Want to be less distracted? Are you addicted to your phone? Do you lack the time to read any of the books that tell you how to lead a less digitally-obsessed lifestyle?
Over the past year or so, I’ve read a slew of books about reducing your dependency on your phone and spending less time with digital media. These include “Irresistible” by Adam Alter, “Digital Minimalism” by Cal Newport, “Make Time” by Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky (spoiler: make time by writing half a book and getting a friend to do the rest), “Essentialism” by Greg McKeown, “Reclaiming Conversation” and “Alone Together” by Sherry Turkle, “Atomic Habits” by James Clear, and “Team Human” by Douglas Rushkoff.
The benefits of disconnecting are clear. You can improve your energy, become more attractive to members of whatever sex you hope to become more attractive to, increase productivity, reduce your likelihood of sunburn, and shave 0.3 seconds off your time for the 200m butterfly.
But what if you are so bogged down that you don’t have time to make time, or you’re just too legit to quit? You’ve made the right choice and are reading the only guide you need. Every bit of useful advice is summed up here so that you can follow these tips and have time to read any and every book you want, from “Anna Karenina” to your refrigerator’s instruction manual. Did you know that you’re not supposed to mix ethylene-releasing produce with ethylene-sensitive produce? It’s in the manual! See how much time I have for reading these days?
Here is all of the advice, unattributed to any one book or author since most of them overlap, and you don’t yet have time to read a ton of endnotes. After reading these tips, you will have time to read the endnotes. All of them!
1) Delete apps from your phone. Whatever you can. Just delete them. Start with social apps like Facebook. Then remove apps that were useful the one time you wanted to save time in line but you will never use again. You are never going back to Sweetgreen – just admit it. Sure, the app is beautiful and the salads are delicious and it’s so much fun cutting ahead of all the insanely fit people wearing athleisure outfits in the middle of the day even though they seem to have jobs, but you still hit up the Chipotle across the street every single time. Every time! Delete the Sweetgreen app already.
Then go for others. Delete the calculator, as you can always do math in your head, or you can carry an abacus. A bonus is that by carrying lots of extra stuff, you will be too tired to check your phone at the end of the day, and you will sleep better and then become a morning person. See more on sleep in pretty much every section below.
2) Don’t keep your phone near you while you sleep. This single bit of advice might one day save your life. It might also kill you if you’re used to using your phone as a flashlight but then don’t have it when you wake up to pee in the middle of the night and trip over something – only to lose consciousness and never regain it. But let’s focus on the life-saving, life-improving part.
Pick some spot that isn’t your nightstand to charge your phone. Ideally, you should keep your phone in another room while you sleep. Actually, the ideal spot is somewhere outside of your home, so get a shovel, and then dig a hole in your yard every night where you keep your phone, and then dig it out after you wake up. This will also force you to exercise twice a day. If you don’t have a yard, give your phone to the last person you see outside your home or building before you go in and ask really nicely if they can hold it for you for the next 10 to 12 hours. Remember though, ditching your phone at night means you need to buy a few supplies, so along with the abacus, you will need a flashlight, an alarm clock, and a Kindle – or at least pick up some print books (getting a library card is a pretty good idea anyway).
3) Associate checking your phone with something you don’t like. If you’re anti-Trump, set a rule that you will donate $0.01 to Trump’s re-election campaign every time you check it. If you’re pro-Trump, whenever you check your phone, trigger it to retweet Ocasio-Cortez. This will not only cause you to hate checking your phone, but it will create such cognitive dissonance that the most left-wing person will decide it is easier to become a Trump supporter than give up checking their phone. See how easy that is?
But say you’re not into politics, or you’re not American, or you feel a twinge of discomfort in betraying your values just to get yourself to check your phone less often. There are other ways to cause discomfort. Like, eat a bug every time you check your phone – even a tastier, protein-rich one like a cricket (again, achieve many benefits at once; crickets will also make your fingernails grow faster and stronger). You can also cause yourself physical pain, like pulling a hair out of your eyebrow every time you check your phone. If you don’t have eyebrows, you should probably keep checking your phone.
4) Kiss social media apps goodbye. There are supervillains in a lot of these books about disconnecting. Steve Jobs might count as one, but he’s dead, and how much fun would a superhero movie be if all the evildoers were already dead? I could just see Commissioner Gordon calling up Batman:
Gordon: We have a toxic waste site whose fumes are killing thousands of Gotham citizens. Help us, Batman!
Batman: Call Gotham’s Environmental Protection Agency.
Gordon: The site was caused by the Joker dumping all those chemicals in the reservoir!
Batman: But I killed the Joker like 20 years ago.
Gordon: Yes, but you must do something, Batman!
Batman: Can’t we just get it declared a Superfund site?
Fortunately, instead of dead supervillains, we also have living ones like Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey, and Evan Spiegel. They are determined to get you to spend all your time with their social apps which are referred to as more addictive than cocaine, sugar, nicotine, or jaywalking.
If you don’t actually want to delete your apps because you like some of the benefits of staying in touch with friends or family, then review step one and delete stuff from your phone and make those social apps a priority; accessing them from a laptop is much less convenient, so that will get you to minimize usage. If even that is too difficult, then you’ve probably checked your favorite social app five times while reading this, and it’s unlikely the following six steps will help you that much.
5) Buy (and wear) a watch – but not a smartwatch. Get a dumbwatch. Well, maybe you can look up one of those Casio Databank watches that came out in the 1980s, which would preclude the need to buy an abacus. The point of wearing a wristwatch that does not use an operating system is that one of the most frequent reasons we take out our phones is to check the time, and then we check the weather, and then we check on how the Kardashians are dressing for this weather, and then we are in the time-sucking death spiral, and suddenly it’s the year 2033 and we are thinking, “I liked the idea of a Jewish president, but I didn’t mean Jared Kushner!”
So get a very dumb watch, make sure it has a working battery, wear the watch on a regular basis, and check the watch instead of your phone. Your shopping list should now include: an abacus, a flashlight, an alarm clock, a Kindle, a shovel for digging a hole in the yard for your phone, and a not-too-digital watch.
6) Night mode is the new silent mode. You thought turning notifications off at night was enough? You think you’re okay just not being disturbed? What about all the time that you’re still using your phone in the evening without apps constantly interrupting you? The road to hell is paved with turning off notifications.
You need to master night mode. To put it in Orwellian terms, “Red light good, blue light bad.” You see, humans evolved to like fire at night, so fire is good and helps us sleep. Humans also evolved to associate blue lights with the blinking VCR clock that we could never change, so that would keep us up all night in distress. Your phone better have night mode turned way up at night if you hope to get a good night’s sleep ever again. Otherwise, your gamma waves, or maybe your epsilon waves, or perhaps your zeta waves will be all messed up. (I’m terrible with Greek letters, as I was never into the fraternity scene despite all the joys of Binghamton University’s Greek life that emphasized bonding through shared public urination citations.)
7) Sleep is the new luxury item. How much sleep do you get a night? Five hours? Seven hours? Don’t start bragging until you hit double-digits, and then you’ll only really impress your peers if you spend the majority of your time sleeping. You already mastered the previous step by this point; if you actually were awake at midnight, your phone would just look like a glowing red hunk of glass, and you’d be tempted to cook s’mores on it. You never even see your phone at night anyway since you buried it in a hole in your backyard, or maybe your neighbor’s yard to be extra safe; try to use your phone at 11pm, and Wilson on the other side of the fence won’t let you over until after sunrise.
Over the years, professionals’ bragging rights have shifted from making money to being busy to maximizing time to maximizing sleep. Add a good sleep mask to your shopping list, and some earplugs, plus a cricket farm to generate natural sounds that set your circadian rhythms in order. A bonus: you can eat the crickets.
8) Meditate. Once you have all this time, what are you going to do with yourself? You’re going to become one with yourself (which I think you already were), and then one with the world (you probably weren’t). You are going to be so serene that when someone in front of you at Chipotle doesn’t know what they want to order and keeps pronouncing “barbacoa” in the dumbest way possible (“barbie koala”), you last a whole ten seconds longer before totally losing it and signaling to the line cook that you already know what you want to order (it’s never the barbacoa).
After deleting every app on your phone, go back and re-download the meditation apps, but whatever you do, resist all temptation and do not re-install the calculator.
9) Take a hike. There’s an African proverb that says, “When you want to go far, go together. When you want to go fast, go without your phone.” Africa is so vast that if there isn’t an African proverb for something, someone in Africa probably said it at some point in the past hundred thousand years.
Over the past decade or two, “exercise” has been the answer to everything, and when it’s not the answer, the answer is probably “meditate” or “commune with nature.” Getting some fresh air shows up so often in these recommendations that you’d think anyone who works for the parks department must have an IQ of at least 172 and is as happy as a Scandinavian (to be fair, there are probably many very happy, brilliant people in any sizeable parks department, and some of my best friends work in the parks department*).
There are degrees of embracing nature. Some say just getting a few minutes of fresh air in a local park on a lunch break where you’re not looking at your phone is a restorative boost. Others urge time in the woods for hours or days on end. Some authors will give you their secret recipe for churned butter if you buy bulk copies of their book.** If all else fails, buy a plant from Trader Joe’s and try to keep it alive for a whole week. Do not name the plant though. It will die the following week, and then you will not be any happier. You might as well just re-install Instagram.
*This is a lie. But I did know someone who was New York City Department of Environmental Protection Deputy Commissioner for 16 months. We are not best friends though. He does seem smarter and happier than the average human.
**This is just a lie. They will give their secret recipe to anyone who asks for it.
10) Become a person who doesn’t rely on your phone. In “Atomic Habits” and “Irresistible,” the authors show how you become someone who does or doesn’t do something. Consider a different kind of example – one who, for religious reasons, doesn’t eat pork. It’s much different to say you don’t eat pork than you can’t eat pork. If you can’t, you’re always one moment of lapsed will power away from being face down in a platter of pork belly. If you don’t eat pork, it’s like the other white meat isn’t even on the menu.
The same is true for phone usage. Go negative and pick what you don’t do. “I don’t use my phone when I’m with members of my family.” “I don’t allow notifications in any social app.” “I don’t sleep with my phone next to me.” “I don’t install social media apps on my phone.” “I used to use Snapchat and Instagram, but I don’t any longer.” “I don’t check email between 8pm and 8am.” “I don’t use digital devices during meals.” “I don’t keep any apps on my home screen except the apps for Maps, the Kindle, Spotify, and Duolingo.” “I don’t use Tinder when I’m at dinner with my spouse.”
Except for the last one, these are all healthy approaches. Figure out what you don’t do. Then you’ll have a better sense of who you are and what you do. Take some immediate actions. The first step: buy an abacus, a flashlight, an alarm clock, a Kindle, a shovel for digging a hole for your phone in the yard (or your neighbor’s yard), a not-too-digital watch, a sleep mask, earplugs, a cricket farm, and a plant you don’t immediately kill. Then you’re well on your way to becoming the kind of focused, distraction-free person who can read a story like this in a single sitting, or at least fewer than five. Soon enough, you can even consider naming your plant.
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