How I Mitigate Distractions on my Smartphone

Published: August 8th, 2022

After writing about the drawbacks of living in a society that requires a smartphone in order to do what should be ordinary everyday tasks, I wanted to write about my current phone setup and I how I curb distractions, increase my privacy, reduce security risks, and how I've been using it lately while traveling abroad. Although I hate that use-hostile mobile apps are increasingly required to conduct everyday business, I don't want to entire dismiss the useful of smartphones. I wrote something like this a while ago, but I've since updated how my phone is setup and how I use it.

The smartphone is a marvel of modern technology. Simultaneously, however, it's also a device for consuming content, distraction, and surveillance. Tossing my smartphone into a drawer for an extended period of time may be something I'll try when I return the United States, but while traveling it's been an indispensable tool. For example, translating, converting currencies, maps, camera, and as a mobile hotspot have all been important use-cases for my smartphone the past few months. There are some people out there that advocate getting rid of our smartphones entirely from our lives, suggesting a laptop and a dumb-phone only. While I think there's certainly merit to this and definitely doable depending on your lifestyle, I don't think I could surrender mine (at least while traveling). If my current lifestyle was simply living in the US with my cats and partner, ditching the smartphone would be doable, but while traveling having access to a map at all times is incredibly useful.

Despite it's usefulness, I have noticed a behavior with myself when I'm in a group setting where the conversation is happening in Vietnamese (which is most conversations in Vietnam), I will reflexively pull out my smartphone to keep myself occupied – usually reading a book or a Wikipedia article about Vietnam. I will communicate in the limited and basic words I know, though I'm still learning. This was a habit I had stamped out while back in the US, but it quickly resurfaced when I'm in a different and somewhat uncomfortable environment. I'm not sure what the solution is to this, or if it's necessarily a bad thing, but my partner can only translate for me so much and I am nowhere near casual conversation level with my Vietnamese.


My Device

I use a 2017 Pixel 2 XL (128gb variant) that I've flashed LineageOS to. Although it's an older device that no longer receives software updates from Google, I still receive updates thanks to volunteer developers that have brought the latest version of Android, security patches, and bug fixes to older devices like mine.

Being as old as it is, it's not without it's flaws: 1) the power button rarely works so I've had to program long-pressing the recent button to turn off the screen while the fingerprint sensor turns on the display, 2) the camera has a long delay or won't take a photo at all regardless of the photo app used, and 3) it also can't be connected to a computer as a mass storage device for some reason, though I can still run adb commands to do simple file transfer as well as Syncthing over a network for larger transfers.

Quirks aside, I try to have my phone setup in such a way that is encourages as little use and as little distractions as possible. This includes a minimal homescreen launcher, as few apps installed as possible, few to zero notifications, and keeping specific tasks to more appropriate devices (like my laptop for email).

While traveling, my data usage has been erratic, but upon return to the US I'm signing up for a data only $5/month plan with a mere 500mb cap. My US number has been ported to jmp.chat so all I need is a data connection to send/receive calls and texts. I seldom need internet access outside of home or a coffee shop anyway, and with such a (subjectively) small datacap, I'm discouraged to use it mindlessly.


Clean Up the Homescreen

Olauncher is my home screen launcher of choice. Specifically, I use Olauncher Clutter Free, a fork of Olauncher. Both are great, but the clutter free version has a slightly smaller footprint and has a couple tweaks I find useful. Swiping left on the homescreen launches the Signal app and swiping right launches my file manager. Swiping up displays a list of the rest of the apps I have installed.


Keep Only Essential Apps

I try and keep as few apps on my phone as possible. Keeping only the essential apps installed not only improves things from a privacy standpoint because there's much less risk of apps collecting telemetry in the background, but this also improves things in terms of security too. Additionally, there's less things to become distracted by when you pull your phone out of your pocket.

I don't use social media so don't have a need for social media apps, but even if I did I think removing social apps from my smartphone would yield far more benefits than any other recommendation on this post. I also don't have any streaming services or games installed, though I will occasionally install some retro video game emulators when I'm craving some childhood nostalgia and have a bluetooth controller handy. I occasionally have NewPipe installed (a YouTube frontend) where I'll stream or rip some videos or audio on whatever topic I'm researching.

I prefer visually minimal apps that have dark OLED mode which means in the colors are more or less consistent within all the apps. This helps keeps the visual "noise" down. I've also found that keeping the display in grayscale really turns down some of the visual noise, but I'll only do this occasionally.

Although LineageOS is basically a bare-bones Android OS that doesn't include any Google Play apps or services, it does come with apps I don't use such as the stock music player, web browser, camera, etc. If you have no use for a preinstalled application, it's better to simply disable.

Below is a list of apps I have installed and is by no means consistent – it's just what I currently have installed as I write this. This list will shrink or increase depending on what I'm doing. My rule of thumb is if I haven't used it in a few weeks, I uninstall it.


Curb Notifications to Near Zero

In my humble opinion, so many of the world's problems would be solved if people simply turned notifications off on their phone (perhaps second to getting off of social media entirely). The only notifications that actually come through on my device are alarms, phone calls, and Signal messages from specific people (Signal also handles SMS when I'm paying for a phone plan). Lately, I've been treating most messages like email, keeping most messages muted and only open it once or twice per day. Signal/messaging is probably the biggest distraction.

I don't keep email install on my phone, checking it only on my laptop. I've unsubscribed from most of the junk that winds up in my inbox, so only I receive a few emails per day anyways. If absolutely necessary, I can easily log into my email on my phone via the web app.


Offload Tasks to Better Suited Devices

This might seem like an additional layer of complexity (and early on it was absolutely making life harder) but performing specific tasks like reading books and long-form articles primarily on my e-reader, and checking email only on my laptop has been helpful. I've experimented with listening to podcasts on my e-reader, and then on my laptop, but I eventually moved back to my smartphone. If I'm on a plane, busting out my laptop to listen to a podcast is inconvenient and uncomfortable. And doing so on an e-reader is almost a solution, but e-readers have very poor battery life you're doing anything other than reading.

I once pushed for reading on a phone, and although I did that for a while, I much prefer reading on an e-ink display. Reading on a smartphone is great when you're out and about waiting, but trying to read books primarily on a smartphone can easily lead to distractions. Even in airplane mode, it's just a click away before you've spiraled in a black hole of distraction. Also, reading on a smartphone while in bed enables my partner to use her smartphone in bed.


Leave Your Phone at Home

My first thought to this is "What if I need it?" or "What if there's an emergency?". The reality is that we don't "need" it as much as we think we do, and there's never been a time-sensitive emergency. When I'm in the US, I'll often leave it at home especially when I have Nguyen with me since she's the person I'm in contact with the most. If there's an emergency, it will be from her. I don't bring it with me when I go to the grocery story, and don't bring it with me when I train BJJ.

While overseas, my behavior is different. My phone is the one thing I bring with even though I've never needed it. Having a map, currency converter, mobile hotspot, and being able to translate on the fly are all handy tools to have.


Conclusion

Smartphones don't need to be the awful things they've turned into, though I believe that the majority of people don't consider the negative ramifications of using one and use their phone as-is (meaning the let the stock software/telemetry run in the background because they don't care) and install their favorite social media apps and streaming services to consume content (oftentimes these apps are already preinstalled and cannot be removed). I 100% think that people should spend some time (a week or a month) without their smartphone because it helps you better understand your relationship with it and reconsider what you use it for, but at the end of the day I don't think evil.

I think this all can be summarized into four main points. 1) Keep as few applications installed on your device as possible. This includes social media, streaming, and email apps. 2) Disable all notifications with the exception of an alarm clock and messages from your spouse and family. 3) If the task can be done on a computer or a task-specific device, do it there and not on your phone. 4) You don't need to bring your phone with you everywhere you go (leave it at home sometimes).

I think it's better to tailor your smartphone for your specific needs, but it's important to keep your needs as low as possible.

Thanks for reading. Feel free to send comments, questions, or recommendations to hey@chuck.is