Does your smartphone call to you? Are you on your way to an important family event fighting against a desire to check the email notifications on your phone? Do you find people glancing at your phone as it beeps, vibrates, or flashes banners alerting you to “breaking news”?
Countless lifestyle gurus and counselors bemoan our smartphones stealing time from the important things in life. But is it really practical to quit social media, email, text, and other forms of modern communication? Is saying “no phones” at the dinner table solving the problem or treating a symptom?
Over the last year I have been experimenting and studying this challenge. And for me and to my surprise the answer lies not in quitting social media or lifestyle rules. It lies in how you structure the phone itself.
About a year ago I was embarrassed when a text popped up on my locked iPhone screen. It was in the midst of a board meeting and the text asked me for information on a confidential business issue. Did my fellow board members to my right and left see it? Had I just revealed a confidential client matter?
It was too much. Later that day I changed the notification function for texts so that I received no banner notices when the phone was locked or in use. At first I worried about missing an important message from family, friends, or business. But it never happened. All I had to do was unlock the phone and check the text icon.
It was my first step to turning my phone from a leash back into a tool.
But of course my phone still beeped, vibrated, and popped up news, social media, email, and other alerts. And even the text icon would show a number for active conversations waiting my interaction. Once a headline or an email called me I was sucked into all the visual notifications.
So, I turned off the text notification completely. If I wanted to see if someone had texted me I had to open the icon. At this point I was in charge of texts. They were not in charge of me.
It was a first true step. But it took a recent tv interview of a former Google executive to get to the next level. He explained the notification system is really about advertising. Having spent much of my career in manufacturing and software services to the advertising industry this made instant sense. Almost all of the apps on a smartphone, with the ironic exception of texts, are advertising driven.
Once you open your email some portion is push advertising from your e-commerce shopping. When you bought that coat or vacation or made a restaurant reservation you gave up an email address. And that model follows every application on your phone even non-profit and government apps.
Get a notification for something you care about. When you check it you cannot avoid the advertising. Advertiser gets his or her message into at least your subconscious.
But the former Google executive also provided a key remedy. On his home screen on his smartphone were only utilities such as a calculator. All the interactive apps were buried in subsequent screens and all the notifications were turned off with the only exceptions being a very few peculiar to him.
It took me a few weeks to summon the courage, but I went into the Apple IOS and turned off all the notifications on my news, social media, almost every app, even email. My home screen only has a few utilities. Now I have to intentionally engage each and every app. They all stare at me without any little numbers floating above them. No more banner notifications, vibrations, or beeps. And for good measure I began systematically unsubscribing from any email lists, except a very few.
Suddenly I was checking my phone every few hours not every few minutes. And when I did check it was mostly a rifle shot look at one or two apps I needed. And just as suddenly my urge to check my smartphone faded.
And the key unexpected counter-intuitive realization – I have not missed anything.