The Weekly Review

by Chris Bowler

One month with a dumbed down phone

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.

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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.

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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.

My requirements

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
  • reading books
  • logging my habits
  • memorizing Scripture
  • recording and reviewing my runs
  • reading RSS and email newsletters
  • taking photos
  • 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.

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