Dumbing Down My Smartphone

I am so easily distracted nowadays, especially at home. Whether it be the television while I’m trying to work on my laptop or social media when I should be cleaning or folding clothes, I have often found myself absorbed in something entirely off topic and realized I’ve lost ten or twenty minutes to a “quick” meandering of my Facebook feed. It’s a common thread for those with smartphones–it’s there with so much to offer, be it games, social media, texting, or videos. They put so much literally at our fingertips that it feels wasteful not to utilize them to their full potential. It’s a pattern that’s easy to fall into.

My biggest downfall with my iPhone is checking social media simply out of habit. It takes absolutely no thought to open the app and refresh, and suddenly I’m scrolling through updates before I realize what I’m doing. I’ve found myself checking Facebook or Pinterest while waiting in line, at red lights, on my work breaks, at lunch, while cooking–even while talking to my partner! It’s mindless searching for something to engage my senses, but it rarely accomplishes anything. Most of the time it simply distracts me with other people’s activities, many of which I don’t care or know enough about to discuss. They’re simple distractions, and minimalism is all about removing distractions.

I started considering how and why I use my phone a few weeks ago and decided to try to rearrange my apps so that they worked more efficiently for me. I want them to be easier for me to access or find when I’m in a hurry. Most importantly, I want them to help me use my phone only when I need it, not as a distraction. I’ve never really care for how my apps paired up anyway. I get frustrated with my phone setup because I don’t like a lot of app groups where I have to go into a set to find an app, but I also don’t care for having sixty or seventy apps hanging out by themselves where I have to swipe through several pages to find what I’m looking for. After messing with a few apps, I finally realized that I simply had too many for my taste. I don’t use them all regularly and some were only utilized a few times and then left to a lonely existence inside my “Games” group. So I took a minimalist approach to my phone: if I didn’t use it regularly, I was deleted it. It caused a little anxiety at first but it got easier after the first few.


After paring down my apps to a smaller number, I began considering a different approach to grouping them together. I finally decided on organizing them by function–literally what I wanted to use the app to do, which allowed me to group based on activity. For example, previously, I had several social media sites together with my Netflix and Hulu apps as well as YouTube and Pandora. They felt like they all fit into one group because I was searching for entertainment of some sort, but they were different methods of engagement. So I rethought their functions. One of the first groups I created was for social media and aptly named it after what it allows me to do: Be Social. In it I have several apps that allow me to communicate and keep up with people, including: WordPress, Goodreads, Pinterest, Facebook, Yelp, Yahoo Mail, and my iPhone mail for work. This is one of my largest groups, and I am working on considering which ones I can remove to make it smaller. For now, I’m seeing which ones I use the most and which ones are better left to laptop time on the weekends (such as Goodreads and Pinterest).

My method began to make more sense when I considered two apps that are not seemingly related but work for me in the same way: the iPhone clock app and my Fitbit app. The clock app is simple and has a few very similar functions that essentially play one role–it keeps you timely. The Fitbit app does a lot more than that; however, the one function that I use it for daily is for my morning alarms. I am a very heavy sleeper and can sleep through alarms like it’s nobody’s business, so I usually set three Fitbit alarms just a minute apart and a fourth alarm in the clock app as a final alarm. (Sometimes this doesn’t even work and I still oversleep.) While I use also use the Fitbit app to track my water intake, my daily activity, and my sleep patterns, I usually check these at night and have no other apps like it. For this reason, it makes more sense to group it with the clock app because I check them both at night to prepare for my morning. In the same vein, I put the calendar app in the group because I have alerts on my phone for upcoming events. Together, they make up the “Be Timely” group.

And so it went until I had managed to group all of my apps together rather easily. They all fit together like they had always wanted to work this way for me. Once I had finished, I had the following groups on my phone, alphabetized of course:

Be Social: WordPress, Goodreads, Pinterest, Facebook, Yelp, Yahoo Mail, and my iPhone mail for work

Be Timely: clock, calendar, and Fitbit

Concentrate: Coffitivity (background noise to drown out my coworkers) and 30/30 (a timer that alerts you when it’s time to complete a task and move on to another one)

Download: Apple app store, iTunes, and iBooks

Entertain: all games, which I pared down to just a few

Finance: my bank app, our rent-paying app for easier payment, and the Mint app (which I am just now trying out)

Interact: apps that let me interact with the world, such as the camera, photos, map, notes, calculator, and weather app

Listen: It was important for me to separate this from apps that let me actually watch something because they require a very different amount of attention at time–Pandora, Sound Hound, NatureMelody, and Relax Melodies

Save: HEB app for coupons, Farmstand to locate farmers’ markets, and Palm Oil for knowing which products to purchase to support sustainable palm oil use

Watch: Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube

Workout: Workouts+ and Complete Workouts

For all of the iPhone apps that come installed as a default that you can’t delete, which I still don’t understand and never use, such as Tips, Compass, and Stocks, I grouped them together and labeled it “Extras.” Next, I kept my four most-used apps out of groups and put them at the bottom in the toolbar: phone, music, podcasts, and safari. I could have grouped them with the rest, but having those four immediately available outside of a group and on every page simplifies their use, again a goal of minimalism.

Now, if you’ve been keeping track of all the apps I listed, you’ll notice that the Messages app was not listed. I by no means consider myself addicted to my smartphone, but if I could only keep one app on my phone, it would be the messages app. My parents and I text more than we talk because we live near each other and often just have a quick question or comment. My partner and I text a lot as well when we’re not together. So it is the app I use the most and the one that connects me to the people in my life on a continual basis. This conclusion led me to try another experiment. If the four apps at the bottom and my messages app are the ones that I use the most and that allow me to use my phone as a tool rather than a distraction as I go through my day, then they should be noticeably separate from the others. So I moved all of my groups to the second page and left only my messages app. I also move the “Extras” group to the third page so they are out of sight. In other words, my home page is only my toolbar and my messages app so that I am required to intentionally swips to the second page and think about what function I am using my phone for–listening, watching, being social?

My goal is to be more intentional with my phone usage as well as developing a habit of using it so that it is a tool rather than a distraction. After only a few days of this new setup, I have to say I like it more than I thought I would. I know I am using my phone less through the day because my battery lasts longer than it used to. I also appreciate the naming of my groups because they make my apps easier to find. But most of all, I appreciate the simplified look of my home page when I unlock my phone, nothing but texts from those I love and a background image of me and my partner.

What steps have you taken to be more intentional with your smartphone? Have you tried to apply minimalist theories to your use of technology?


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