Deconstructing our phones

We’re at home all the time now. Why stay chained to this thing anyway?

My hands hurt. They’re sore and stiff and on bad days I can feel a dull ache from my wrist all the way up to the base of my skull. I know what the problem is: even though I’ve tried to be on my phone less, clearly, it’s still too much.

Like so many of us, I’ve grabbed my phone impulsively these last ten months. The pandemic has thrown us into a tizzy of endless news-reading, doom-scrolling and social media escapism — without the in-person social norms that used to help regulate our behavior — and the tumult of the election year didn’t help. In my case, add to the mix five months of maternity leave and texting while nursing, and the good phone hygiene I had once developed — the ritual of picking a new library book for my commute each week, limiting my work email and Slack habits to business hours, plunking my phone into an off-limits phone jar after work, etc. — quickly disappeared.  

According to Zenith media, American adults spent about 3 hours and 30 minutes a day using the mobile internet in 2019, an increase of about 20 minutes from 2018— and that was pre-pandemic. (Surely, 2020 will be record-breaking.) Being on our devices can help us capture a moment, arrive at our destination without getting lost, communicate with others, do work, be entertained, feel informed, and less bored. But these upsides come with a cost — using our phones often actually makes us feel worse, killing our productivity, creativity, empathy, and attention span. Yet despite the downsides, many of us still frequently (even reflexively) turn to our phones to keep us “company” wherever we go. Just as many Americans still smoke to relieve stress despite its detrimental health effects or visit tanning salons even though they increase the risk of skin cancer, though we know we should step away from our devices, many of us don’t. We can’t get enough of what we know isn’t good for us.

Our attachment to our phones is even more mind-boggling in the context of the pandemic. Originally, the promise of mobile phones was for an “on-the-go” lifestyle (or, in developing countries, for a mobile-only lifestyle). Yet because of COVID-19, many of us are now working from home, which means that for the most part, we are always only a short walk away from our desktop or laptop computer (assuming you live in an average sized home or apartment and have a job that affords you such luxuries). Sheltering in place, we no longer need our phones by our sides to be within reach of others — a larger screen will do just fine. On top of that, the promise of being “always on,” available at a moment’s notice, thanks to our mobile devices, not only isn’t necessary anymore, but simply isn’t realistic — normal routines have been upended, our availability is relative, and responses for things like email, Slack, and the like must and will be delayed while pandemic parenting, elder caretaking, WFH, etc. Once more, the need to keep our phone nearby at all times begins to feel irrelevant.

So why are so many of us still carrying our phones with us around the house? Why does our phone get a prime position next to our laptop when we sit down to work, or beside our plates when we sit down to lunch? Why do we keep it close, letting it burn a hole in our pocket as we do laundry, play with the kiddos, empty the dishwasher, and tackle other household chores?

For many of us, setting our phones aside hardly feels like a decision we can make: diving into our phones whenever we have a moment to spare has simply become a habit. It may have started out of insecurity (I won’t have to talk to anyone if I look busy), loneliness (I miss my friends), competition (I have to be on the ball if I’m going to get that promotion), stress (If I could just have one minute to myself to zone out, I’d be a much better partner/parent/friend, etc.), boredom (I’ll just read Twitter to pass the time) or even excitement (I wonder if anyone has commented on my post yet). The pull, in these moments, is strong. But as anyone who’s spent more time on their phones than intended knows, what cheap, dull, vapid, unproductive moments they are, and how hollow and scattered we are often left feeling. The “phone residue” that’s left behind — that icky feeling where you look up and realize you’ve lost another thirty minutes to Instagram or the day’s headlines, yet again— can be hard to shake.

This increasingly uncomfortable yet familiar feeling presents a fairly common modern conundrum: we love our phones, but we hate them, too. It’s why startups have begun tackling the problem side of our relationship with technology by helping us track our device usage or take a digital detox, and explains why the unevenly reported docudrama “The Social Dilemma” has struck a nerve, and why books like Deep Work, How to Do Nothing, and Indistractable are so compelling to us. 

In my own life, I’ve always had a complicated relationship to technology: I work in and am fascinated by technology, yet long for the days when conversations were not interrupted by a google search and moments were not turned into an Instagram post. Recently, that tension has mounted: I’ve realized just how hard it is for me to rest, relax, and recharge when my phone is by my side. So I decided to do something about it: I created an exercise to help me deconstruct my phone and use it more intentionally. 

In the past month, my phone usage has dropped to 60-90 minutes a day, from a pandemic high of three hours per day. To date, no one has reprimanded me for delays in my email responses, and I haven’t noticed a drop in productivity, either. My hands are even beginning to feel a teeny bit better. The experiment isn’t through, but so far, it’s been promising. I’ll walk you through how to do it, next.


Deconstructing your phone

To give yourself a break from your device you’ll need to first understand its hold on you, and then rebuild it according to your needs. The idea is not to abandon it, but to make it work better for you. By the end of the process, it should be wholly different from how it exists today. You can do this in a few simple steps.

Take it apart.

The first step is to take apart your phone as you know it. (Metaphorically, that is.) Study it as an archaeologist might. What are you asking of it? What, in research parlance, “jobs” have you hired it to do for you? To answer these questions, identify the apps you use the most — most devices have a native time-tracking feature to measure screen time and app usage, but you probably know what the primary culprits are already. In my case, on any given day, I was asking my phone to be a productivity tool (Gmail, Gcal, Google Meet, etc.), a source of entertainment (Netflix, podcasts), a watch, and a communication hub (iMessage, WhatsApp, Messenger, etc.). Too much, really.

Give it a purpose. 

Long ago, before the smartphone, a phone held a single purpose: communication. This simple purpose held through from the rotary phone to the cordless phone. It wasn’t until the feature phone that we began to ask our phones to do more than just communicate (remember Nokia’s popularization of the game Snake?) The beauty of the smartphone today is its ability to do so many different things for us — but that is also the problem. You may have many things you want your phone to do — and it would eagerly do them — but you’ll be better off by limiting the possibilities, since we don’t always make the best decisions for ourselves (just look at your teenage years for proof), and because choice can be overwhelming. By limiting the number of things we ask our phones to do, we can give them clearer purpose. Choose your top 1-3 “jobs” and move on. When you are interested in downloading a new app, this will be your litmus test. I determined that my phone was meant to be a source of communication above all (ex: messaging and video call apps), and secondarily, for calm (Podcasts, music, my plant ID app), but NOT a place of productivity or distraction, which meant I’d definitely need to make some changes.

Remove the bells and whistles.

The phone’s purpose identified, it’s time for spring cleaning: anything that doesn’t support its purpose should be removed. Some pieces you will discard entirely, some you will displace and move somewhere else (such as a laptop, or even an analog format). Strip away anything at odds with its new purpose. If you find this process to be painful, that is a good sign that you’re doing it right. Your phone is getting a new life, more aligned with yours. 

For me, this meant deleting apps I won’t be needing for the foreseeable future given the pandemic, like Fandango (RIP movie theaters) and SF Next Bus (given I’ve moved), and those I had never found terribly useful but still felt myself instinctively browsing in what would otherwise be a moment of tranquility, like Foursquare (I held on for way too long), and Telepath (a new kid in the block I could have easily gotten lost in if I wasn’t careful). I also removed apps that could better serve me in an alternate format, like Gmail, Twitter, and Slack, since the probability that I will need to send an email, tweet, or message and not have a laptop by my side has radically decreased in WFH world. (What do we need those on our phones for anymore — the bathroom?) I painfully removed Google Calendar, an app I rely on multiple times a day, and replaced it with an analog weekly planner that provides the real-world satisfaction of crossing things off my list day after day. I replaced my Notes app with — wait for it — a physical notepad. Now, every time I need to update my calendar or jot down an idea in passing, I don’t risk getting sucked into the Internet void like I used to. I found the process of “displacing” apps back into my real world experience (or at times, my laptop) empowering.

Grant yourself a guilty pleasure.

Of course, this exercise shouldn’t be so difficult that in a week you rebel by reverting to your previous app experience. To prevent a future relapse or binge later on, I recommend holding onto one or two guilty pleasures. This step is counterintuitive, but important: unless you are ready to chuck your smartphone and commit to a feature phone (hardly practical, or even possible, for most of us, given our professions), plan on incremental wins and allow yourself a guilty pleasure in moderation. Incremental progress is more realistic and easier to stick to than throwing it all away. That’s why, though I felt torn about my camera app, I ultimately decided to keep it. It brings me great joy and yes, sometimes distraction, but by removing other distractions, I am reminded to be more intentional than impulsive with what’s left. 

Make it clunky and create friction.

Many mobile apps today are carefully and beautifully designed. Mobile websites? For many technology companies, “mweb” is an afterthought — an if we must. Just take your favorite native mobile app and look at it next to its mobile web counterpart and you’ll see what I mean — on mweb, usually, it isn’t pretty. Sometimes features are missing (you can’t post a photo on Instagram without using the native app). Sometimes a feature exists, but is harder to use (composing a message on Gmail is possible on mobile web, but not nearly as quick or easy as it is in-app). But technology companies’ disdain (or at least neglect) of the mobile web experience can work to your advantage if you’re trying to reduce screen time: Simply switch from native apps to mobile websites and watch your frustration mount, and your phone time drop. (You can even increase your difficulty level by moving your browser app (Chrome, Safari, etc.) off your home screen.) The added friction it takes to complete a task on mobile web is often just enough to create space for you to pause and ask yourself, “Wait a minute, do I need to do X right now, or is this a reflex that isn’t serving me?” For me, Gmail is ugly and awkward on mobile web and I am delighted by it. 

Model the behavior.

Children look to the adults in their lives for cues on how to relate to the world around them — including technology — and the same can be said of students, direct reports, and more junior colleagues, too. Remembering that others are learning from our behaviors and relationship with technology can be just the nudge we need to set our phones aside. Personally, I want my kid to have a better grip on technology than I feel I do sometimes — including the ability to step away from it as needed. This has turned out to be one of my strongest motivators to spend less time on my phone. 

Practice self-compassion.

Despite the work you’ve put into deconstructing your phone and using it with more intention, some days will be harder than others. The news will be more than you can bear, work will be too much, and depending on how you manage these kinds of stressful moments, you may find yourself seeking more chaos, comfort, or distraction from your phone. When this happens, simply notice what is happening — the emotions you are feeling, the cause of them, and the ways in which you seek relief from them — and move on. Remember what you asked your phone to do for you, and step back if it’s not providing that. But skip the self-judgment. Instead, be kind to yourself in the process.


Spring cleaning the apps on our phone may not seem like a new ritual — many of us do this from time to time, out of boredom, a need to preserve data, or an attempt to be more mindful in our phone usage. But deconstructing your phone first — truly understanding what “jobs” you are asking your phone to do, and why —  helps us to reduce our app usage more effectively. Given the likely odds that many of us will be working from home for another six months (if not more) while we wait our turn for a vaccine, now is a great time to give our phone a new purpose. If we can deconstruct our phones and reorient them to work better for us, we can take advantage of the small moments of reprieve that come our way, fleeting as they may be: we might read a book for a few minutes instead of disappearing into Twitter, or do a crossword puzzle at our kitchen table instead of playing a game on our phones. We might enjoy a moment of quiet instead of blasting our brains with another podcast or Netflix trailer, and give our hands a break from reflexively pulling to refresh our email, social media, or the news. We might get a break to hear ourselves think for a moment, or just breathe.