The Phone Free Home

crafting a creation-first environment via negativa

This month we briefly discussed abundance and, as it pertains to the world of information, the resulting paradigm shift from internet-augmented culture to internet-first culture.

While I mostly want to write about the societal shifts that are taking place as a result of rapidly accelerating technological advancement and abundance, I also want to provide some tangible strategies for dealing with them.

Let’s start with our phones.

I am certain that for most of us, creating a healthy relationship with our little supercomputer friends will be a central theme of the next decade.

Those of you who downloaded TikTok as the result of my last post will know that entertainment at our fingertips can be disastrously addictive and distracting.

It may have struck you, as it struck me, that TikTok is at least 2x as addictive as any social network that’s come before it. Accelerating addictiveness is one of the side effects of a word rapidly accelerating towards abundance.

We wouldn't want to stop it. It's the same process that cures diseases: technological progress. Technological progress means making things do more of what we want. When the thing we want is something we want to want, we consider technological progress good. If some new technique makes solar cells x% more efficient, that seems strictly better. When progress concentrates something we don't want to want—when it transforms opium into heroin—it seems bad. But it's the same process at work. [1]

No one doubts this process is accelerating, which means increasing numbers of things we like will be transformed into things we like too much. [2]

As far as I know there's no word for something we like too much. The closest is the colloquial sense of "addictive." That usage has become increasingly common during my lifetime. And it's clear why: there are an increasing number of things we need it for. At the extreme end of the spectrum are crack and meth. Food has been transformed by a combination of factory farming and innovations in food processing into something with way more immediate bang for the buck, and you can see the results in any town in America. Checkers and solitaire have been replaced by World of Warcraft and FarmVille. TV has become much more engaging, and even so it can't compete with Facebook.

The world is more addictive than it was 40 years ago. And unless the forms of technological progress that produced these things are subject to different laws than technological progress in general, the world will get more addictive in the next 40 years than it did in the last 40.

- Paul Graham, The Acceleration of Addictivness

As Graham mentions, societies do tend to “develop antibodies to addictive new things,” but in the case of cigarettes, that took a hundred years, still isn’t quite done, and has killed more people than WWII along the way.

You can wait for society to figure this one out for you but you might be dead before that happens. I’m going to go ahead and figure it out now.

Here are the things I’ve experimented with:

  1. Locking my phone away via Kitchen Safe

  2. Using a dumbphone

  3. Setting my phone to greyscale

  4. Turning off notifications

  5. Phone-free environments

  6. Tech sabbaths

Through a lot of trial and error, I’ve finally found a simple, easy-to-stick-with habit that works remarkably well and might work for you too: a phone-free home.

Since I primarily work from home, this also means a phone-free work environment. In other words, I now only use my mobile device when I’m actually mobile.

This started as an experiment to curb my phone use specifically upon waking up and going to sleep, which are the two most detrimental use cases per my own observation, Oura ring data, and an overwhelming body of research.

It’s much easier to avoid phone use before sleep or after waking up when it’s already off, so I started keeping my phone off and by the door, to be turned on when I leave the house.

Then I noticed my productivity and flow skyrocket during the day.

It took me a while to figure out why: when I don’t use my phone, I naturally use my computer more, and on my computer, I have higher-input speeds (keyboard and mouse) which bias me toward creative activities and away from consumption.

The input speed is much slower on mobile devices (touch screen) and so I’m far more likely to end up mindlessly scrolling Instagram or reading The New York Times latest red bouncy ball.

What about phone calls and text messages? Route them through your computer.

What I’ve found is that in addition to being overarchingly more present and productive, I fall into serendipitous non-technology driven flow-state, reading, writing, thinking, in conversation, because my phone isn’t present to distract me and I’m not going to just sit on my computer every minute I spend in my home.

I’ll admit two things make this a lot easier: Apple Watch and HomePod. I can receive phone calls on my Apple Watch so that if something is truly urgent I’ll know about it even if my phone and computer are still off, and periodically, I’ll tell Siri to read my text messages - but on my time, instead of through flow-state-interrupting notifications.

That leads me to what I believe will be the ultimate problem-solver as it pertains to smartphone addiction: wearables + audio.

Most of us really only want the utility from our phones, the ability to quickly look something up, text a friend, call an Uber, etcetera, and mindless consumption is simply a consequence of having the device on us so we can accomplish those jobs.

Imagine being a nicotine addict and forced to carry a pack of cigarettes attached to your water bottle. Very hard to break an addiction when temptation comes packaged with necessities.

As wearables and voice assistants get better, I believe we’ll increasingly be able to ditch the phones altogether and be more present in any environment, mobile or at home.

I frequently take walks with just my Apple Watch and Airpods and am able to listen to music, take phone calls, respond to messages, and all without any temptation to draw me out of the moment. The result is a lot more flow, and a lot less Screen Time.

I’m optimistic this is the future we’ll all live in at some point. Amazingly, you can opt to live in it now.

Till next week,

P.S. Apologies to all Android users. IDK how you do it.