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Is it time to wean yourself off of the smartphone?

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This may sound like a stupid question: Why would anyone want to limit their use of a smartphone when the handheld device offers access to a world of web information, useful applications, contextual data and more?

As someone who generally uses a mobile device from the crack of dawn until it’s time for bed, this question is almost counter-intuitive. Yet, as I read about experiences from people who actually have flirted with a smartphone divorce, I’m intrigued. Why? Because there’s a common theme here: Those who have entered the limited-smartphone world appear to enjoy less stress, more peace and greater clarity.

The latest example comes from Brad Feld, a managing director at the Foundry Group VC firm. Feld stayed off his iPhone (s aapl) for 14 days, with the first seven days being completely offline. The following week, he connected to the online world through his MacBook Air and Kindle (s amzn) tablet. He’s using the iPhone again, but in a totally different way: Voice calls, the occasional map query and checking his calendar. The result?

“There’s some magic peace that comes over me when I’m not constantly looking at my iPhone. I really noticed it after two weeks of not doing it. After a few days of withdrawal, the calm appears. My brain is no longer jangly, the dopamine effect of “hey – another email, another tweet” goes away, and I actually am much faster at processing whatever I’ve got on a 27? screen than on a little tiny thing that my v47 eyes are struggling to read.”

Surprisingly, given that I cover mobile technology for a living, I see merit to this approach, although I’m not advocating, nor willing to try a complete lack of smartphone use. I sympathize with the “always connected” stress that Feld has alleviated. There are some days where I wake up already feeling worn out by what I know is waiting for me: A smartphone filled with tweets, Facebook updates, emails, blog comments to respond to, friend requests on several social networks, and the list goes on….

There’s a good reason not to go cold turkey and dump the smartphone though, and Feld hits this topic spot on:

“Now, I’d love for there to be a way for me to know about high priority interrupts – things that actually are urgent. But my iPhone doesn’t do this at all in any discernable (sic) way. There are too many different channels to reach me and they aren’t effectively conditioned – I either have to open them up to everyone (e.g. txtmsg via my phone number) or convince people to use a specific piece of software – many, such as Glassboard – which are very good, but do require intentional behavior on both sides.”

I think this feeling of “I might be missing something important on my phone” is prevalent among any smartphone owner that seeks to curtail their handset use. Regardless of the mobile platform you choose — I use iOS and Android daily, which could be adding to my particular challenges — one could use notifications to separate the noise from the signal on a smartphone or tablet. That’s probably an area I need to look at reconfiguring in my own mobile device use: I have way too many apps notifying me. But that’s just a start. Feld is on to something when it comes to the need for a better way to manage “high-priority interrupts,” as he calls them.

Clearly, emails, texts and other messages need responses. For this, Feld is relying on specific times to manage those activities and he’s doing so through devices with larger displays and keyboards. As I think about the emails that I need to respond to, most of them probably could wait a few hours and I may try living without an email client or web page open all day, every day as a result. [Ed. note: we frown on this ;) ] In Feld’s implementation, he found immediate benefits:

“Yesterday, it occurred to me that I was much more mentally engaged throughout the day in the stuff going on (I had a typically packed day). I had dinner with my brother at night. No phones were on the table, no checking in to Foursquare, no quick scanning of Twitter in the bathroom while peeing. When I got home, I hung out with Amy – no email. This morning, I just spent an hour and went through the 200 emails that had piled up since 5:30pm when I’d last checked my email. My inbox is empty.”

Completely ditching the smartphone isn’t the answer here; that’s not what I’m suggesting nor considering. However, as the smartphone has evolved over the past handful of years, I notice more “information anxiety” in my life is the effect: The smarter the phone gets, the more I use it. And the more I use it, the more scattered I often feel in my thoughts and focus.

I couldn’t easily live without my smartphone because I do get tremendous benefit from it: Socially, professionally, and personally. However, cutting back on the near-constant “face in the screen” activities might not be a bad idea until I see better software methods to manage my use of this mobile hardware.

As a follow up, even if a smartphone use reduction experiment doesn’t pan out, I’ll be looking at how to improve or focus notifications to reduce stress while also allowing for high priority interruptions. I’m open to suggestions in the meantime, as I suspect there are some tools to help. I also think there’s a tremendous opportunity for improvements both at the smartphone application level as well as in the native platform. I know I have to take responsibility for my usage patters, but a truly smart phone should help.

22 Responses to “Is it time to wean yourself off of the smartphone?”

  1. Charles

    See “Your Brain at Work” by David Rock. There you’ll find explanations as to why we feel compelled to respond to all these alerts (spoil alert: our brain’s hardwired to do that). But for most of us, doing so takes energy, time and control away from us, interruting what we were doing, breaking our concentration… I’ve completely cut off all notifications except business emails and meeting reminders a few months ago and, after a short adaptation period during which I kept wondering and checking whether my cell home was still working, I find myself more relaxed and more in control.

  2. I currently use my phone primarily as a notification device, because although my phone is mobile, I can get through the same tasks MUCH faster on a PC with access to a full blown physical keyboard and 1080p+ screen. I star emails in Gmail and reply to them later. I’ve replaced SMS with FB Messages as much as possible so all my conversations are synced and available from any device. When I absolutely have to send a text, I prefer to do so from MightyText.

  3. I lost my iPhone a few weeks and although I initially consoled myself with the knowledge that I was due for an upgrade soon, I found that, indeed, after the initial withdrawal and concomitant freak out–eeek, I’m on the bus and can’t remember my dentist’s number–it started to feel better and better not needing to look at the damn thing constantly. I discovered that I had more ideas, just as the Ted Talk promised, if I wasn’t staring at a little square of light. Today I am due for my upgrade and replacement. I am dragging my feet. And this piece makes me want to hold out just a little bit longer…

  4. Joseph Henry Steig

    This is exactly why a BlackBerry is such a great tool! The “crackberry” phenomena is actually less of an issue on a BlackBerry than IOS or Android because it can do so much less! It’s great for phone calls and e-mail of course but I don’t find myself falling into the social media black hole on the device as much as I do on my Android–the limited capabilities of the device are a great benefit.

  5. Great post! I may try an iPad break at some point. I have used it everyday for two years, its even taken over my phone. Im not guilty of phone watching though. I only tend to use it for vital texts and calls! I haven’t had a facebook in ages and found my life improved getting rid of it.

  6. Art Rosenberg

    I, too, noticed Brad Feld’s commentary and referenced it in my blog post at;

    You will note that I have embedded the outbound notification problem into automated customer interaction services for mobile consumers. We really have to enable dynamic control of multi-media notifications at the recipient level, rather expect contact initiators, whether people or applications, to do so.

    Although distinguishing the types of alerts by using different sounds is not a bad idea, it doesn’t tell you anything about the content importance. We really need an expanded version of “Caller ID” that reflects who is making contact and something about relative urgency. It wouldn’t hurt to make such information “contextual,” e.g., “expected” contacts that are important.

  7. I think these arguments have been made since the dawn of time…that more stress comes from anything related to technology…even driving versus walking, buying from a grocery store instead of picking from the garden. With that said, I’m not sure a smartphone by itself is any different than the myriad of other technology enhancements we’ve experienced over the span of mankind.

  8. J.R. Lillard

    I know this won’t work for everyone but when I recently switched from a DROID X2 to a Galaxy Note 2 I decided to re-evaluate my notifications since the included sounds were different. I settled on one sound for email and social networks and another sound for text messages, instant messages and weather alerts. I feel like this has helped me decide when to give my phone that instant attention.

  9. Frank A NYC

    I think it is leass about the phone and more about the so called social networks. Do you have to update your status while having dinner with someone? Do you have know what your facebook “friends” are doing every minute? it is bizarre to me to see a people out, presumably with each other staring at their phones and ignoring each other. Truly bizarre to me, and I like mobile technology.

  10. This is not about the device it’s about people failing to manage their resources, being connected 24/7 (by using any device) doesn’t have to keep you busy 24/7. If you eat to much you get fat don’t blame the fork.
    A smart ” ïnbox “can help allowing you to prioritize certain things but one doesn’t have to use every idiotic social service out there.
    I guess many that have this problem are new to being online for most of the day and they go too far.
    It might be an interesting question about the future of Twitter, FB and the likes ,will people get exhausted of checking pointless nothings all the time.

  11. I think a personal assistant might be one answer. If that is a human, the employment rate might go up. Absent that, I think Siri or its Android equivalent might be a technology that could make a difference. For example, Skyvi on my Android can recite and allow me to dictate replies to text messages which I find to be really efficient. Expanding that capability to other duties could mean we might seldom need to take the smartphone out of the pocket. Meanwhile I would appreciate advice from Mr. Feld on how to process 200 emails in an hour – wow! P.S. no reply expected or necessary, lets keep it simple ;)

    • Absolutely the person is part of it and I didn’t mean to point the finger solely at technology. But we’ve become more dependent on what our smartphones provide and that could lead to information overload; particularly with constant notifications, which I think could be more effective than they are today.

  12. Gregg Borodaty

    I, too, was intrigued by Brad’s post and believe it is something nearly all smartphone owners go through. It simply comes down to making sure you control the technology instead of letting the technology control you. I found vast improvements in my focus and state of mind earlier this year by simply turning off the audible interrupt alerts for emails, tweets, etc. on my phone. Prior to that, I was checking it every time it made a sound. Now, I check things during breaks or when convenient. The results have been pretty dramatic, and I would recommend this simple step to anyone suffering from “smartphone fatigue”.