Smartphones are portable slot machines. Feed it little units of your only finite resource (time), and when things break right, you’re flush with good feelings. The fucked subway route is circumnavigated, a nearby cafe found — a suite of everyday conveniences that seemed both excessive and miraculous when the iPhone launched a decade ago. More often, though, another scenario: you look up a word in a book, and an hour later, you emerge on the other side of a fugue state, the phone is still in your hands. You read something, but it’s hard to say what. You scrolled through a face carousel of horny locals and talked to no one. You considered a few products and immediately forgot them. The hour is gone — and every vacant tap and scroll has enriched the companies that spin your data into revenue.
There are well-staffed research teams, sinister conferences, and millions in venture capital dedicated to making tech products more habit-forming. We’re left trying to break the cycle ourselves.
My favorite tool for doing this is Forest, an app that costs $1.99 and looks like it was designed for children, which is sort of pleasantly degrading. It’s been the #1 productivity app in the App Store for over a year; its only purpose is to help you stop touching your phone. Tap a button, sprout a little digital plant, and leave your phone alone until the allotted time is up. I use Forest every day, which has made me realize how often I pick up my phone for no reason, a feeling like walking into a room only to forget what I was planning to do there. It is depressing but instructive. As the stakes are technically nonexistent, I imagine this app is only truly useful for Catholics and others with a highly refined guilt palate.
I felt a twinge of optimism when I heard that Arianna Huffington’s vague venture-backed wellness project, Thrive Global, had launched a mindfulness app. Perhaps they’d thrown some real resources into the project. Instead, here is all you need to know: one of its core functions is a text auto-reply feature, which allows you to simultaneously ignore and infuriate your friends. (Sample response: “I’m in Thrive Mode right now.”)
There are also plenty of DIY efforts. Turning your phone screen gray isn’t a new trick, but it just made its first appearance in the New York Times. My trial was inconclusive. Instagram and Netflix were largely ruined, but I mostly use my phone to text friends and read horrible news, and grayscale, if anything, made the latter slightly easier. My phone just became an addictive, ulcer-bestowing Kindle. (Lifehacker has both iPhone and Android instructions, if you’re an Instagram fiend and want to give it a go.)
At Gizmodo, Jake Knapp makes a compelling case for dumbing down your phone — removing its web browser and nearly every app, especially those with any kind of content stream. I’ve deleted and redownloaded Twitter dozens of times, so I propose an addendum for the especially weak-willed: require a password for the App Store, generate something long and impossible to remember, write it down on a slip of paper and hide it somewhere annoying, perhaps on a very tall shelf. Go on! Lose your ex’s number.
The Outline’s own Casey Johnston took a highly personalized approach over at Vice’s Motherboard — turn off notifications and delete apps, or move them to annoying-to-reach corners. Disable touch ID and make your password gratingly long. Johnston’s method gives you the forced pause of Forest, as you hunt for an app you might have otherwise opened unconsciously, plus a feeling of DIY satisfaction not dissimilar to the kind earned by fixing your own sink. Keeping your phone in a constant state of low battery is another possible fix — when it’s minutes from death, using it for anything besides its most pragmatic and urgent purposes feels risky. I can vouch for this slightly masochistic approach: My phone is a few years old, and with normal use its battery dies by early afternoon. Slowly, I’ve become more restrained.
If there’s a lesson to be learned from the inadequacy of these methods, it’s one we’ve already learned a million times. The tech industry, like every industry, doesn’t optimize for the well-being of its customers. Smartphones and their apps are ruinously addictive by design, and the companies that make them won’t change until regulation and/or the market demands it.
We gamble and lose too often. We can’t finish books anymore. We’re saddened by our lame self-absorption. We’re worried about the youth, who can’t conceive of an ante-phone life. We entreat Apple to save us, and erstwhile tech execs rend their garments. We buy the bad little machines because the patterns of modern life now bend around them. At least we’ve started to realize the effect they have and that we need to push back.