Most of us want to spend less time staring at screens and more time interacting with the world around us—which is all very well and good until you realise that you can’t navigate that world without a map, and you can’t meet up with someone without reaching out to them in some way beforehand, and it’s a lot easier to use an app to pay for parking instead of trying to come up with enough quarters to feed the metre, and so on.
Like it or not, “interacting with the world around us” often requires a digital interface.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t disconnect. It is possible to continue using your smartphone to solve everyday problems while simultaneously removing the apps and features that turn your phone into a screen-staring device.
Cal Newport, computer science professor and author of Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, recently shared a piece of advice he gave his students:
Use your smartphone only for the following activities: calls, text messages, maps, and audio (songs/podcasts/books).
In other words: don’t allow your smartphone to connect you to the giant sinkhole of the internet. Get rid of your browser and your social media apps and, if possible, your email. (If you can’t bring yourself to fully disconnect from email, at least disable the notifications so you’re only checking when you want to.)
Newport suggests that digital minimalism with smartphones is possible, if we’re willing to turn a device that can do nearly anything into a tool with three functions: a phone, a map/GPS, and—if you’re old enough to remember this reference—a Walkman.
If I were offering similar advice, I’d allow a few more apps on the smartphone. A weather app can be useful, as can the apps that let you pay for parking and public transportation, hail taxis and rideshares, or rent cars and bikes. I’d also let you keep ebook apps like Kindle and Libby, mostly because my smartphone has much better ebook functionality than my several-years-old Kindle, and of course you can keep your camera.
But digital detoxing with smartphones isn’t really about which apps you keep. It’s about which apps you get rid of. If you’re brave enough to remove your web browser and your social media apps and your RSS feed reader and all of the other apps that want you to check and check and pull and check and like and share and just one more, you’ll end up with a device that can do a lot of things—but it won’t be able to drag you in.
Which is what most of us really want, when we talk about spending less time on our phones. We don’t want to stop using the apps that make our lives easier. We want to stay away from the apps that suck our lives away, minute by minute.
So why not delete those apps from your smartphone, and see how long you can go before adding them back?