3 simple fixes for reclaiming your life from your smartphone.

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I was sitting at a soup dumpling restaurant the other night, quietly journaling at a table when a couple sat down next to me and started engaging in rapid-fire conversation about what I assume had happened during their day but I don’t know I barely speak Japanese.

Judging by their comfort with one another, it appears that they’d been dating for a while.

The male who sat down next to me immediately caught my attention, because he was much bigger than most Japanese men typically are — not fat, mind you.

Just built.

Like a cinderblock.

Within moments of them sitting down, they were ordering cocktails and a litany of other delicious foods and the conversation was flowing.

Then, suddenly, the cinderblock-looking fella pulled out his smartphone and the conversation died.

Moments later, his girlfriend pulled out hers and before you knew it — what was once a naturally flowing cacophony of beautiful Japanese lingo had suddenly become a competition of who can find the more interesting thing inside their smartphone.

I don’t know if either of them found it, as their conversation continued to flounder throughout the meal.

This is not their fault — this is by design.

Over the last few months, I’ve been on an epic personal crusade designed to help me reclaim my attention from social media and my smartphone, with the end-goal of developing a more fulfilling and rewarding life.

When I die, the last thing that I’ll think about is, how many swipes did I swipe on Tinder?!

Here’s what’s happened over the course of those last, I don’t know, three months since I’ve seriously started on this journey:

All the while spending more one-on-one and group time building great relationships with new friends here in Kyoto and back home.

Everything that happens outside of my smartphone is far more important than the things that happen inside of it, and so I’ve refocused my time and energy on spending as little time as possible shuffling around in apps.

And I want to show you how to retrain your brain in order to minimize your time spent with that crap, too.

In the rest of this post, I’m going to share with you three simple ‘fixes’ — more, things you should start doing immediately — in order to minimize the amount of time you spend on your smartphone during the week.

So you can focus your time and energy on things that actually matter to you.

Fix #1 — Leave your smartphone at home more often.

Years ago, a friend of mine in Denver would often text me and say, “Hey, I’ll be at your place in about 30 minutes — but I’m leaving my smartphone at home.”

At the time, I thought it was strange and added more logistical challenges to his life, but in hindsight it was genius — it prevented him from being pulled away to his smartphone for complete and utter bullshit while we were hanging out.

Which meant that when we spent time together, he was present.

And I was often thinking about what kinda texts I might be missing or people who I hadn’t heard from.

The people who have built our smartphone devices have created what are effectively pocket slot machines that are basically irresistible so long as we have them on us.

I’ve tried everything over the years to fix that — bought a Light Phone, deleted all of my social media apps, gone greyscale, etc — and still, the smartphone wins every time.

The only definitive solution I’ve found is that, when you intend on being present with someone for a period of time or just being uninterrupted by bullshit, leave your damn smartphone at home.

If you’re a parent, this obviously comes with its own logistical challenges and then there are dozens of other situations in which you can rationalize needing your smartphone but the reality is that, 99.99999% of the time, the things that you believe might be urgent or might become urgent are fabricated emergencies.

Going a few hours without your smartphone will not kill you — in fact, it will make you happier and more connected with the relationships that you are actively trying to cultivate.

The most important of those being your relationship with yourself 🙂

Fix #2 — Delete your social media and news apps.

A few years ago, I discovered something the moment I — heart-pumping and sweat pouring down my temples — decided to highlight the Instagram and Facebook apps on my phone and press ‘delete’: I started spending far less time on any of those sites.

If you look at the trajectory of Facebook, as soon as it started to focus most of its efforts on mobile, its revenue exploded. (See: 2012 v. 2013 revenue figures.)

This wasn’t an accident — Facebook, like dozens of other massive tech companies, quickly discovered that if they could get you install their app on your smartphone, you would spend significantly more time on their apps.

And so, the amount of information that they were able to collect from you — from location data, to contact data, and so on — greatly expanded with that and, so too did advertiser revenue.

(Nothing is more valuable than being able to serve highly targeted ads to people who will respond to those ads.)

The quick fix to all of this, of course, is to intentionally make it as difficult as possible for you to access these apps by deleting them from your phone.

You will discover, within a week or two of dealing with the inevitable discomfort that comes from not being able to quickly pull the slot-machine lever, that you’ll start spending far less time on those sites.

And as a result, you might find yourself becoming increasingly bored on your commutes, or possibly even turning to other news sites or your Kindle app for inspiration.

I challenge you to delete all of those other apps, too, except maybe the Kindle app — anything that might serve as a quick fix solution to your boredom in the form of an endless scroll.

Learn to be OK with the fact that nothing interesting is happening in your phone, and to instead turn outwards — to the world, to the people around you, to the conversations that have reached their inevitable lull.

Everything is OK.

Fix #3 — Turn off all of your notifications.

A few years ago, Chris Marcellino and Justin Santamaria, then engineers at Apple, were trying to develop a means of seeing notifications from apps at a glance without having to actually go into said app.

The original patent looked a little something like this:


That little feature started what would effectively become the smartphone arms race — a race to develop a means of making your app as appealing and addictive as humanly possible in order to suck the most time and energy out of someone’s soul.

That red dot isn’t working?

How about a full-screen notification?!

Oh, that’s not doing the trick?! WHAT ABOUT AN EMAIL OR A TEXT?!

And so on.

A big part of the reason why smartphones have become so insanely addictive are the Pavlovian responses that have been engineered into those devices.

When your phone is constantly buzzing, telling you that it has something urgent for you to see, and everything has a notification attached to it, you become accustomed to assuming that everything is important.

(When, in fact, none of it is.)

Around 2015 or 2016, I started turning off all of my notifications by default.

I left my phone on silent, I turned off any badges and, save for a few apps that I thought might provide some sort of benefit — ie calls from friends — basically everything was set to, “If I need you, I will let you know.”

What I noticed was that, although people would sometimes comment on my lack of immediate response to some of their messages and I did occasionally miss some interesting invitations, eventually they just learned to accept that I wasn’t always immediately available.

I would try my best to check my messaging apps at least once a day, but often many fell by the wayside — and I learned to be OK with that.

Most messages aren’t emergencies, and frankly messages are a horrible way to grow a relationship with somebody.

Now, when I actually want to connect with somebody, I call them.

Or I send them a long email updating them on my life, or a video.

Or, better yet, a postcard.

A better system of managing notifications in a thoughtful way — if, for example, they require your attention a few times a day for something work-related or otherwise relevant to your day-to-day existence — is to instead schedule time in your day to attend to those things.

Schedule time to respond to emails, Slack messages, texts, or otherwise important forms of messaging.

You will notice that, as a by-product of this decision, your ability to focus will dramatically increase, among a bevy of other benefits — it’s science, dammit.

But beyond that, instead of having your tools dictate your behavior, you will instead start learning ways in which you can dictate your tool’s behavior.

Off and on, I’ve been using each of these strategies to varying degrees for the last few years — #2 and #3 rather consistently, and #1 more recently.

I’ve noticed that I still often get sucked into the abyss that is my smartphone — before bed, upon waking up, and deep in the middle of an intellectual conversation about the universe with someone who I’ve just met.

Which is to say that even if you implement all of these, you will still find yourself occasionally relapsing like the former heroin addict that we all have become.

But these strategies will help you significantly reduce your overall usage of your smartphone and force you to start thinking about, what the hell do I do with all of this extra free time?

That’s a great question — I’ve written a number of articles on that topic, here’s one on how to create awesome reading databases.

But I will leave you with this final thought — the average adult, these days, spends about 2.5 hours a day on social media.

Which means that, minus working hours and sleep — of the remaining hours they have available in their day, about 1/4th of that day is spent entrenched in social media.

Here’s something scary to consider — if you’re a new parent, by the time your child turns four, you will have completely missed a quarter of your child’s life due to social media.

That is not a world I want to live in, and I’d imagine that if you seriously start to consider the ramifications that your lack of attention might have on your personal relationships, you would agree, too.

Let’s take back our attention.

Living in the present is much better.

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