I’m immersed in the world of tech
Tech has provided me a great career and an opportunity to provide for my family, but recently I’ve found it utterly consuming. The always-on world of tech is designed to keep you switched on as much as possible and I’ve often found huge buckets of time lost to falling down the internet rabbit hole…caught in the facebook scroll of death, or the youtube video chaining, or trying to complete *one* *more* *level* and where it has impacted me the most crucially is an inability to focus on any single thing for any amount of time.
I’ve also observed in both myself and those around me the unsocial impact of being focussed on your phone and not the people you’re with. Lockdown has left me in one long, always-on, plugged-in day from the moment I get up until I eventually drag myself to bed…and it’s exhausting.
Have you ever sat with someone and had to stop mid-conversation because they’ve “got to answer this text”? Or got a mumbled answer to a question because they are scrolling through facebook and not really listening to you? Or observed a parent on the next table whose child is fighting for their attention because they’re scrolling through tweets? Ever sit and watch a film with someone who spent the entire film browsing shops online? How many times do you sit in a meeting, or just a gathering of friends and at least one person has their phone on the table? How many times a day do you see the glance at lap-phone look on the road?
I bet you have experienced all of them and more. We are hooked on our phones! I know at various times I’ve been guilty of all of the above, but I’ve consciously been adjusting my habits a little. Recently I picked up a book called Indistractable which I intended to read to help with my main issue which is the inability to focus. I’ve not got round to starting it yet! Ironically though, the author has also written an acclaimed book called Hooked which discusses ideas on creating habit-forming products. It’s an ever increasing problem if more and more products subscribe to the concepts and so addressing it becomes harder and harder. Time to unplug from the Matrix!
I’m trying to free your mind, Neo. But I can only show you the door. You’re the one that has to walk through it - Morpheus
My kids are prone to these habits too and I’ve spent a lot of time trying to encourage them to reduce their usage because it drives me nuts but in reality I’ve not sorted my own habits so how can I expect them to fix theirs? During a casual twitter scroll of doom one day, this tweet caught my attention…
How I went from aimless to an SRE at StackOverflow in less than a year.— Josh Duffney (@joshduffney) May 29, 2020
I have a tonne of books that have been squirreled away to be read but so far remain untouched. I am often compelled for no good reason to unlock my phone and refresh my emails. I’ll refresh my banking apps to see whether things have changed dramatically since yesterday (spoiler alert, they haven’t). I’ll sit and scrawl Twitter, or LinkedIn - I distanced myself from Facebook long ago because I was tired of mindlessly scrawling through posts that add absolutely no value to me , but these social media outlets have gradually replaced it. Josh’s post led me to reflect on this and reading it through gave me some ideas around how I’d go about addressing it.
I’ve been experimenting for a few weeks with how I might apply this effectively. Taking a lead from Josh I first considered those apps that I don’t need on my phone and also considered how it would impact my day to day activities. So there was an initial purge of apps that fell into the boredom-fillers category. That is stuff I’ll just pick up if I’m sat there with nothing to do. Downtime can be used for anything, but more often than not it gets filled with some random app to ease the boredom. By removing these boredome-filler apps, I can spend the time reading, learning, by picking up a guitar or just alone with my thoughts. I also felt that some decisions were really drastic (no emails?) but after a bit of reflection there is no critical need to be on the pulse with emails - do I need to reply to stuff *right* *now*? Chances are recipient won’t need my response immediately anyways. I tested out just muting apps, but that didn’t really fix things in the way I wanted since it doesn’t address the temptation of picking up my phone.
I turned to various functions on my phone for some insight. By analysing my usage over a few weeks, I’ve identified a few things that have helped structure my unplugging and I’m going to take advantage of the phone’s features to help me with this.
My phone is noisy! There are so many things that notify me on a daily basis and my notification count was huge. I know from previously reviewing this that my daily notification count was once in the 200s, at the moment it is in the 100s and that is just way too high! Some of these notifications are routine alerts like calendar reminders or routine reminders, but in the main they are just mini distractions and need addressing. At any point in time they will break up flow and encourage a pickup, which in turn will trigger checking messages, emails etc so stripping them right back is the first step.
A convenience setting I’ve turned off. The pitch for this setting, everything up to date when you need it, but since I’m stripping away most notifications I can afford myself the time it’ll take to update content when I get there, plus it’ll be nicer on my battery.
Another feature pitched as a convenience, but it just contributes to the always-on issue for me. Handoff is the idea that all your devices are connected and content on one can be handed off to another. So phonecalls alert on all devices, laptops can be used to text and so on. I don’t need this. If I’m working on something on my laptop and need to concentrate the phone goes on silent, I don’t need my laptop to then tell me what my phone isn’t.
Pickups tracks the number of times a day I pick up my phone. Again, it has been worse in the past, but right now it’s sat at around 80 times a day. What I’ve found with this whilst I’ve been experimenting is that I’ve not really eaten into this figure. I have my theories as to why, I am going to keep hold of them for now whilst I kick things off.
I know that at one point in time, my daily average screentime was as much as 8 hours. That was something I discovered when researching this some time ago. That was a pretty sobering discovery. That meant, that in a day where I’m up for on average about 16 hours, I would spend, on average, half of it on my phone. That essentially meant that I was very likely spending time during other activities on my phone whether that’s in the office, whilst studying, whilst watching TV, out doing activities or worst of all, whilst spending time with the kids. At the time of experiment, the average was 5 hours. Better, but still nowhere near good enough. In the early experiments I reduced this a little but I’m targeting much lower.
Downtime is a component of screentime. It manages when you are able to use apps on your phone. You set a schedule and outside of that schedule, apps are not accessible unless you enter a passcode. You are able to override this schedule by assigning apps to “always allowed”. After a bit of experimenting I’ve found this to be quite useful, as I can set a schedule to work hours for most things thus restricting my access to them outside of those hours. I’ve found myself instinctively attempting to access a restricted app outside of schedule and then giving it a miss!
Unlock time & pickup to wake
Curiously, my screentime has inconsistent figures. There is a total screentime figure that doesn’t add up to the total usage time. It’s about 70% on average. Yuck, if accurate that implies I spend 30% of my time looking at the lock screen, home screen and settings! To make that stat more accurate I’m reducing the lock time to 30 seconds and additionally turning off “pickup time to wake”. It’s another convenience feature that has resulted in an odd habit - I’ll look regularly at my screen just to see what’s going on. Since turning it off I’ve caught staring at the blank screen and just put the phone back away, over time that habit should go away too.
I started planning out how I want to use my devices. In all I’ve got a laptop, mobile, tablet and watch. They all serve a purpose but I decided to properly define that and restrict them to those purposes.
Define device purposes
Laptop is easy - it’s my work device, it’s where I research, learn, code, work and anything that isn’t on my phone & tablet. The tablet was purchased to give me something portable to read on (yeah, I know…like a book). I like annotating and note-taking (yeah, I know…like in a book). I like the idea that I have my content with me if I’m on-site (yeah, I know…like a book). Okay, okay, so it could be a book, but at this moment in time this approach works for me. All content is always with me plus I use online learning sites on it. I might revisit this in the future, but I’m not expecting this to be a problem. The tablet will be made completely silent, there is no need for it to tell me anything, I’m going to restrict my laptop to tasks and calendar alerts. Finally, my phone is restricted to health / activity, music, audiobooks and productivity apps I used for tasks and time tracking.
Having gone through this process, I’ve concluded that my smart watch is a pointless commodity. Ultimately, this several hundred pound device fuels the always on habit by extending the notifications to my always accessible wrist. I won’t be upgrading it and I’m probably going to ditch it when I can. Critically assessing it’s worth, it’s great for tracking my steps and heart rate, I have no other use for it. I have a nice collection of watches that don’t see the light of day because of this smart watch. That needs addressing.
Define app usage
So once the usage was defined I went through the apps to determine what was to stay where. Games are going from everywhere - the games I have are boredom fillers and I’ve no need for them, that time can be used for reading or learning. Limited means they are going to be added to the downtime schedule. On the tablet, I’ve no need for anything other than reading, design, learning apps.
And once this was planned out, I went through the process of removing all the apps that are seen as redundant. I’ve been really aggressive, there’s a tonne of nice to have apps that ultimately end up as boredom-fillers. All holiday apps are gone, house searches, car searches, all shopping apps reducing my chances of falling down the internet rabbit hole and impulse buying.
Notifications are really stripped away, I’ve thought about this a little and the reality of it is it really doesn’t matter if I find out about something RIGHT NOW or when I come to check, the only urgency is contact with friends and family, reminders to get up and exercise and work related stuff like tasks and appointments. Pretty much everything else has been muted.
Last tweak from me is to define those apps I can use whenever I please. Those are largely related to wellbeing, home automation, music and reading. Everything else to start with is restricted to work hours.
Reaping the rewards
I’ve been reaping the rewards of this already. I’ve gradually found more available time which has been taken up by more productive things like learning Hugo in order to build up this site. I’ve read a few novels during that time and I’ve given our bikes a deep maintenance (which I’ve never done before) including replacing the gears (and indexing the new ones) on my daugher’s bike, something I didn’t have a clue how to do when I started. Minor things, but far more productive than a normal fortnight. I’ll be keeping a track of how the next 4 weeks go in my blog. I’ll be evaluating my screentime stats over the weeks and tweak things as I go. Perhaps I’ll even get round to reading Indistractible now!
 I have friends and family on Facebook, they are of course of value to me, but anything of interest from them is hard to find through the rest of the noise that fills up your feed at any given time.