No, We Don't Want an App for That

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One smartphone user makes a case for using old-fashioned items like alarm clocks and newspapers.

Things have come full circle. For years, people have been focused on cramming as many apps and services as possible into a single device – their smartphone – and revelling in its ability to do everything. This impressive technology has minimized the number of items a person has to carry.

But for some, the excitement of this streamlining has worn off. Sure, the phone does a lot of amazing things and makes life easier, but it's also an attention suck, a black hole of distraction into which we fall far too easily and forget why we reached for it in the first place. That's why writers such as Ryan Holiday suggest we go back to carrying specialized, or at least separate, items for specific tasks.

In a great article for Forge called, "A Radical Guide to Spending Less Time on Your Phone," Holiday offers up a list of tactics for reducing time spent on a phone. Some are the usual: delete notifications and apps, reduce the channels by which people can reach you, don't look at your phone first thing in the morning, etc.

Other suggestions are less conventional. Holiday is a fan of replacing some of the smartphone's functions with old-fashioned counterparts, which is why I said things have come full circle. He'd prefer you to buy a bedroom alarm clock, a paperback, and a TV than rely on your smartphone to provide those services. Perhaps counterintuitively, Holiday recommends getting a high-tech smartwatch and AirPods – anything to prevent you from staying tethered, quite literally, to the device in your pocket.

"If you read news on your phone, try subscribing to a newspaper or a magazine. If you want a restaurant recommendation, ask a friend. If you use a countdown app with your kids, get a kitchen timer. Yes, the phone can be easier for all these things, but what we don’t factor in is the mindless scrolling that we slip into once the task at hand is done. The less you use your phone to deal with trivial matters or minor conveniences, the less dependent you’ll be on it."

His words brought to mind an episode of the Hurry Slowly podcast I wrote about last spring, where author Adam Greenfield talked about the "lack of physical objects to mark our human passage through time (e.g. think what you used to carry around but don't anymore because everything is in your phone)." He suggests that social media posts are an effort to reclaim that "proof of existence."

The idea of collecting odds and ends goes against the recent surge in Kondo-mania and decluttering one's life to the absolute minimum, but it does seem joyously simple and straightforward. It also sets a better example. This way, my kid can see that I'm setting a timer, fiddling with a metronome, adjusting a thermostat, or studying a map, instead of just looking at my phone (and occasionally sneaking peeks at social media feeds).

This isn't to say that smartphones are inherently bad; in many ways they do improve quality of life, but as Cal Newport explained in his most recent book, Digital Minimalism, we humans struggle to withstand the addictiveness of technology that has been designed to suck us in and hold us there for as long as possible. Any help with balancing our use of it is beneficial, which is why Holiday's article should be on your reading list today.