Put your phone in zen mode

The smartest thing I’ve done over the past year has been to declutter my phone.

Sometime last year I came across this post by Leo Babauta where he gives four simple steps we can use to simplify our phones:

  1. Put all apps into one folder. I call mine “uncertainty” to remind me that everything lives in uncertainty.
  2. Keep the dock & homescreen clear. No tempting apps to click on. Instead, I use the search function to open an app, requiring myself to type in the name, which makes me think about what I’m doing.
  3. Shut off almost all notifications.
  4. Choose a simple and beautiful background to remind me to be mindful when using the phone.

To Leo’s four tips I add one of my own:

5. Have as few apps as possible on your phone. Do 'trial runs' where you delete an app for a week and then only add it back if you find that you really need it.

How I decluttered my phone

1. Put all apps into one folder

I called my folder “Stuff” because that’s all my phone and these apps are––Stuff. There’s nothing in this phone that I couldn’t live without.

iPhone app folder named 'Stuff'

2. Keep the dock and home screen clear

Clear phone, clear mind.

3. Shut off almost all notifications 

Give shutting off all notifications a chance. You’ll find you don’t miss out on much. 

The biggest change is that you’ll check your apps when you decide to and not when a notification tells you to. Maybe it’ll take you an hour longer to respond to a text message.

Notifications are engineered to be as addicting as possible. 

Companies employ whole teams whose sole job is to figure out how to increase the time spent on their app. More time spent on the app means more ad revenue. 

Notifications are key in this pursuit.

The sole purpose of a notification is to get you to stop what you are doing and head over to the app. 

Notifications are so prevalent because they work. And the reason they work is that every notification causes our brain to release a jolt of dopamine. Our brain is not looking out for our best interests, it’s just trying to get its dopamine fix. 

Why Notifications Are So Addicting

  • "Brain scan research shows that the brain has more activity when people are ANTICIPATING a reward than getting one." – We keep our phones in our pocket at all times with the vibration turned on. The thought of getting a notification (You reached 100 likes! New message from X. Your tweet has been retweeted 20 times. Etc.) is exciting.
  • "Research also shows that the dopamine system doesn't have satiety built in. It is possible for the dopamine system to keep saying 'more more more', causing you to keep seeking even when you have found the information." – This is the reason you spend half an hour scrolling through Instagram, close the app, and open it right back up again. Our brain likes the dopamine, so it doesn't send the STOP signal.
  • "Dopamine is stimulated by unpredictability. When something happens that is not exactly predictable, that stimulates the dopamine system. Our emails and twitters and texts show up, but you don't know exactly when they will, or who they will be from."
  • "The dopamine system is especially sensitive to 'cues' that a reward is coming. If there is a small, specific cue that signifies that something is going to happen, that sets off our dopamine system. So when there is a sound when a text message or email arrives, or a visual cue, that enhances the addictive effect."

Source: Susan Weinschenk

The only notifications I have enabled are those for Messages and Phone.

As I’m writing this, I can’t think of a good reason why I have even these notifications enabled. I’m going to disable all but the badge notifications for Messages and Phone (no lock screen notifications) for the next week and see how it goes.

4. Choose a simple and beautiful background

For my background, I use these wallpapers from heyaseed.

I like to keep my dock clear of any apps and these wallpapers blend with the dock and make it invisible.

5. Delete as many apps as possible

Last year I did an app purge.

I deleted all social media apps: Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Reddit, Twitter. I found that I didn’t miss them. Twitter is the only one of these that I still use, but only on my computer.

I deleted Gmail. I check my email once a day on my computer. More than enough.

I deleted all video apps: YouTube, Netflix. I already use these on my computer. I don’t need them on my phone as well.

I deleted the 2 or 3 games I had.

I deleted ESPN and other sports apps I used to follow scores.

I disabled the App Store and Safari (while you can’t delete these apps, you can “hide” them by going to Settings → General → Restrictions)

I’m down to 24 apps:

  • Built-in “utility” apps 📱: Settings, Camera, Clock, Calendar, Weather, Notes, Calculator, Find My Phone, Compass (in case I’m ever lost in the wilderness 🐻), Wallet (no option to disable it), Health (no option to disable it)
  • “Communication” apps 💬: Messages, Phone, WhatsApp, FaceTime
  • Storage/backup 📁: Photos, Google Drive, Google Photos
  • Music 🎵: Spotify
  • Maps 🗺️: Google Maps
  • Grocery coupons 🥑 : Safeway
  • Reading 📚: iBooks
  • 2 apps I need for work

Every so often I’ll go through my apps and see if there is anything that is no longer adding any value.

If I’m not sure, I go ahead and delete the app. I can always change my mind and reinstall it.

Our brain is not built to handle input overload

The insidious thing about all this constant input we’re overloading our brains with is that we’re not consciously aware of it.

You get up with your phone by your side and the first thing you do is check your Facebook notifications. 2 new friend requests and 3 angry political rants you were tagged in.

You close Facebook and spend the next half hour scrolling through your Instagram feed. Jody got married, Luke is traveling through Asia, and Jake is eating a picturesque muffin. 

You finally get up and get ready for work. You listen to music on your way to the metro.

You get on the metro and spend the half hour commute alternating between playing Flappy Bird and scrolling through the news. 24 dead in a bombing, unemployment increased by 2%- nothing positive in sight, positive news don’t sell.

You walk into your office and put your phone in your pock- bzzzz, you just reached 150 likes on your latest Instagram post! 

Back into the app you go to check whether 150 likes is your new record since you remember that post on the beaches of Cancún you posted a few weeks back had done quite well.

Darn. The post from Cancún has 174 likes. New record not yet achieved. But who knows? The day is still young, more likes could yet be on their way.

Another 20 minutes have passed since you hopped in the Instagram wormhole. 

You walk to your desk and sit down to start your work. You check the time - 9:30. You haven’t even started your work, yet you feel exhausted. Your mind is scattered and racing. Your brain is on overdrive, struggling to process all the input you have bombarded it with since waking up.

Unable to focus, you reach into your pocket and pull out your phone. 

“Whew! I can’t be productive feeling like this. Five minutes on my phone should let my brain settle.”