Millo's Musings

How to Be Less of a Distraction-Prone Mental Wreck, Part Two: Leave Your Phone at Home

01 August 2017

Last September I moved home from abroad and found that my old U.K. SIM card didn’t work anymore. Turns out that Sainsbury’s Mobile had shut down and no-one told me.

It was only a minor inconvenience, so I added “buy a new SIM” to my mental to-do list… and never got around to it. For nearly a year now, I haven’t had a working SIM in my phone.

This is part two of a series on distraction and how to avoid it. In the previous-installment I wrote about laptops. This time around I’ll be writing about phones.

What Do You Need a Smartphone For?

So why didn’t I buy a new SIM card? It’s not that I was trying to make a point. I just never really saw the point. I’m practically always within reach of a Wi-Fi network, with which I can still use Whatsapp and everything else I “need” my phone for. On the rare occasions when I need to call a ‘real’ number (e.g. a landline) I use Skype, which costs pennies per call.

When there isn’t Wi-Fi around, I survive. So why do I need a SIM? Why waste money on mobile credit that I’d barely use?

Like most people, I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with my smartphone. I didn’t even own one until 2015 - for years I got by with a Nokia 1280, and never felt much pressure to upgrade to a device with Internet access or a colour screen.

One of the nice things about this phone is that you could have left it on since 10/01/2013 and the battery probably wouldn't have run out by now.

Eventually I caved in and bought an iPhone. In some ways, it’s been an upgrade. In other ways, it’s been an enormous downgrade to my energy and attention span.

I already owned an iPod Touch, which does everything my iPhone can do (minus Whatsapp), but is faster, lighter, and has a bigger hard drive and a longer battery. Why did I ditch the Nokia again?

People say they can’t survive without their smartphone, but I can remember when they didn’t exist, and somehow we managed. When I was a young whippersnapper, mobile Internet was slow, primitive, and prohibitively expensive. The most advanced “app” I had on my phone (we didn’t call them “apps” back then) was Snake, and it was considered revolutionary merely for a phone to have a camera. Truly, kids these days don’t know how good they have it.

Hell, I can even (just about) remember the dark ages when an address book was an address book, and getting someone’s number required a pen. Yet we soldiered on. Civilisation prospered without anyone sharing photos of their dinner. How did we do it? Can you imagine what life would be like today if you had no easy way to find out what some random guy you went to school with thinks about the Trump administration?

Let’s get real: the only reason anyone “needs” a smartphone is because other people have smartphones. Most of the problems that they solve are problems that didn’t exist until smartphones created them. And if you cut back on smartphone usage you’ll find that most of those problems exist only in your head.

Why Instagram is Like a Car Crash

The automobile industry is tightly regulated. Before hitting the markets, cars must undergo rigorous testing to ensure that they meet the highest safety standards.

It costs the manufacturers billions per year, but only the most extreme libertarian would call this unfair. Sure, private companies have the right to conduct business as they please - but that’s outweighed by your right to not die in a fiery wreck.

Phone manufacturers, on the other hand, are under no such obligation to serve the public interest.

Of course, smartphones don’t directly kill people in the same way cars do - but they still take your life away. Piece by piece, they debit your time in five-minute increments, tickling your brain’s addiction centres and destroying your ability to get anything useful done.

Then you look up and find out that years have gone by and you haven’t achieved anything.

A better analogy is with air pollution. Exhaust fumes kill people just as dead as a head-on collision, but they do it in a more roundabout, non-obvious way, so we’re less motivated to act on it. Road deaths are dropping every year, but we still haven’t mustered the political will to take the action required against the pollution that cars cause.

I won’t deny that smartphones have brought positives - just like automobiles brought the positive of being able to travel quickly from place to place. But automobiles brought negatives too (as James Dean can’t tell you), and we’re only just starting to get to grips with the parallel downsides of smartphones.

More and more researchers are expressing concern that smartphones (and social media) are wreaking havoc on our mental health, especially that of young people.

If the way we’ve handled air pollution is anything to judge by, we’re not going to fix these problems anytime soon. If you think that your devices are going to become more aligned with your best and healthiest interests as the industry matures, you’ve got a long wait ahead of you. The only solutions are going to come from the bottom-up - the onus is on you to avoid the most deleterious affects of smartphone ownership.

(You can start by quitting Instagram, because if Facebook is a smoke-spewing exhaust pipe, Instagram is a 250-million-car pileup.)

The Productivity Fallacy

Some people argue that a smartphone makes them more productive. By staying constantly connected, so the argument goes, it allows them to reclaim “dead time” - standing in line, using the bathroom, waiting for a friend who’s late. You might as well do something useful with this time, e.g. catch up on your email. Better than that stare into space.

Or, as someone put it to me in my Nokia days: “you don’t own a smartphone? What do you do when you take a shit?”

Well, I’m all for making smart use of “dead time”, but the emphasis is on smart. It’s not enough to just do something with your dead time - it matters how you fill it.

Fill your dead time the wrong way, and it will be counterproductive. Like an Instagram-addicted teenager, you’ll reinforce all the wrong mental patterns and rewire your brain for the worse. The five minutes you “save” by checking your email on the bog will be more than outweighed by all the time you lose elsewhere because your brain is a mess.

Think for a moment about what actually happens when you check your email (or Facebook, or whatever):

You press a button, not knowing what the result will be.

There’s a few seconds’ delay while you stare at the enticing ‘loading’ icon.

Then finally, ding! The results are in: a shiny “unread messages” notification icon, giving you a nice little hit of dopamine.

Or maybe there’s nothing to see. Better try again later!

When you think about it, isn’t this exactly how a slot machine works?* Stimulus, response… or maybe not. Behavioural psychologists call it ‘intermittent reinforcement’, meaning that when you initiate the process you never know how much of a reward you’ll receive.

And it’s been understood for decades that intermittent reinforcement is one of the fastest routes to addiction.

No wonder so many people lose fortunes on the slots. And no wonder you can’t help but check your email every five minutes. Are these really the neurons you want to be strengthening in literally every spare moment?

(Intermittent reinforcement, by the way, is a common mechanism used by videogame designers to keep you addicted. Read that article if you want to be creeped out by how manipulative and shady these design tactics are. Rest assured, the boffins at Facebook and co. are very familiar with all the underlying science. But of course I’m sure they only have your best interests at heart.)

So how can you make good use your dead time without rotting your brain in the process? My policy is this: if it requires an Internet connection, it can wait.

Three of my preferred ‘dead time’ activities are:

What do all three of these have in common? Well firstly, they don’t need me to connect to the Internet (assuming I’ve already downloaded the content.)

But more importantly, they’re not subject to any of the addicting tendencies described above. The ‘reinforcement’ I get from refreshing my Portuguese vocabulary is consistent; there’s none of the “slot machine” mechanic. I do nothing but learn.

Put simply, all three of these activities unambiguously make me smarter, and build healthy connections in my brain. I can’t say the same for other activities I might use my smartphone for.

The Joy of Boredom

I’d push back further on the ‘dead time’ argument above. Why is it better to do anything with your spare time than to simply stare into space? What’s wrong with staring into space?

Cal Newport argues this point (and more) in his excellent book Deep Work. The title, a term Newport invented, refers to the kind of highly-focused, cognitively-demanding mental work that smartphones often interrupt.

As Newport argues, the ability to perform deep work is become increasingly valuable in our economy, not least because it’s becoming more and more rare.

That’s why, in one chapter, Newport encourages us to ‘embrace boredom’. He argues:

The ability to concentrate intensely is a skill that must be trained… Efforts to deepen your focus will struggle if you don’t simultaneously wean your mind from a dependence on distraction.

Once your brain has become accustomed to on-demand distraction… it’s hard to shake the addiction even when you want to concentrate. To put this more concretely: If every moment of potential boredom in your life — say, having to wait five minutes in line or sit alone in a restaurant until a friend arrives — is relieved with a quick glance at your smartphone, then your brain has likely been rewired to a point where it’s not ready for deep work. …

To simply wait and be bored has become a novel experience in modern life, but from the perspective of concentration training, it’s incredibly valuable.

I’ll confess that this point hadn’t really occurred to me before reading Newport’s book, but I think he’s right. These days I’m far less likely to get my phone (or anything else) out of my pocket if I’m, say, waiting for a friend to get back from the bathroom. I just sit there and take in the surroundings. They’re usually more interesting than my phone anyway.


Actually, if I find myself in a moment of ‘dead time’, I often can’t take my phone out of my pocket even if I wanted to, because I don’t have it with me. Unless I have a good reason to bring it, I leave my phone at home.

Like most people, I used to reflexively shove my phone into my pocket every time I left the house. I was so used to having it on me 100% of the time that it would feel weird if I was outside and didn’t feel my phone in my pocket. But why does it have to be like this?

At the cinema they tell you to put your phone on silent. I’d go further: why did you bring it in the first place? What’s the point in taking your phone to a place where you’re not even supposed to use it? Do you pack your golf clubs in the car “just in case” when you’re heading off to play a game of tennis?

Of course, there often is a good reason to take my phone out with me - for example if I’m meeting someone and we need to coordinate our locations. But why take my phone with me when I’m just heading out to run some errands? Why do I need my phone at the supermarket?

Some other ways I reduce my smartphone dependency:

Less Phone, More Smart

Some of these strategies may sound excessive. But to quote the book Personal Development for Smart People: “if the average person wouldn’t consider your current health practices extreme, you probably aren’t very healthy.” This is just as true for your mental diet as it is for your physical one.

Over the years I’ve seen myself fall into the same patterns as practically everybody else, as high-speed instant-access communication technology becomes ever-more pervasive in our lives.

I’ve found it harder to concentrate, harder to resist distraction, and harder to block out long chunks of time for focused, uninterrupted work. I’ve become less patient, less productive, less present, and less able to prioritise. I’ve become more and more of what Cal Newport describes in Deep Work as a “mental wreck”.

And what makes it worse is that, when it comes to digital addiction, I feel like I’m one of the better ones. If you’re reading this article in public, pause and take a look at your surroundings. How many of the people around you are looking at their phones? I rest my case.

Avoiding these tendencies takes work. You can bet your bottom dollar that Silicon Valley isn’t going to do it for you - the last thing they want is a consumer with impulse control. Focus is bad for business.

But the more I work on it, the more it pays off. That hyper-distracted, can’t-resist-checking-my-email state of mind still comes, but it’s less and less frequent. I simply feel better. Everything in my life improves when I strengthen the focus muscle.

Maybe I should go back to my Nokia.

* I got this slot machine analogy from the technologist Tristan Harris

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