Last year I wrote about my decision to remove email apps from my mobile devices. Today I took the next logical step and got rid of my smartphone altogether.
I was giddy when I got an iPhone in 2008. Having email and the web (and later, stuff like Twitter) on a mobile device was the coolest thing ever. But it’s become clear over the last year that the benefits of this connectivity are, for me personally, clearly outweighed by the drawbacks. The smartphone keeps me connected to the internet; I work on the internet; therefore the smartphone keeps me connected to work. And when I’m not at my computer, dwelling on work-related issues is both pointless (because I can’t fix them until I’m at a computer) and annoying (because duh). Even if there were a way for me to carve out a totally-non-work-related part of my online life, I’m not sure I want to have it in my pocket, where I’m always tempted to fiddle with it.
To make the transition a bit more fun, I got myself a legitimately nice dumbphone, the Nokia 515 (which I had to order from a shady-seeming importer, because it’s not supposed to be available in the US). I’m having a good time setting it up. It’s been a few years since I had to migrate my contacts manually, so I’ve built up lots of cruft. The only people I moved over to the new device are those I really like (and might want to call) and those I really don’t like (and want to screen). The camera on the Nokia is pretty good for a dumbphone, but totally lame compared to my Moto X. Using multi-tap to type is hilariously awful, but T9 is better than I remembered. It’s retro-fun.
Using this phone is going to introduce friction into my routine. Messages will be harder to type; appointments will be trickier to look up; addresses will be impossible to locate; and so on. But when I look around a subway car or a restaurant or a playground and see dozens of people gazing vacantly into the easy gleen of their smartphone screens, I remember that friction can be good sometimes.
In the spirit of a recent post by my friend Evan Solomon, I thought I’d write briefly about a decision I made this summer: No more email on my mobile devices. A few months ago, I removed the Email shortcut from my home screen; today, I switched to a new phone, and I don’t plan to configure the email app at all.
The reasoning behind this decision is similar to Evan’s. Very rarely do I get an email whose subject is truly urgent, in the sense that it requires immediate action. Those few that I do receive are almost always related to work – someone’s production site has gone down, say. But, in nearly all cases, it’s a problem I can only solve if I’m at a regular computer. And if I’m using my phone, it’s likely that I’m not currently at a computer, and I probably can’t be at one immediately. So there’s little to be gained from getting the message while I’m on the go. Urgent messages that are not work-related – such as family emergencies – wouldn’t come through email anyway, so I’m not missing anything in that case either.
Like Evan, I find myself able to concentrate better on the people around me when I’m not thinking about the device in my pocket. This is doubly true because of the nature of the non-urgent email I usually get. Many emails are bug reports, and reading about bug reports when I’m not in a position to do anything about them is both highly distracting (mental debugging!) and usually frustrating. Some emails are requests: for favors, for work proposals, etc. This kind of email too is distracting in an unpleasant way, as I find myself silently drafting a response on the spot. Even the few emails I receive that are genuinely pleasant take me out of the moment, and again, don’t really admit of a proper response while I’m on the go (I refuse to write anything longer than a text or a tweet on a phone).
Weaning myself from the mother’s milk of mobile mail was a quick and painless process. A day or two in, and already I could see that I was more engaged with the things around me. When I’m at the playground with my kid, I’m paying attention to him. When I’m on the train, I’m reading a book. And when I’m standing in line or in some other kind of situation where email typically fills the void, I’m often just feeling bored. And feeling bored is a very welcome change from a head clouded by frustration and software bugs.
So, think about it. What value do you get from reading email on your phone? And what does it cost?