“He hated it and loved it, as he hated and loved himself. He could not get rid of it. He had no will left in the matter. A [smartphone] looks after itself, Frodo.” -J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, adapted.
A week ago, I replaced my smartphone with an Apple Watch. The amount of screen in my pocket went from ~18 square inches to ~2.6 square inches—almost 7x smaller. Here’s why I did it, what happened, and what I learned.
Mindless scrolling has been creeping into my life for a long time. Unless I was fully and totally engrossed by what I was doing, I would be drawn to my phone, like Gollum to the ring, and left feeling mentally dull and unable to focus. My phone was mental kryptonite, and research showing that even the presence of a smartphone diminished subjects’ cognitive capacity confirmed that it wasn’t just me.
If I turned off my phone, I would be unable to make or receive calls or texts, including being reached in an emergency; I would worry about getting lost without maps; and I would miss out on the audiobooks and podcasts that I enjoy while exercising outside. I realized that an Apple Watch might be able to solve these use cases while keeping out scrolling. I found this blog post about someone who replaced their smartphone with an Apple Watch, and suddenly it seemed possible.
So, I bought an Apple Watch, enabled LTE, told a few friends and colleagues about what I was doing, and set about an experiment in phone-free living.
The first thing I noticed was withdrawal. In my smartphone days, my phone would fill increasingly fine-grained moments of downtime—as short as heating up tea, as long as waiting on hold or suffering through a boring call—and these moments would cue me to reach for my phone and reward myself with reading a feed. Sometimes, if faced with a particularly difficult challenge, I might reach for my phone and “come back to it later.”
For the first day or two, I learned to recondition myself to enjoy the soundtrack of my own thoughts, and the harmony of passing these small amounts of time in silence.
But the results were quick. Within a day or two, my brain stopped asking “what’s on the Internet?” every few minutes, and a heavy cloud started lifting over some everyday activities.
I started noticing that I could watch whole TV episodes and movies without getting bored or distracted.
I started multitasking less and task switching less often.
I started reaching for higher-intention uses of time—like writing, or consuming content from newspapers, magazines, books, Nintendo Switch, or long-form video—instead of dithering between devices and different media.
My girlfriend started noticing that I was far more present when we would spend time together. Changing my Personal Service Guarantee Not having email on my body at all times would increase my latency on things like email. I told the friends and colleagues about the experiment, and that they could text me or call me for any reason at any time if they thought it was warranted. After getting the thumbs-up from stakeholders at work, I started the experiment and everything was absolutely fine. Learning to Text with Voice Texting is a written medium, but writing isn’t really a thing on the Apple Watch. To reply to a text on my watch, I would have to speak into it in my finest Siri monotone and hope Apple’s ham-fisted transcription captures my meaning in a not-too-illiterate way.
After a while, though, I discovered the feature gave me the option to reply with transcription or reply with voice on a per-message basis. While Siri is suitable for many kinds of responses, I began to appreciate the possibilities voice response opened up. I would now reply to texts in voice, with emotion.
In Gautam Mukunda’s wonderful World Reimagined podcast, Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy described how a friend would make a practice of leaving 1-2 minute “catch-up” voicemails, and the positive effect it had on his relationship. I started noticing that leaving voice-based messages let me be more thoughtful and emotive in contexts outside of “okay” or “see you in 5 minutes.”
When I would turn on my iPhone—typically once or twice per day and decreasingly rapidly—I would immediately be snowed over by an avalanche of irrelevant notifications. All of this processed, refined data made me realize just how much, and how often, my phone was attacking me during the day, and I enjoyed realizing that my watch and my laptop were able to protect me from this. Lesson learned: notifications off by default.
As I would begin scrolling through services like Instagram, I realized that I didn’t miss them at all. Ripped from the habit loops they used to live in, Instagram and up-to-the-minute news lost their relevance for me, and became easy to titrate out of my life.
Although some of these bad behaviors moved to my computer, they mostly didn’t. I’ve stayed signed out of social media, knowing that I can always go to my phone, wait for it to turn on, and scroll for a few minutes if I absolutely needed to.
I wish that the Audible and Overcast apps were built to be first-class apps on the Watch, but they aren’t at the time of this writing.
I love Overcast, but I wasn’t able to get it to work without having my phone on. I refuse to have my phone on to decide which podcast to listen to, so it’s back to Apple Podcasts until this is addressed.
Audible has a startlingly shoddy standalone app experience on Apple Watch.
SMS doesn’t come through on the Apple Watch, only iMessage, so my friends who aren’t in the iMessage ecosystem have had to deal with increased latency. Sorry, Kevin.
Oh, and no camera. This is usually fine—there are no shortage of people with cameras in the world—but even this downside has the silver lining of forcing me to live in the moment.
I was worried that I would kick myself for spending hundreds of dollars to help with self-control when cheaper options (deleting apps, turning off notifications, turning off colors, using a kitchen safe) were available.
Here are the Screen Time results from my first full week of this experiment:
I’m very satisfied with the results. I cut my screen time over 60% in my first week, and didn’t turn it on Sunday at all.
If you’re curious about this, and want to try it too, here’s what I recommend:
- Get an Apple Watch. I bought the LTE version for this experiment, but GPS may be plenty if you only want messaging features around your home or office. I bought the SE since I would mostly be using it as a phone, and minimally for biometrics. The device ran me about $375 after tax, and T-Mobile DIGITS had a $30 activation fee and $10/month.
- Pair it with your favorite portable headphones.
- Change the default app screen, which is exceptionally clumsy, to list mode.
- Set Messages to give you the option to reply with transcription OR voice.
- Download the apps you want to keep, being mindful of ones that will generate a lot of notifications. I have a few friends whom I trade memes with on various messenger apps, but that use case doesn’t make the cut for my watch. I can read these and reply to them from my computer.
- Let anyone who might require immediate attention know that the most reliable way to quickly reach you will be phone or text.
Good luck, and let me know how it goes!