4 Ways to Win Back Time From Your Phone

“You’re already a cyborg.” Elon Musk

In 2012 I noticed how addicted I was becoming to screens, mostly my phone. I wrote this article about it.

To clarify, I was then, and remain now, a technology optimist. I am not the guy who wants to go off the grid and live in a tiny house in the woods. I’m not trying to turn back the clocks to the good old days when kids played with dirt and rusty nails or whatever. I love gadgets.

What I want is to be even more productive. I want to stay up to date as technology evolves. What I want most is to eliminate wasted time by breaking the negative behavioral loops I get trapped in, i.e., check email, check text, check Facebook, check Twitter, check Insta, put the phone down, 3 minutes later repeat.

What follows is my new plan that I am experimenting for optimizing my time with my phone.

1. Screen Time

The first and probably highest impact change I made is measuring my time using the iPhone’s new Screen Time function in iOS 12.  Screen Time (found in Settings, it’s not an app like I thought it would be) shows you how you spend your time on your phone. It also lets you set limits. I set a 1 hour limit on all social apps, which means Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.. Here are my Screen Time results from my first day.

  • 2 h and 45 m on my phone by 6:51 PM. That’s 25% of my day to that point. Wow! And it was certainly more than that before the end of the day, as I looked at my phone a bit more before bedtime.
  • I exceeded my social limit of 1 hour, finishing the day at 1 h and 20 m, but 20 minutes of that was me watching a live stream on Twitter of Elon Musk making a big Space X announcement while I ate my lunch (yes, Elon Musk and his companies are my current obsession, see the final paragraph of this post).
  • I definitely used my phone less than normal this day, knowing that I was tracking it, and knowing that I exceeded my social limit. Specifically, I certainly spent a lot less time on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram than usual because of the limit. The Screen Time function locked me out of those apps, which was a great thing.
  • I still used my phone a lot, and used the time a bit better, spending more time cleaning up emails, and even having time to start this blog post.
Results from my first day with iOS 12’s Screen Time.

2. Notifications

I made another group of changes with the goal of reducing the limbic rewards my phone gives my brain when I check it. You know what that means right? There’s all sorts of things your phone does to give your brain little chemical rewards when you use it, kind of like slot machines do. It’s those rewards that help create those negative behavioral loops I mentioned (email, text, social, repeat). My personality tendency towards a high degree of orderliness also makes these rewards particularly effective on me. My Pacman-like brain loves gobbling up little notification treats – nom nom nom nom nom.

I turned off ALL notifications except for messages, phone calls, calendar, and only 1 email account, my work email. That means no badges, no banners, and no sounds on anything. I kept badges for email (but no sounds or banners) and all notifications for text messages. By turning off badges for my junk email accounts I went from 1,200+ unread emails to 0, which is much less stressful and makes me feel like I don’t need to check it as much.

I also changed my notification settings within the apps themselves. I found I was checking Facebook a lot even without any badges, banners, sounds, etc. on my phone. I think a lot of the checking may have been driven by the little red notification that pops up on that bell inside the Facebook app. I was getting a dozen a day. I changed my settings to only light up that bell for a like, comment, message, birthday, or memory. I turned off all group notifications, notifications about posts from people, events I might be interested in, marketplace, and anything else I didn’t care about.

I turned off all iPhone notifications to my lock screen (except VIP emails and texts), and programmed the iPhone’s Do Not Disturb feature to keep my lock screen 100% notification free when I’m sleeping at night. This was a huge win for me, because I would regularly wake up at 3 AM, check the time, see an email, and my brain would be off to the races.

I also consolidated all of my apps to one page, so I can’t get any enjoyment out of idly scrolling through pages of apps. Here’s what my glorious home screen looks like now after all of those changes, with just one page of apps and 0 notifications.

3. Reducing Visual Stimulus

Next, I deleted the photo backgrounds from my home screen and my lock screen. I used to have pictures of my kids there, but I figured that was just another thing that made me feel good about looking at my phone. Now I have a plain white background (you can find one in Google Images).

I’ve been testing out one more trick I just learned. In your iPhone, if you go to Settings>General>Accessibility>Display Accommodations>Color Filters you can change your phone to only display in grayscale, or black and white. You can also set an accessibility shortcut for this, at the bottom of the Accessibility menu. I set my “triple-click the home button” to the grayscale filter, so I can quickly switch back and forth from color to gray. During the day I try to leave the phone in grayscale as much as possible. This really makes a big impact. Try it for a few hours. When you click back to full color you’ll see just how vibrant and colorful your screen is. This is what my low-stimulus home and lock screens look like now:

4. Creating a Creation Bias

The last change I am making is to move away from constant consumption of information and towards more creation of information. I spend a lot of time listening to audiobooks and podcasts, reading articles, reading emails, and reading other people’s social posts. There is value in this time, but I’m definitely way overweight in the reading/listening or consuming of information. Take podcasts and auidobooks for example. I like to listen to these while I travel, especially when I am driving. The stuff I listen to is motivational and I learn a lot, but I think I have been spending up to 10 hours in a week listening to other people talk. If I can shift some of that time, especially travel time (cars, trains, planes), to things like making phone calls, brainstorming and using Siri to take notes, working on projects, or even resting, I think my time would be better balanced.

What’s Next

I’ve got 2 new gadgets on my mind. First, I’m thinking about getting an Apple Watch. My thought is that I could spend even less time on wasted tech distractions and be more productive if I know important calls, texts, and emails would go to my wrist. Maybe I’d physically pick up my phone less leading to fewer limbic rewards. I also like the health features that come with the new watches, like advanced heart rate monitoring. I could be dead wrong on this one though, and the watch might make distractions even worse.

The biggest technological advancement I want to be a part of is Tesla. I’ve driven about 25,000-30,000 miles a year consistently for at least 10 years now. That’s a lot of time. If I had a car that could do some (or all, in a couple years) of that driving for me that would be a giant leap forward for me. I’m also looking forward to my car being 100 to 1,000x safer with AI assistance. I think this technology and I will meet in a year or two, when the price comes down a tick more and the AI improves and is allowed to be used even more.

That’s my plan. Let me know if you try any of these tricks or if you have any that you can share.

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