Less is exponentially more – Rob Pike

Smart phones are useful, but they are also incredibly addictive, and that addiction is at the epicenter of Silicon Valley’s effort to grab an ever-increasing percentage of our minds. If a substance or behavior controls us, it becomes our master, and that just won’t do.

For the humor of it, let’s use this webMD post and only slightly modify the key signature behaviors outlined to describe smart phone usage addiction:

  • You keep using your phone after it’s no longer needed to solve a problem.
  • You spend more and more of your time on your phone to get the same effects.
  • You feel strange when you don’t have your phone.
  • You can’t stop yourself from using your phone, even if you don’t want to.
  • You have a hard time giving yourself limits. You might say you’ll only use it “so much” but then can’t stop and end up using twice that amount. Or you use it more often than you mean to.
  • You have begun having trouble doing normal daily things without your phone.
  • You drive or do other dangerous things (like use heavy machines) while you are on your phone.
  • You borrow money to pay for your phone.
  • You hide some phone use or the effect it is having on you from others.

The smart phone represents something quite unique when it comes to the human mind. It opens an always on, always connected portal to a large assortment of variable reward machines. Pick your poison: email, stock trackers, social media, news feeds, link aggregators; the list goes on and on. But despite all of the tooling and potential it provides, it introduces an entire swath of repetitive behavior modification that isn’t appealing.

It’s a strange mix of variable rewards, pocket casino, and surveillance capitalism that hooks us. The pocket casino’s price to play is your attention and it pays out a seemingly never-ending supply of dopamine to your brain. This hijacking of our pleasure sensors does really strange things to our brains.

If it didn’t feel good to share your personal details with Facebook, you wouldn’t do it. So Facebook works hard to make it feel good. And when it feels good and you come back for more, you start behaving in ways you wouldn’t have otherwise acted. You come back for the likes, you craft updates in your mind when you aren’t even on Facebook, and you walk around your life thinking about ways to engage with Facebook. In exchange for your dopamine fix, Facebook packages up your behaviors linked to your stated and unstated profile data and sells them to the highest bidder (an audience who is also hoping to further alter your behavior).

But this isn’t a post about Facebook, right? This is a post about smart phones. Yep. I’m just picking on Facebook for effect. Facebook might provide the fix, but the smart phone is the delivery method. With its portability, push notifications, and proximity to sensory organs, it acts like no other device in our lives. To continue the arguments from my earlier post on nonparticipation, we can choose to opt out. But does this mean we go back to feature phones? Is that a viable option? How about no phone at all? There are plenty of folks who have reached this conclusion.

Though going completely “phoneless” is interesting to me, I wanted to explore another option: dumbing down the smart phone. Can we leverage the aspects of smart phones that are amazing, while minimizing the addictive aspects? What if we could make our phones so boring we just look at them when we have to? What if we could strip out most, if not all, of the dopamine-inducing features and leave the phone in a state that is useful but boring. This is what I’ve been experimenting with for the last month and this is what I’d like to outline here.

step one - cut out the entertainment

  • No games.
  • No video streaming apps (YouTube, Netflix, Hulu, etc.).
  • No social media apps (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snap, etc.).
  • No news aggregations.

If you “kill time” with the app, delete it. These are obvious, and probably the most painful for most. The most successful of these are designing addiction into their services (mention Fortnite to a fourteen-year-old and see how this goes). If you must use some of these, use them on your computer. I’d been off all social media for a while; for me the problem was YouTube. I’ve probably got thirty-plus channels I subscribe to, and I wasted more time than I’d like to admit “keeping track” on my phone. Instead, I spend deliberate “YouTube channel time” once per day and leave it at that.

step two - move variable reward apps to a folder

On my home screen I have:

  • Settings
  • Password Manager
  • Units Conversion tool
  • Music
  • Audio Books
  • Interval Training Timer
  • Translation tool
  • an “everything else” folder

Boring right? The purpose here is to leave utility apps that don’t cause dopamine responses on the home screen, while moving all other apps into a folder which requires a bit more effort to get to. This means any chat app, calendar, email, etc. Move these one folder deeper into your phone.

step three - turn on “Do Not Disturb”

I schedule my phone to be in Do Not Disturb between 21:00 and 6:00. This is also automatically set while driving.

step four - turn off unnecessary notifications

  • Turn off all lock screen notifications (this is better for privacy anyway).
  • Turn off vibrate and sound notifications – I leave badges for important things like messaging apps.
  • Turn off notifications for apps that really don’t need them.

For the rest of the day, it’s time to purge the notification insanity. Go through your notifications settings for each app on the phone and set them to the minimum level possible. For me this meant that I turned off email notifications, including badges. I also put my email app in the folder outlined in step two, so that if I do want to check email or send email on my phone, I can, but it is inconvenient and gives me no information when I open my phone.

I work in tech and I understand that being “on call” can be a nonstarter for some. I’d keep those tools in the “necessary notifications”. I used to be on call all the time and feel very fortunate that I’m not in that spot anymore.


And there you go: a dumber, much less interesting phone. This is still a work in progress for me, but this is where I am right now. Overall, it’s been really interesting to watch myself transition from mindlessly unlocking my phone and poking around to forgetting about my phone for relatively long periods of time.

This setup will cause you to be less responsive on chats and email, but that’s sort of the point. Your phone shouldn’t dictate to you what you focus your attention on, and the behavior it cultivates in keeping you “always ready” is unhealthy and spills over into other parts of your life in a way that isn’t serving you well.

There is a phrase I’ve been using recently in describing things like nonparticipation and dumber phones, which is that I’m trying to “turn down the volume” of stimulants and reward centers. This is part of a hypothesis that pleasure-seeking behaviors physiologically block your brain’s ability to be content. There is modern science and ancient wisdom that seems to support this and anecdotally I concur.