Dumb Phone, Smart Mind

Reading Time: 8 minutes
broken iphone

I regret to inform you that making my iPhone infinitely harder to use has increased my mental capacity and baseline joy in only one week.

As a knowledge worker and just as me, my mind is one of my most important assets. But I don’t always treat it as such, especially considering that I have chronic health issues that turn everyday stress into debilitating flareups that fog my cognition and cloud my sense of reality.

I noticed recently that my phone was becoming, once again if I’m honest, a problem. I couldn’t put it down, and if I did put it down and then picked it up to find a notification, my heart would start racing. I’ve done various things in the past to try and change my relationship to my phone. I’ve removed the apps (only to be punished by the algorithms, I’m convinced). I’ve turned it off (only to panic that my parents couldn’t reach me in an emergency). I’ve tried to be “better about it,” whatever that means.

The problem is that the phone, and especially the social media apps on it, makes me feel like I am going to die.1

This is a problem, because I make my money online. I have run internet-driven businesses since 2016. And social media like Instagram continues to be, even its current extremely enshittified form, one of the best ways to find new customers. Discoverability is the biggest current issue for online business, and as the platforms that made it cheap and easy (until it stopped being cheap or easy) sunset, the next phase remains murky. I don’t want to be on social media as it stands, but I’m not ready to pull the plug. And as a business consultant, I still think that for most online, knowledge-driven businesses, social media should be a part of the strategy. So that leaves me with some, um, tension.

Last week, after a low-key meltdown due to something I saw on someone’s Instagram stories (of course the best discoverability feature is the one that puts content in front of me that I do not want to see) that really wasn’t a big deal but felt like a big deal on top of all of the other not-so-big-deals that I had already experienced that day, I searched “turn iphone into a dumb phone” and found this article by Seth Leonard (thanks Seth!) that inspired me to get make my iPhone less useful.

Availability Kills The Mind

My biggest issues with my phone:

  1. I use communication apps for private clients. When folks work with me on consulting or coaching projects, it often includes support via messaging of some kind. I love this because it makes it so easy for me to provide more value and be more accessible to my clients. And, of course, it means I’m on my phone more or seeing notifications even if I’m not trying to work. I can’t wrap my head around having a second work phone (I’m trying to get rid of the one I have!), and I don’t want to give up all of my smart phone features2 so I wanted to figure out how to provide excellent service to my clients without crossing my own boundaries.
  2. I’m pretty fucking convinced that Instagram is punishing me for not having the app on my phone and only posting and interacting via desktop. I’ve basically given up on Instagram, which is somewhat terrifying considering that it is the primary way I built my businesses, and it’s often quite useless now as a sales tool. But I am not pulling out fully, that’s too high risk at the moment. And I do like keeping up with friends there. So I wanted to have the app on my phone and not use it unless I was working.
  3. I am a compulsive checker. It’s an anxiety soothing (though really stoking) behavior that I developed early in my business as I became afraid that someone would need something from me and if I didn’t answer them quickly they would slander me on the Internet and ruin my business and I’d never survive it (and yes I am still afraid of this). The habit of the phone, the habit of checking things on the phone, is very strong and tied to some deep psychological shit that no amount of talking it out has changed.

Do I have something unique to contribute here? A new perspective in the never-ending analysis of what phones are doing to us? Nope. But I can’t stop thinking about it, so you’re getting these words anyway.

Enjoying this essay? Subscribe to Think Piece for more deep thinks direct to your inbox 👆

Hack Your Phone Into Submission

Let’s make your phone dumb.

This is a little time consuming. But now that it’s set-up I can tell you, it was worth it. So, inspired by Leonard’s post, let’s go. This is specifically about iPhone settings. Android users, per usual, you’re on your own.

Step 1: Omg the focus modes are actually useful!

I had used the Do Not Disturb feature on my phone before and saw that at some point iOS made it a focus feature that can have all sorts of fancy settings. I set up one Focus Mode, Personal, to start. It is scheduled to turn on every evening at 7pm and turn off the following morning at 8am, and then to be on all day Friday-Sunday (I flex on Fridays, but never do client interaction or coaching in my group programs on that day). I may tighten up the hours as my focus improves and I can get more done in a shorter period of time, but for now this works. The big thing that I did not know was a thing is that you can set per-app notification settings. So for example, I can make it so that WhatsApp and Voxer, two apps I often use with private clients, do not send me notifications when in focus mode. I can also make it so that in focus mode I only get call and text notifications from specific people (there are only five people on the list and they don’t even know they’re on the list the list is secret and sacred). This alone changed my life because it meant that I was not seeing notifications from clients outside of work hours. I am very good about my response boundaries (work hours Monday-Thursday only except in specific situations, like during a launch), but it is not the job of my clients to manage me and I do not want to limit when they do reach out. This setting means they can send me whatever they want whenever they want, and I HAVE NO IDEA until I’m ready to work. You can also, get this, set a special home screen for Focus mode that doesn’t have all of your regular apps. IT IS AMAZING. I made a home screen that has a clock, the weather, and my calendar. These are the things I still need even outside of work hours, and that simple change made me use my phone so much less because I wasn’t even tempted by the other apps and there are no little notification dots on the apps and it’s all just spare.

Step 2: Downtime must be scheduled.

I’ve used the native iOS app blocker before with mixed results, primarily by putting a time limit on specific apps. But I think the trick is to just schedule downtime so you’re not making any decisions about whether or not you want to use it, and actually aren’t using a given app at all. I set up downtime to roughly correspond with my Personal Focus Mode, and blocked all but my essential apps. Downtime also lets you limit who can contact you (you literally cannot open a message from someone not on the list during downtime!), so my fab five are on that list as well. The apps I’ve kept open are messages (with the people restrictions), Google Maps, parking apps if I need to pay for parking in the city, my research process apps (Reader by Readwise, PDF Expert, Obsidian), camera, and Google Cal. Turns out that’s all I want on my phone anyway. I could see an argument for not having the research process apps, but I’m very happy reading and jotting down notes on my phone if that’s what’s available; those are generative and inspiring activities for me. With downtime then, I can only access those apps. Unfortunately downtime does make it easy to override, letting you ask for just one more minute, 15 minutes, or even the rest of the day. But I’ve found the friction when in the context of this full phone shutdown has been enough to restrict me, while still letting me override it when necessary, like when I needed to get a Lyft last night because my train barely runs after 9pm in the so-called greatest city in the world.

Step 3: Make It Boring in Black & White.

A dumb phone hack I implemented years ago was changing the iPhone screen to black and white. It truly is amazing how boring your phone is in greyscale. The colors are such a huge part of what makes it shiny and enticing. Without them, it’s a lump. Leonard’s article reminded me to try this again, and it’s now my default. This setting lives in accessibility, and you can tie it to the side button on the phone so that with a triple click you’re back to color if you need to edit a photo or something like that. It’s amazing how quickly I do get sucked in if the phone is in color! I switched it to look at something a friend sent, and then some minutes later woke up as if from a blackout to find myself on Instagram. I’m leaving it on greyscale as default now.

I’ve tried all of these things in various ways before, but what’s clicking this time is the overall commitment level. The three-pronged approach to making my phone dumb and my mind smart. I’m hoping to increase the amount of focus mode and down time, to really narrow my availability and break the nervous habit I have of cycling through apps or compulsively refreshing my email even when I don’t want to read emails let alone respond to them. The nervousness has ebbed and flowed over the years, but has certainly increased as I’ve closed my most successful product ever (more about that in the soon-to-be relaunched podcast next week!) and I’ve found myself with more uncertainty that I’ve felt in a long time. I’ve clung to my phone and to social media, as if holding it will literally keep me afloat.

In Pursuit Of A Self

All that’s to say I’ve been on edge. I’ve had to pull tight this year, closer into myself and my dear ones than ever before. I’ve had to get small in order to expand, to find infinity in the most finite and mundane things. My brain has struggled to adjust to the knowledge that I have been out of integrity with my work over the past couple of years, and with how I’ve been living my life. It’s hard to be small sometimes. It would feel easier to be loud and to give all of myself away. But that’s why I can’t, because easy isn’t it.

And I am unable to emotionally regulate when I use social media. I lose myself into the vastness. I pick up every expectation as if it were a personal command, every admonishment as if it were directed to me. The apps activate my latent narcissism. Suddenly I am the only person in the world, Atlas alone responsible for holding it all together and fixing it and curing all things.

So a communication tool becomes isolationist.

Writing this bores me, though. Because I’m not special. I bet you too open it up and are flooded with opinions and desires and fears and blame, and they stick to you, too. Strangers dictating your life not because they vote in hallowed halls and sign laws and start wars but because you let them in the front door of your mind, you welcome them through your eyes and ears, through which they come to control your tongue, their hands reaching down through the soft place in the back of your throat, a puppet.

This happened to me twice today because it’s a workday and my notifications are on and I checked the apps for work or whatever it is I do on them.

There was a notification today and it made me worried because that meant someone needed me but I hadn’t wanted to be available for a while but now I knew was needed and—

On Instagram I saw people telling me what to feel and I couldn’t tell whether I did feel that or just felt like I was supposed to feel that and typing this now I’m not bored I’m scared my heart is racing I can’t breathe and I don’t know who I am and what will happen when they find out that I know what they expect but I fail to live up to it.

I closed the app. I considered turning off notifications always except from my dearest ones. Yes I’ll do that. At least I can do that.

My mind will not be my own if I am always available to you.

  1. Marlee Grace once published a zine called “how a photo and video-sharing social networking service gave me my best friends, true love, a beautiful career, and made me want to die” and I’ve rarely resonated with anything more. But I believe they published it and I read it in 2018, and here I am four years later still having the same conversations with myself.

  2. my friend whose work I deeply admire, Fadeke Adegbuyi, wrote a great article about the popularity of dumb phones which has tempted me

access your programs

Log in to the Sarah M. Chappell Program Portal.

Log in to the Holistic Business Academy Member’s Portal.

Yes, I want to be the first to know when Sarah is accepting new coaching clients!