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 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 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.