“Addiction originally meant a different kind of strong connection: in ancient Rome, being addicted meant you had just been sentenced to slavery.” – Adam Alter, Irresistible: The Rise of Addicting Technology and the Business of Keeping us Hooked
It is difficult to break up with your smartphone. Before 2020, I tried several times. I spent hundreds of dollars on different solutions created by the market, alternate operating systems on multiple phones, and even apps that promised the cure for my smartphone addiction. I read books, listened to podcasts, and watched YouTube videos of other creators that encouraged me to ditch the smartphone and its addictive little icons. None of them, however, succeeded in getting me to put down my smartphone and redirect that time to more enjoyable endeavors. I’ll try to keep this blog concise and practical, but some philosophical arguments still may ensue. As a favor to my short attention span friends, here is a TLDR (Too Long Didn’t Read) recommendation list from easiest to hardest:
- Main Argument: Your smartphone is not the problem, you are not the problem, the apps inside your smartphone create the problem of smartphone addiction.The less apps you depend on, the easier it will be to break free.
- Steps for digital recovery
- Step 1: Quit services
- Step 2: Get secondary devices
- Step 3: Start Time Blocking
- Step 4: Find services that are allies
- Step 5: Repeat
- Learn to use Digital Well-being and Apple Screen Time, don’t tap away when your time is up, fight and use your time for your favorite hobby.
- Get an Unpluq Key: This allows you to decide when to be distracted and when to be focused.
- Get Freedom.to for laptop and phone productivity.
- Get a KaiOS device: They are not perfect, but they can be good transition devices
- Get a Light Phone 2 or Punkt device: This is for those who have broken up with most online services and desire to live mostly offline.
During 2014 and 2020, I tried different ways to break up with my smartphone. I swapped between numerous platforms including: Sailfish, Ubuntu Touch, Symbian, Blackberry, Windows Phone, Android, and iOS. At this juncture in my journey, I was trying to decipher which one was less addicting and most effective at keeping me productive during my day. I discovered that none of them offered a perfect solution for me and some of them became obsolete within each year that passed. I kept trying to find why these devices were so addictive and why I could not let go of them while sitting at the dinner table. It wasn’t until I quit Facebook and Instagram in 2020 that I got a glimpse of the answer.
Smartphones from a hardware perspective are not that special. They are just screens with touch enabled capabilities, and while that is a great advancement for those of us born before the 2000’s, they do not offer any life changing feature from a hardware standpoint. Software wise, however, they are a technological marvel. The apps that are available through the Play Store or Apple Store are the real deal. Just imagine if you had a smartphone with no apps, no maps, Uber, Spotify, or Netflix, just a crystal slab that makes phone calls and sends texts. No one would pay $1,000 dollars plus tax for these in comparison to the latest $50 feature phone. Sure some would still prefer the on-screen keyboard, but it is the apps, the speed, the conveniences found within those digital walls that make the phone “worth” $1,000 or more! Without the apps, the smartphone becomes just a regular phone. A regular phone that is easy to replace. This is where me quitting Facebook and Instagram illumined my experience and helped me regain control.
“The problem isn’t that people lack willpower; it’s that “there are a thousand people on the other side of the screen whose job it is to break down the self-regulation you have.” – Adam Alter, Irresistible: The Rise of Addicting Technology and the Business of Keeping us Hooked
No More Social Media*
I started 2020 with a challenge: quit social media for 12 months. I enlisted my friends to quit with me in different intervals. Some quit for 3, others for 6, and there were a couple that wanted to do the full 12 months. Then, the pandemic hit. We returned to our regular channels of social media communication because it was “necessary.” Our jobs shifted, priorities changed, and well you know 2020 was a mess. Yet it was during 2020 that I managed to quit the social media giants. I deleted my Facebook and Instagram in April 2020 after 10 years of being on those platforms. At first, I was afraid. I thought that people would miss me or that I would miss out on some big news or innovation for my career. I feared that I would not be able to advance through the ladder because I lacked this “essential” medium of communication. I am happy to report that wasn’t the case. I still have friends, I regained hours of my time, and I can say that my work performance has increased and not decreased. I quit Facebook and Instagram and I live happy with my decision.
“Quitting these services was the first step to regain my ability to moderate my smartphone use. Without them, all of the sudden I didn’t have much to check my smartphone for.” – Jose Briones
The cold truth is that most of us are not addicted to our smartphones, we are addicted to the apps within these devices. If you quit Instagram, Facebook, WhatsApp, Netflix, etc., you will find more time to be bored, to experience new things in the world, and to think once again (it’s been a while for some of us!!). The services contained within our smartphones are the main issue. Thus, before quitting our smartphones or ditching them for a feature phone like the Light Phone 2 or the latest Nokia device, we have to quit the services tied to them. As of 2021, I have a couple of social websites I frequent (you can find me on reddit or discord) and a Facebook page (not a profile, so I don’t get a barrage of content thrown at me) for my job (something I have to have now that it is required by my employer). The difference with these services (read: how I rationalize using them) is that they are filtered by topics, so I don’t have to interact, like, or comment on my friends’ walls. I only subscribe to the reddits or discord servers on the topics I want and allows me to interact with people that have the same interests. Moreover, I only access them on my laptop (with a time blocker, more on this below) and plan to quit them all by 2022. I have found this is a healthy balance for me and that the people who are going to miss you will contact you, those who don’t will not. And that’s a good thing.
Alright, we have gotten to the most difficult part. I don’t want to get preachy or say this is the best service, all of the other ones suck. There are many options out there and you may need to find some that work for you and others that don’t. Here is my step system and my current set up:
Step 1: Quit Services
Take your time on this one. It will be the longest step. First you need to identify what services are truly essential and which ones need to go to the trash. For me, I need Whatsapp (family and work communication), email, calls, and texts. Those are truly essential and cannot be replicated by other secondary or tertiary devices. Spotify, Netflix, etc, those are not essential to me and I use secondary devices for them (step 2). If you work on social media or use messengers to communicate in your work, delete your personal profiles and create a new number/profile that is only for work only.
Step 2: Get secondary devices
We all love that our smartphones are great at doing everything. Well, that is one of the main traps. Software and hardware companies have convinced us that having one tool that does it all is better than having multiple tools. Get devices for listening to music (offline preferred, but there are music players for Spotify, Amazon music, etc), navigating around town, reading online articles and books, and another one for watching shows. Don’t put everything on your smartphone, it will make it less useful overtime as you quit services and regain agency. This is the priciest step.
Step 3: Start Time Blocking
Once you have quit services and shifted to a multiple device lifestyle, you will find free time more often. And with free time, comes boredom. Block your time with time blocking techniques and pursue your passions. There is nothing more powerful than your passions to beat any kind of addiction.
Step 4: Find services to help you
There are a ton of allies on the battle of smartphone addiction. Find one that you enjoy and believe in. Also, be willing to pay for it at least for 3 months of a premium service. It will allow a time period for you to test the paid service and see how they help you in the struggle. Here are some of my favorite extensions and services:
Step 5: Repeat
It will take time and iteration for the system to work. New habits need to be formed and you need to fail. Embrace the moment, regain hope, and repeat the process to find freedom!
I have opted for a dual set up: I have a work phone (OnePlus 8) and a Light Phone 2 for my personal number. Whenever I am at work or work from home, I take my phone with me. Otherwise, I leave it behind either at the office or charging at home in my charging table (a specific table where phones get charged at home). I also own a GPS (Garmin) for my car for whenever I go out only with my Light Phone 2. I don’t use the Google Playstore (I opt for F-Droid instead) and have mostly degoogled my phone. I have minimal apps on my phone and deleted anything that is not communication related. There are methods to do this on android via your laptop and its pretty easy too! Share your current set up in the comments and let me know if you need help :).