Controlling Your PHone

(So IT Doesn’t Control You)

Anyone interested in the quantified self lifestyle should be keenly aware of the ways in which your phone can derail your goals, eat away at your time, and damage your attention. Here you’ll find a few of the key concepts and methods that I have found helpful in taking back control of my life from a system designed to give you the mere illusion of choice.

For those of you that not convinced that this is even a problem worth addressing, I suggest you check out the Center for Humane Technologies for a far more detailed accounting of the concerns than I can provide here.


Delete that SHit!

Let’s face it, so much of what we do on our phones is a complete waste time and mental energy. I think anyone who takes a hard look at how they use their phone will realize that their time is better spent engaging with their friends, their family, their work, and the real world in a more meaningful way. That means it’s time to delete any apps that distracts us from getting the most out of life or make us worse off for the time we spend engaged in them. Idle games…GONE. Tinder…GONE. Buzzfeed…GONE. Twitter…GONE. Facebook - please, for the love of god - delete it and never look back.

Limit your NOtifications

At first glance, push notifications are a useful and timely feature of today’s smartphones. But with the average American smartphone user receiving over 45 push notifications per day and the fact that any notification can take you down a time sink or emotional rabbit hole, it is prudent to take a step back and take control of how you allow them to enter your life. Below are several tactics that I personally use to keep the issue at bay:

  • First and foremost is reducing the number of notifications. All phones have settings to configure notifications and the settings have thankfully gotten more granular in recent years. It is up to you to decide which applications should be disabled completely and which should have more specific limitations. For me, things like social media likes should never result in a notification whereas a flight delay from a travel app is exactly the type of thing that adds value to my life.

  • Next is defining the method by which a notification demands your attention. 99% of notifications shouldn’t result in a buzz in your pocket or a sound. By definition those methods are going to draw your attention. A passive notification sitting in your tray on the other hand can be viewed as you see fit (assuming you don’t compulsively check your phone). For those of you with a smart watch, there is an added layer of complexity to consider. Only the most critical notifications should reach the status of direct access to your wrist.

  • Finally is constant vigilance. Try to get in the habit of looking at all notifications with a critical eye. As the notifications come in, decide whether it should be adjusted to result in a vibration, passive notification, or be disabled completely. Every time you install a new app you will need to make this evaluation (thus the constant aspect) so don’t get lazy. Keep the junk at bay. As an exercise in mindfulness, this process can be truly enlightening.

For specifics on how to actually manage notification settings, check out the support pages for iPhone and Android devices.

MOnitor your overall usage

A moment of reflection each day can help to set an intention for a better relationship with your phone. Personally I have configured a couple push notifications to help me in this effort:

  1. A notification when I reach my a daily limit for usage (90 minutes) and…

  2. A notification each morning to manually log my prior day’s usage for long term trending and analysis.

There’s a litany of applications for both iPhone and Android that can be used to track you phone usage. In fact these features are now built right into the operating system. Apple has implemented Screen Time and Google now has Digital Wellbeing to put control back in the hands of the user.