Fortnite — maybe it’s my age and declining faculties, but I find it hard to aim on the move and stressful overall
In that vein, I think Epic would do well to make it a little easier for new players. Programmatically get groups of players in similar tiers/levels against each other so someone who’s played less than 10 times does wait 2 minutes for the game to load only to last 30 seconds before getting two pumped from behind by some person who's played since season 2… totally speaking from experience here
But it is a lot of fun. As someone who spent a lot of evenings play 4-on-4 Goldeneye with friends, I appreciate a good group shooter. A team rumble can be a little chaotic, a solo match just stresses me out, but overall, it’s still a lot of fun and I find myself wanting to improve my skills
Since I made the decision to be involved with my kids in gaming, I’m glad I got started on this. We have some good times competing to see who can last the longest or get the most eliminations in a match. I'm curious to see how long it sticks.
Well, that turned into a longer list than I had intended. I guess I’m still in the honeymoon phase of the game. But if you're a parent who has been wondering about this game, here's a vote of approval from a fairly cautious dad.
Dan Cederhom recently announced that he is leaving Dribbble, the company he started over 10 years ago. It’s one of those 20-things-I-learned kind of posts, but hang in until the end where he makes a great point that hits close to home.
Under point 19, aptly named Take care of yourself first, he shares a little about his experience with anxiety.
Anxiety is a medical condition—it’s biological. A chemical imbalance where our primitive “fight or flight” response kicks in at times it shouldn’t. It’s also a condition that’s often misunderstood by those that don’t experience it. But it needs to lose its stigma. It should be talked about more. Millions suffer from it.
This is why I’ve shared about the struggles in our family. If someone breaks their leg or comes down with cancer, we extend our sympathy. We need to keep talking about mental health issues so we stop thinking about these kinds of issues in the wrong way.
I like Dan’s focus here on the biology. A lot of mental health issues requires changes in thinking on the part of the person who is ill (and that is damn hard work). But it often just comes down the body not working correctly — just like cancer.
Our bodies are amazing chemical factories and, unfortunately, the end result doesn’t isn’t always good health. So the more we can talk about it, the better we can understand it, the better we can recognize that medication is often the appropriate treatment (or at least a part of the treatment along with CBT or related techniques).
The dumb phone I already own
The act of replacing one’s smart phone with a less capable version is a growing trend. As digital decluttering and internet detoxes become more popular, so too is making the more permanent change of having less capability in your pocket at all times. Some people will pull out an old Nokia from their drawer, some will pick up the latest flip phone (they still make these?), and some will try one of few new options available in this category (i.e. the Light phone).
Me? I’ve kicked the idea around a few times. I gave it serious consideration once again when I saw that Isaac Smith made the switch recently. But there was an aspect of my job that required me to be on call for periods of time where a smartphone and some specific apps were needed — this had stopped me from truly considering the idea.
That requirement changed suddenly a couple weeks back and I no longer have to be available after hours. So I once again thought about getting rid of my iPhone and getting something less functional, and therefore less distracting.
Truthfully, social media and a lot of the things Cal Newport talks about in Digital Minimalism are not an issue for me. I don’t use Instagram and apps of that sort. I don’t have a Twitter app on my phone. The most common “entertainment” activity I perform on my phone was reading books.
Yet I still feel the need to use my phone less. I still suffer from the “just checks”. It’s just that what I check on is all work related. And, in a house of 6 where screentime is a common point of discussion and focus, I want to lead by example.
So I looked at my phone and thought about all the things I like to do with it. These are activities that are either necessary or something I consider enjoyable and a good use of my time. The only question is when I should take the time to do them.
write in my journal (including adding photos)
documenting and reviewing my personal and professional goals
completing my weekly reviews, which includes those goals and my calendar
logging my habits
recording and reviewing my runs
reading RSS and email newsletters
looking at our photos
reviewing maps when on trail runs
reading my Bible during a church service or when travelling (I use my hard cover Bible at home, but it’s big enough I don’t want to lug it around)
paying for items when on a run
transferring funds when out and about
scanning documents and receipts
work related items (checking Slack, Basecamp, Help Scout, Intercom, and email)
I’m sure there are some other items I haven’t thought of yet. I considered how to approach all of these if I was to move to a dumb phone. I’d probably want to get a Kindle. Some activities I could switch to doing on my laptop (but with less frequency). Some might be dropped completely (reading a digital Bible, paying for items with Apple Pay). And the purpose of this exercise was to do the work related items during my workday from my computer.
But when discussing this with my wife, she had a really great suggestion:
Why not turn the phone you already have into a dumb phone?
Great idea. And I did just that.
I removed all apps that get me picking up the phone to “check”. Slack, Basecamp, email, RSS, and Strava. I reviewed the Notifications panel in Settings — things were pretty clean already, but I removed a few more. I also disabled vibrations and reduced the number of apps that could post items on the Lock screen.
I’m looking forward to seeing how this plays out. Early returns are looking good — my phone has not been in my hand much the past week.
One other benefit of the dumb phone is not having to pay a ridiculous price for your data plan. I get a bit frustrated that we have very few options here in Canada and they’re all spendy (we pay around $200 CAD/month for 3 phones and data). So I’m still considering the dumb phone as a possibility at some point.
But for now, I appreciate the supercomputer in my pocket that lets me do most of the items I listed above. But with far less distraction now.
Derrick Reimer shares the story of his last year. He had left Drip and started working on Level, an alternative to Slack (reminds me a lot of Twist), before choosing to walk away. His desire to build a calmer chat tool is laudable and the story is interesting.
But one point leapt off the (web)page and grabbed my attention. After building an early prototype and sharing with interested users, the results were not what he had hoped:
The response did not live up to my expectations. Only a subset of people who paid booked an onboarding session. Of those who did, some never touched the product. Some who did poke around the product never gave it a real go with their team (and didn’t show much interest in following up with me). A handful did convert.
Every conversion funnel leaks, but I was admittedly disheartened. There seemed to be a curious mismatch between the sentiments I gathered early on and the actions people were taking. If people were ravenous for a solution, why weren’t most people even attempting to pilot Level?
He decided that he needed a larger sample size and invited another 1,000 people to try his product. To similar results:
I observed how people were using it for about a week. There was a lot of poking around and, once again, virtually zero evidence of anyone piloting it with their team. I reached out directly to everyone who made it into the product: are you planning to test Level out? What can I do to help?
It became clear pretty quickly that the gap between interest and implementation was of canyon-like proportions…
Small teams (who have a much easier time making the jump due to their size) didn’t seem that compelled by Level. In follow-up conversations, I discovered that Slack was at most a minor annoyance for them. Suboptimal? Yes. Worth going through the trouble of switching? Probably not.
It turns out that his message resonated with people. But the pain they experienced in their current toolset was not enough to prompt change. This is where the forces behind the jobs-to-be-done framework are so key.
Our work with Conveyor feels similar to what Derrick experienced. We’ve had multiple rounds of user testing and I’ve learned to not trust the exact words people say to you. Their actions speak much more loudly.