How I quit smartphones

Posted on Sun 01 May 2022 in personal

I sit on the metro. The lady on my side unlocks her smartphone, scrolls up to reveal the list of installed apps, opens one at random, goes back to the home screen, and finally locks the device again. All happens within 5 seconds. Still holding the phone in her hands, she shuffles in her seat and looks again out of the window. I look around – nobody has raised an eyebrow. But also, everybody has their smartphone in their hands. I can count the number of people who are doing something not involving their smartphone on one hand, for the whole train, and it's rush hour on the Stockholm metro. Then I wonder: how would people feel if all smartphones were to suddenly turn into beers? What would people think? I guess they would think the train was filled with alcoholics. And indeed, my feeling is that the train is filled with addicts who have crossed the line and do not even realize anymore to be addicts.

Filled with self-satisfaction and judgement towards others, I look down: my smartphone is in my hands. I realize I too am an addict, I too am a drinker. I decide I need to do something about it.

One morning I dropped into an electronics store and bought a €45 dumbphone (which a friend has lovely renamed wise-phone). Amazingly, getting it second-hand was more expensive, and I wanted it that very morning, so no shipping from a distant location. The shop clerk asked me if I wanted to pay by card or cash. I was tempted to ask if he would be patient enough for me to go out and pick my cheque book from the saddlebag of my horse.

Back home, I sent a flood of WhatsApp/Telegram messages saying I wouldn't have a smartphone for at least 30 days, but that people should feel free to SMS or ring me at any time. Then I took out the SIM card and put it in what felt like a childhood experience: a Nokia with a keypad and a ridicolous amount of games installed. I left my apartment without my smartphone in my pockets for the first time in years. I went out without Internet access for the first time in a decade.

The day before, fantasizing about quitting my smartphone, I felt anxiety and worry. Now, out with a feather in my pockets, I felt light and free. This, I told myself, is how it feels to take away Sauron's ring.

sauron ring

It did not start as a problem

Although I was not among the earliest adopters, I did buy a smartphone when many people still didn't have one. I was probably the first in my family, and such I remained for at least a couple of years. But still, having had a smartphone for more than a decade raised for me the question of why I came to reject it so much later in time, and why I did not have negative feelings towards it for such a long time.

My first device was a Galaxy Nexus in ~ 2012. At the time, there wasn't much smartphones could do better than computers: WhatsApp was barely 3 years old; all other messaging apps did not exist; almost no website was optimized for small screens. I had a high-end self-assembled desktop computer, so for sure my new phone didn't out-compete my workstation. But hey, what computer can you actually bring in your pockets? Already fiddling with IT as a teenager, it looked cool to feel and look busy replying to emails from my phone, at any time. To look up information I was wondering about. To have my documents synced there. To find the phone number of a shop from my phone and call straightaway. Magic. Little of this was time sensitive, or better suited to be done on my phone rather than on the computer. But at the same time, there wasn't much harm happening either. Sure, silicon and copper had been mined at the expense of the health of people in remote countries, but my health was fine.

The years went by and nothing major happened. In no way did I feel drawn to my phone in the way that brings people to unlock and lock it randomly, for reasons that we'll soon explore. At some point I switched phone just because my Nexus was in pieces (I drop phones, a lot), and started buying second-hand. At no point in time did ditching my smartphone ever occurred to me, mostly because, with time, I had started using it for more and more purposes: I had my documents and music automatically synced on it, I could now text people through the internet, I could record myself playing the piano and send it to my teacher, etc. It was just so convenient on so many regards. However, at that time I was still spending hours reading, writing, crafting videos, developing software - the smartphone was a convenience and a luxury, it never felt like a problem.

I was engaged in so many activities that I just did not have the time to use it enough to make it become a problem.

Then in 2018 I started traveling. I spent a summer in Ireland, a semester in Madrid, and then relocated permanently to Stockholm. My smartphone quickly transitioned from a luxury to a necessity: buying and showing tickets; maps and directions, as well as finding restaurants and cafes; connecting with the people I met; finding and participating in events and activities with quasi-strangers; keeping in touch with my partner. I even invested the time to make my phone Google-free. To build myself a life in my home city took 25 years, and I feel like the smartphone catalyzed the creation of my new life abroad.

At the same time, I had my phone in my hands far more than before, and far more pockets of spare time to fill. My phone quickly filled up with podcasts to listen to and articles to read. And while at the beginning I was cherry-picking the content I wanted to consume on my phone, it soon became littered with so much content that I could be entertained by it anytime, for any length of time. Why stare at the void while waiting for the metro, if I can read a Very Interesting™ article about the history of wheat? Why listen to the chattering inside a train, if I can listen to a podcast about Javascript promises (there's no promises, JS is a delusion)? Why waste time if I could use it for something? At that point, I could still argue that, even if I were addicted (which I would have probably denied anyway), it was still a healthy addiction. Or at least, it was hard to argue that my smartphone was harming my cognitive skills. In retrospect, I regard all these activities as just a tad better than regular entertainment: they are passive and only seldom contribute to a richer life experience.

The detonating variable still had to be added, though.

It all started tumbling down pretty fast when I found myself unhappy in my workplace. I felt like I did not have enough to do, and what I had was vague and hardly actionable. When I wanted to shy away from a complicated task, I could checkout WhatsApp/Telegram/Facebook/email in the hope that somebody had texted. And since I was at it, I could also read an article. And I would re-emerge 15 minutes later with aching wrists and no accomplishments whatsoever on my bigger task, which would in turn obviously motivate me even less to tackle it. Repeat.

I went from a rich schedule of engaging activities, to a sparse routine of appalling tasks. I tried to flee these assignments, and who was there to welcome me with open arms? But of course.

There are countless studies suggesting that it isn't really phone usage that degrades our cognitive performance, but rather the frequent context switch between tasks. By jumping away from difficult tasks and tackling micro tasks on my phone, or even on my computer at some point, I created myself an environment in which it became hard to get anything done, because I had de-trained myself from focusing. I started noticing how I couldn't seem able to focus for long stretches of time anymore, not as I used to be able to do when I was in university. I could blame age, but if this is how life at 27 is already supposed to be, boy have we been cheated upon. After so many years of higher education, this felt like a defeat.

The same loss of cognitive skills could have happened by watching TV series every time I wanted to shy away from my work. And truth be told, I remember it happening in other circumstances: I remember breaking up with my ex and spending days in bed with a laptop and never ending seasons of Chuck. And I remember how at some point I wondered "ugh, how am I gonna break out of this?". The salvation in that case came in the form of an already-scheduled ski trip. It is very, very hard to bring your TV series addiction with you while skiing – it is feasible, but that addiction has constraints. A week later I went back home feeling okay; I avoided TV series in bed for a while and it was no big deal.

To be even fairer, I did not need a smartphone to end up there. As I came to discover, frequent context switches are a product of the Internet, not of smartphones, so a regular computer is enough to trigger it. The reason why smartphones are so dangerous though is that we can never leave them. The moment they become our all-round go-to tool, it becomes impossible to step away from them. You can not take a ski trip without your phone: my student card is on it; the GPS navigation to get there is on it; calls to my partner go through it. The moment we turn to our smartphone for communication and maps, reading and music, workout plans and banking... for everything, it becomes impossible to quit it. And then it suddenly develops the potential of becoming a gigantic problem, in the form of a constant distraction.

smartphone addiction children Smartphone addiction symptoms found in a quarter of children

How did it happen? You sure have some willpower, don't you?

Nobody ever plans to develop an addiction. It happens unconsciously, given the right circumstances. When we are going through a rough time in our lives, and there is something that seems capable of making that time just a little bit easier, we'll fall for it.

Addicts have often very normal life paths, except something that pushed them towards the addiction in a very innocent way, at the beginning. Boredom at school. A break up. Job loss. An incident. Whatever it is, sources of consolation are very welcome, in the form of booze, smoke, painkillers. Nobody plans to become addicted to them, they just want a relief from a tough time. You need a lot of discipline or extreme awareness to realize when the relief is turning into another problem.

The great danger with smartphones is that nobody is immune, and that it's dramatically easy to slip into it. Nobody is immune from any addiction, but you have to take an active step to slip into a more traditional one. You have to physically go in a shop and buy cigarettes, and then start smoking, which by the way will feel awful at the beginning (I'm told). You have to go to the store and buy cans of beer. You have to get a chronic pain and have a doctor prescribe painkillers. After all this, you can develop the addiction, but an active step is needed to begin with.

The difference with smartphones is that virtually anybody who is not starving has an addiction lurking at them all the time. Phone addiction is triggered by much smaller reasons than the major historical addictions. You just need to be looking for a distraction from a boring moment of your day. And who doesn't have a boring moment in their days? That makes it quite easy to start. And once you start turning to your phone as a distraction from life, the road is paved. When our brain starts realizing that the phone is an easy source of dopamine and reward, it will push to have it as often as possible. Why engage in a difficult task when you can get easy dopamine? Give way to such a behavior a few times, and it will become increasingly difficult to tackle hard tasks, because you brain has become used to getting rewards to much simpler tasks, and will crave for it.

I can really see this having happened to me, looking back. After moving, I was alone and a bit aimless, especially after the enthusiasm of the first few months faded away. I turned to my phone more and more often, even for what I felt were meaningful tasks: reaching out to my partner and connections in my home country; taking pictures; listening to music; reading articles. This was still fine, and is probably the innocent situation for many people. However, when my work became not engaging, the road was paved for me to get an easy distraction: pick up my phone. The more I did it, the more bound to my phone I became. But of course I never meant to become addicted - it just happened. Moreover, it is hugely draining to constantly exercising willpower, in order to restrain phone usage.

Resisting temptation is cognitively very demanding: it's much easier to do away with the temptation altogether.

But is it really a problem if I am addicted to my phone?

You can draw your own conclusion, but is there any positive definition of addiction? I don't think so, and if you do, it's only because you haven't come to terms with the fact that your addiction is damaging you.

The problem is also that most often it takes a lot of time and energy for addicts to realize and admit they have an addiction problem. I have met many people who were hugely more addicted than me, and they'd still stare at me blankly the times I picked up a call on my wise-phone: they just couldn't understand why (and how) I would do without a smartphone. Brief conversations revealed that they did realize, on some level, that they were addicted, but they dismissed the matter lightly. The problem is also that the awareness that this is a mass addiction and the cause for loss of focus is only slowly arising now: in the same way as it took decades for smoking to be regarded basically as a self-harm activity, it will take decades for the same to happen with smartphones. After all, it's hard to counteract an addiction that doesn't cause cancer and that's so widely widespread already.

For me, it also came down to the kind of person I wanted to be, and the behaviors I wanted to have.

I have witnessed (and I still do on a daily basis) worrying behaviors, that I did not want to start engaging in. People randomly unlocking and locking their phone. Fathers out for dinner with two children spending the night with their phone, grunting at the questions the playful kids would ask. People picking up their phone as soon as the spontaneous conversation among a group friends halted for a few seconds. People sitting among people, their phone in their hands, asking "what are you talking about?", and not even hearing the reply. People showing others a silly Instagram video, then getting dragged from story to story. I have experienced each of these as a spectator, and it made me feel so much disconnected from the people and even more alone. At some point I decided that my life priorities would be a) social relationships; b) my physical and mental well-being; and having a computer in my pockets just didn't seem to aid neither.


"But how do you do without maps/music/NFC/whatever??"

You find a solution, instead of being found a solution. Constraints foster creativity. You also need to accept that you'll have to live at a slower tempo. Live adagio. And as all things in life, if you welcome it, rather than fight it, you'll have a much more pleasant ride.

To navigate to places, there's many options. If it's enough well-reknown, get as close to it as you can and then start asking people for directions. This is how my parents use to do, that's how I used to do when I was young. People are happy to be helpful (would you grunt if somebody asked you help?), and worst case they'll pull out their phone and show you the map. If you can plan all in advance, draw a map on a small notebook. I was interviewing for jobs shortly after I quit my smartphone, and I had to reach offices in all sorts of unknown locations – these strategies worked every time, and more often than not I've had a chat or a laugh with those strangers.

Maps and navigation are extremely convenient. I cannot anymore afford the luxury of scheduling a trip with no margin for being late, nor can I go somewhere unknown with no prior planning. I have to look up the map beforehand, take notes if needed, and always make sure I have all the relevant information with me when I will be out (when is the last time you wrote down an address?). If I venture in an area of the city that I completely unfamiliar with, I plan to get there half an hour earlier. I have to allow myself to get lost.

For music, the €45 Nokia I bought has Bluetooth and a music player (god, it even has 4G!). Sure: no Spotify, but I don't mind the requirement of having to be intentional over what music I want to listen to. It's a feature, not a bug. If the experience of navigating your library on a shitty device is too painful (and I can say: it is), then use your smartphone as an iPod Touch only for offline music. I do that for podcasts as well. Just work around the constraints.

For communication, welcome back to the world of voice calls. Texting is ridiculously slow. I write in 3 languages every day, and I can only get T9 predictions in 2 languages. This means that it's okay to write in 2 languages, even if it's quite clumsy to switch between the two, but for the third language I have to bang the keys multiple times and write each letter of every word. So forget SMS to talk about your day, plan activities, and the like. You'll appreciate why your father was always ringing you and complaining about texting. For me texts have become pure communication means to say "I am 5 late", or "Meet at X at Y". For anything more than that, I just ring people. It's so much easier, and faster. It sounds overly nostalgic, but I also just enjoy hearing the voice of the person on the other end.

Of course, not all of my acquintances/friends have been fine with this. Without a smartphone, it's hard to have shallow relationships. I can not be added to group chats, and the people who would randomly text me once every other month to greet and ask how I was doing hardly text anymore. It is a bit of a loss, but at the same time I want to have meaningful deep relationships with people, and I am not sure I am losing that much by not having shallow transient relationships. However, I did address this by checking WhatsApp/Telegram Web every day or so.

For everything else ... you don't need anything else. Sometimes people come up with questions like "But how do you pay in stores??", and it's my turn to be bewildered. You just use your plastic debit card, as 80% of the world still does.

There's mountains of non-existent problems, and in truth I've most often found them imaginary reasons to convince yourself that you cannot do without a smartphone. You can.

Society is moving towards being smartphone-first, and if we want to fight against that, we needed to do that yesterday. With the words of one of its employees, "SL [the company behind Stockholm's public transport service] wishes that everybody would have their app." It's hard to login into a bank account without a smart device and their app.

But today is not too late either. Cities are still full of large size maps with a helpful "You are here" marker, street names are still hung on buildings, and in smart cities each contains information on the house numbers you will find on each side and in each block. While there's pressure for our society to become needlessly techy, our environments are still largely designed to work without tech (and for that we have to thank pensioners), and we can leverage that to oppose that movement.

The review, 1.5 years later

Initially, I told everybody I would run the experiment for 30 days and then re-evaluate the situation. It's now 1.5 years later, and I'm proud of myself in looking back and ackwnoledging that I've been clean for all that time. There's only been two exceptions:

  • bike packing trips where I needed internet access to follow GPS tracks from the phone,
  • one very hectic work trip abroad where I could not plan all steps in advance, and needed a computer in my pockets.

For all the other circumstances I was right: I don't need a computer in my pockets every day, all day. I already work in IT, and spend countless hours in front of a screen. Being screen-free out of home is just healthy.

Also, the absence of a smartphone has catalyzed new relationships and connections that I doubt would have blommed otherwise. The girl at a classical music concert sitting beside me, opening her flip-phone ("You're the second person I know without a smartphone beside me!"). The couple of pensioners guiding me to a magnolia garden I couldn't find, and telling me about their life on the way. The girl at a department lunch leaving me her number hitting physical keys, "unlocking childhood memories". A friend supporting me in my decision, giving me directions on the phone on where to find the bus lest I miss it.

Don't get me wrong: it is a privilege to be able to quit smartphones. It is a privilege to live adagio. However, a lot has also to do with the environment we're immersed in and what we find acceptable. When it comes out that I don't have a smartphone among my tech connections (each having at least one smartwatch), people look at me as if I said I live barefoot. When the same comes up among my musician/artist connections, they shrug and just say "I'll text/call you". For them, I'm not that special.

Are there even any wisephones for sale these days?

To my surprise, I discovered that there is a thriving market of wisephones. This is mainly divided in three segments:

  1. Modern cheap phones tailored to pensioners (my Nokia belongs to this segment). These are not necessarily dumbphones, but rather phones designed to be simple to use. The high-end ones reach up to €150, and have WhatsApp and Facebook built-in. They are often 4G dual-sim Bluetooth phones, so that you can have a modern phone experience. Some of these can be found second-hand from pensioners who "had been given it by their children, but felt like they were too complicated to use" (hard to blame them). Some of them have beautifully gigantic keys.
  2. Second-hand old phones. The problem with these old phones is that a) your SIM is most likely too small to fit, so you'd need a clunky adapter; b) some carriers have (or plan to) dismiss support for old 2G communication protocols, and eventually 3G as well. So if you simply pick up a phone from 15 years ago, it's likely it won't work.
  3. Hipster modern dumbphones. These, like The Light Phone, go as up as $299 and are smartphones of some sort dumbed down so that they cannot become too much of a distraction (for ex, you have Internet access, but only to do hotspot to another device; no built-in browser, etc).

Nokia 222