Comparing my first year of smartphone usage with my normal phone

This month, I celebrate my one year anniversary as a smartphone owner.

Yes, you read that right. No it’s not that my phone is one year old by now, it’s that I literally had never owned a smartphone until September 2018.

The first iPhone was released in 2007. That’s over 10 years of seeing smartphone usage increase in the everyday life of those around me. All without jumping on the bandwagon myself.

This seems crazy to some people. Especially since I am so involved in tech. IT has always been a big interest of mine. So much so that I turned that interest into a career as a developer.

The reason I finally became a smartphone owner is simple: I received one from my job. I need it for work. Especially the apps that I use for two factor authentication – I would not be able to log in to my work accounts without them.

The benefit I’ve had though as a extremely late adopter, is that I have listened and read about the pitfalls and struggles other people have had with the devices. So when the time finally came that I could no longer resist the tide, I already had some ideas and tactics for how I would set things up.

I’d like to share my phone setup and my thoughts about it with you.

The screens and their order

I gather my apps and the screens they’re on by general categories based on type of activity

  1. Empty
  2. Apps for COMMUNICATION, and some most frequently used apps. My 2FA apps are there, as well as Toggl, Instapaper, Insight Timer and Noisli.
  3. Apps for DOING things. This is the screen with most of the apps, grouped in folders by function. Handling documents, pictures & images, travelling & tickets, time & planning, text & word, finances etc
  4. Apps for CONSUMING INFORMATION. Browsers, podcasts, e-book readers, RSS readers etc
  5. Apps with TOOLS and settings. Calculator, currency converter, VPN tunnel, password manager etc

What I have noticed is I generally swipe though the screens less and less, and instead rely on swiping down to search and select the app I want from there.

The reason I keep my first screen empty is that I use my wallpaper background to show my weekly plan. Each weekly review, I write my next week’s most important tasks (or mini-goals, or focus areas) on a 3×5 note which I then take a picture of with my phone and use as wallpaper.

You could use that space to remind yourself of your goals, an inspirational quote, positive affirmation, or anything you like. I enjoy the fact that my screen gets empty each time I press the home button.

Strict notifications policy, naturally

First thing is to generally turn off all notifications. The badges too (the little red dots indicating unread messages).

Like firewall rules, notifications are off by default for everything and then I only make exceptions for specific cases.

It’s a work phone, so work emails get to notify me as well as work chat (we use Teams) – they are among the only things where badges are allowed. Standard messaging and communication stuff like Phone, Messages, Zoom, FaceTime, Skype, Signal also get the privilege of telling me if I missed something.

Todoist and calendar reminders get to notify me, but only with banners. All other things are off.

How I use my phone

Ironically, I don’t use my phone to make calls that much. I say ironically because it’s supposed to be a phone at heart. But these devices has turned out to almost become everything but a phone.

And since I don’t need to make a lot of phone calls in my work, the phone part simply is not used very much. It’s still vital, I need to be reachable by my job, but not frequently utilised.

My most frequent use is actually reading and writing messages of different kinds, and listening to podcasts. Other than that, authentication high on the usage list, together with maps, checking public transit time/routes, and the occasional googling to look something up.

I send a lot of stuff to Instapaper in order to read later, but I don’t like to read a lot on the phone. The screen feels to small for that to me.

Separating work and private things

What I have been strict about doing, is to keep work and private life separate. There are some things where apps seem to be required these days, and other situations where they are really convenient. 

We have for example a network/service here in Sweden called swish, where you can connect your phone number to your bank account and easily transfer money just by knowing a person’s phone number or an organization’s swish number.

I have been able to connect such apps to my personal phone number (my dumb one with normal buttons) thanks to sms verification. So I can still benefit from these things while not letting my work number get mingled into my private life.

Something else that has become almost compulsory in Sweden is electronic ID. It’s an app that stores a digital ID issued by a trusted authority – usually a bank. I use that to authenticate myself to various services, and especially government authorities use it as a means to logging in. Soon, trying to conduct your life without one of these electronic ID:s will be difficult.

Regarding email, I have added my private email in a different email app. This means I can check my private email if I want to but it’s separated from the work stuff. 

What’s not on the phone

Most social media. I don’t use Facebook or Instagram but do use Twitter. I have added a twitter app to my iPad but not to the phone. The reasons are obvious and I don’t think I need to explain them.

The thing is though: it’s not necessarily the social media that distracts us. We usually distract ourselves from whatever task we have at hand.

But once we are distracted, if we go to social media in that void, it’s hard to pull back from the lure of the feed. It usually keeps you there for longer than you wanted.

I was going to write that I don’t have any social media apps, but it’s not quite true. I do have LinkedIn installed.

And no games. Not a single one.

Games are often used in spaces between other things, in order to “kill time” or avoid boredom. I don’t want to kill my time, I want to take care of it. And I think boredom is a pre-requisite to creativity.

I’m striving towards being mindful and in the present moment. Having games available to me will not help me get there. I used to have one or two on my iPad but I have removed them completely as well.

Right now, Slack and Discourse are in the risk zone of getting deleted. Slack because most of my work stuff happens in Teams, so it’s turning into a habitual thing to check some channels just because I can. These are fun, social channels for me, and not strictly needed for work. It’s like a social media app in that sense, with the same pitfalls and triggers.

Same with Discourse. I’m a member of a couple of forums where interesting discussions happen. But even if my intention is to check and perhaps answer something during lunch, truth is it has become something I check more often. Even when I don’t need to.

Funnily enough, I see habitual or compulsory checking of these two apps more as an indication of what’s going on at work and not of my character or their addictiveness. 

It’s so easy to pick up and check them whenever my task at hand seems a bit unclear, vague, or not so fun. A general procrastination thing. So even if I delete them now, it won’t fix the reason I want to check them. They are just the messenger, not the real problem.

Still, removing distractions can be helpful in the short term.

Things that I’m bad at

I never understood before, and now I have come to appreciate, the ability to have a camera with you at all times. I was never much into photography before so I have never had practice with taking good pictures. Frankly, I suck at it and would like to become more skilled in this area.

But I really don’t understand the selfie thing. I think I haven’t taken more than 10 in total during the whole year. Feels so weird taking a mirror picture, and very awkward to hold the phone at an angle that looks decent. Ugh.

Another thing is my fat fingers. I simply do not have the dexterity to pick the letters I want on the keyboard, and I’m very slow. I really miss being able to write without looking at the screen. I’m so used to the T9 way of writing (Remember that? It still works like a charm!).

What I’m thinking after a year of usage

I appreciate having a communication device close at hand. I was mostly messaging anyway before, but now there are internet messaging in extension to the sms:s I used to write and receive.

Having email in my pocket is something I appreciate. And being able to connect it to my todo app and notes app. And podcasts are something I appreciate a lot.

Now none of these things are really a novelty to me, since I have had an iPad for many years. The main shift is that I now carry these things in a pocket sized format instead of tablet sized and thus can bring it with me everywhere.

This is both good and bad. I can look up something on the web extremely easily. My computer time has decreased a lot, even though my total screen time perhaps hasn’t. But it also means it is sometimes too easy to whip up the phone to check something, it’s a bit too easy to bring it with me everywhere.

Some things are only available as apps these days. It’s almost scary how not having a smartphone will soon exclude you from some essential services, and other things that simply makes life easier.

Things like parking for example. Paying for parking is moving towards all happening through apps (at least in my country). And I already mentioned the electronic ID that more and more services are using as authentication.

I’m expected to download an app for everything. What used to be a loyalty store card is now registered through an app. I don’t get a boarding card when I fly, I get a QR code scanned from my phone screen.

Since I didn’t experience this gradual transition over the years but jumped right in to a mature ecosystem of apps and services, I notice how it has very quickly permeated almost every aspect of ordinary everyday life. 

I didn’t really see that before. When I didn’t have a smartphone, I didn’t fully register all the call-outs to download apps because they didn’t apply to me. My life was functioning very well without them.

As a result, I am very wary of making myself dependent on this new device. I try as much as I can to treat it almost like a disposable device: don’t keep data on it that I don’t want to lose, move everything to some kind of cloud storage that I can, live as if I can wipe it tomorrow.

I want to use it as a tool for a convenient life, but not depend on it so much that my life and productivity would be hindered if I lost it or it got stolen.

Comparing to the dumb phone life

My personal phone is still my trusty dumb phone with keypad. I haven’t switched completely. And now I see life from both sides.

There’s a slight inconvenience when I consistently get sent links in messages and I am expected to be able to click them but I can’t. I always have to go to a browser and type the link address in. (Delivery companies: why do you make the link so hard to type?? Url shorterners exist for a reason!)

There’s also a bit of mismatch since everyone is accustomed to be able to send pictures and gifs and so on. My phone can handle MMS:es but there’s not a lot of memory, nor screen real estate.

But do you want to know the funny thing I miss the most whenever I use my private phone to write an sms?

It’s the emojis. Might sound stupid, but it’s true.

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