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📱🎪 My iPhone is more cicus than tool

Smoking is more common in Portugal than in the United States. If I attend a large dinner with friends in Lisbon I expect that about a third of the table will step outside between dessert and coffee.

Part of me is jealous. When they go smoke, they can use their phones. My addiction is more popular but less accepted. It would seem terribly rude to say “Excuse me. I am going to step outside to scroll on my phone for five minutes.” My iPhone has become more like a cigarette than a tool. I bought this device (and a dozen iterations of it) to get things done. Instead I reach for it during any pause in my day to consume empty calories.

I pull it out of my pocket when I’m still. I open it without thinking when I’m walking in Lisbon and wait at a pedestrian crossing. I even find myself with my phone in my hand, scrolling Twitter, asking “wait, I unlocked my phone to do something - what was that?”

I spend a lot of money on this device to do anything but waste more of my time. I wanted it to be a tool. My phone ceased to be one around the same time that social media apps showed up in the app store. I have been carrying around a circus carnival wherever I go for more than a decade. I want off the ride.

How do I use my phone today?

I would rather you dig into my browser history than my Screen Time report. That feature is probably the most intimate digital data point available to the average user today. The void we stare into can stare back - with receipts. I find it to be a valuable way of distinguishing whether or not my device is mostly a tool.

First, what is a tool? I use the word tool to represent use cases that end with me accomplishing something that I needed to do. Paying bills in credit card apps, responding to an email from our immigration lawyers, figuring out the best way to avoid traffic while driving to Sintra.

And my iPhone definitely can be a tool in that sense! This device can check off those items on my to do list and more. The problem begins when I leave it open. When I finish my commute I don’t keep sitting in my car. However, I do routinely check the weather and then find myself on Instagram.

Here is a window into how I used my phone on an average week in November. By average, I mean there were no holidays and I was not traveling. I am creating a kind of category view from the Screen Time feature and adding up the time spent in minutes, ranked from most to least.

Activity App Time Spent
Internet Browsing Safari 316
Reddit Reddit 215
Instagram Instagram 186
Group Chats and DMs iMessage, WhatsApp 243
Twitter Twitter 121
NYTimes NYTimes 100
Email Apple Mail 99
Aimless Learning Wikipedia 83
News Apple News, ESPN, The Ringer, Economist 71
To Do List Reminders, GitHub, Streaks 69
Money Tasks Bank/CC Apps 40
Health Withings, Apple Health, Fitness, Streaks 34
Photos Photos 22
Music Apple Music 16
Camera Camera 15

I am deliberately excluding a few applications. I am not counting my screen time when I use the Map. I don’t have CarPlay in my car so I use a MagSafe mount to navigate which skews the data. I also am, oddly, going to ignore video streaming applications like Apple TV or Netflix - I only watch videos on my phone when I’m on the treadmill or the bike at the gym. Also, NYTimes is broken out from News because I mostly use the NYTimes app for the daily crossword. I get my news by reading the physical edition of The Economist each week.

Other obvious things seem missing. I tend to use my work calendar (and work phone) for most scheduling so that isn’t represented here. And as I’ve talked about in the past, I use my Kindle for reading. I’m also ignoring the kinds of “utility tool” apps that I need on my phone but only break out in very specific circumstances (things like United for air travel or Estacionar for parking).

What makes my phone a tool?

I’m going to add a column to indicate whether or not I think a given activity from the table above is productive. I’ll mark it with a hammer and wrench emoji. This is a first pass to somewhat filter out the things I need to do with my phone. Or things I feel are worth doing. For example, I probably don’t need to spend this much time in messaging, but I rarely regret catching up with close friends or family over text.

Activity App Time Spent Use Case
Internet Browsing Safari 316
Reddit Reddit 215
Instagram Instagram 186
Group Chats and DMs iMessage, WhatsApp 243 🛠️
Twitter Twitter 121
NYTimes NYTimes 100
Email Apple Mail 99 🛠️
Aimless Learning Wikipedia 83 🛠️
News Apple News, ESPN, The Ringer, Economist 71 🛠️
To Do List Reminders, GitHub, Streaks 69 🛠️
Money Tasks Bank/CC Apps 40 🛠️
Health Withings, Apple Health, Fitness, Streaks 34 🛠️
Photos Photos 22 🛠️
Music Apple Music 16 🛠️
Camera Camera 15 🛠️

Some immediate things jump out at me:

  • Even when we’re being generous and calling “Group Chats and DMs” a tool, five of the first six activities have no tangible value.
  • 42% of the total time spent on the device that week could fall into the tool category. That is higher than I anticipated. Remove Group chats, though, and that number is closer to 28%.

Do some of these things need to happen on a phone?

I almost always have my phone on me which means I tend to reach for it first for most of the use cases above. I am not sure that is best, though. Some productive situations don’t need the immediacy of a phone or they are better off with the larger screen and keyboard of a laptop. I don’t want to open a laptop to check the map during a walk to a new restaurant but I should probably use a laptop to respond to my tax lawyers.

I’m going to add two new columns to represent that distinction: urgent and environment. Urgent means that I want to take the action pretty quickly wherever I am - ideal for phones. Environment captures where I think the action is best completed.

Urgent represents a really specific scenario here. I am part of four or five group chats of dudes on both sides of the Atlantic. I almost never need to respond to their memes with any time pressure. However, I do want to talk with them in real time compared to batching up the emails I need to send to the condo board in Lisbon or the Texas Exes alumni chapter coordinator.

Activity App Time Spent Use Case Urgent Env.
Internet Browsing Safari 316
Reddit Reddit 215 📱
Instagram Instagram 186 📱
Group Chats and DMs iMessage, WhatsApp 243 🛠️ 🔥 📱
Twitter Twitter 121 📱
NYTimes NYTimes 100 📱
Email Apple Mail 99 🛠️ 💻
Aimless Learning Wikipedia 83 🛠️ 💻
News Apple News, ESPN, The Ringer, Economist 71 🛠️ 📱
To Do List Reminders, GitHub, Streaks 69 🛠️ 🔥
Money Tasks Bank/CC Apps 40 🛠️ 🔥 📱
Health Withings, Apple Health, Fitness, Streaks 34 🛠️ 🔥
Photos Photos 22 🛠️ 📱
Music Apple Music 16 🛠️ 🔥 📱
Camera Camera 15 🛠️ 🔥 📱

The Apple Watch enters the picture! I remember a conversation nearly a decade ago with a friend of mine from ESW Capital who purchased the first iteration of the Apple Watch. This was before it did anything - before it became a ubiquitous healthcare device. It mostly just told time and announced notifications.

I’ll never forget how he described the value of it - it made him pull out his phone less. Since he could tell with a glance that the notification was from a family member or something urgent at work compared to an activity that could wait. This was also before the different Focus modes in iOS were available.

I’ve long thought about my Apple Watch as one of the tools I have to use my phone less. Some activities really are better to do on the Watch; I like to plan my day and organize my Reminders on my Phone and then burn them down when I’m out and about on my watch. I prefer using the Streaks app on my Watch. And the damn thing doesn’t have Instagram or Twitter.

Alright, where are we now:

  • No surprise that by taking an inventory of what I do on my phone I’d find a lot of things that are best suited to a phone. I could probably move things like Mail to my laptop more, but that doesn’t really contribute to the goal of this exercise. That said, if I try to avoid mail on my phone I have one less reason to open my phone.
  • It’s hard to measure the impact of using my Watch more for things. Add up the time I spend on my phone with those activities (and not all of them could live on the Watch) and you only get 103 minutes off of the phone. Again, we’re just transferring time here. The real impact would hopefully be that I don’t go down an Instagram rabbit hole because the Apple Watch is thankfully not able to run Instagram - for now.

What makes my phone a circus carnival and why is it hard to quit?

Social media. Simple answer at the beginning and now a data-backed conclusion at the end here. I’m going to add a circus emoji to the Use Case column to represent activities that are generally wasteful sideshows.

Activity App Time Spent Use Case Urgent Env.
Internet Browsing Safari 316
Reddit Reddit 215 🎪 📱
Instagram Instagram 186 🎪 📱
Group Chats and DMs iMessage, WhatsApp 243 🛠️ 🔥 📱
Twitter Twitter 121 🎪 📱
NYTimes NYTimes 100 🎪 📱
Email Apple Mail 99 🛠️ 💻
Aimless Learning Wikipedia 83 🛠️ 💻
News Apple News, ESPN, The Ringer, Economist 71 🛠️ 📱
To Do List Reminders, GitHub, Streaks 69 🛠️ 🔥
Money Tasks Bank/CC Apps 40 🛠️ 🔥 📱
Health Withings, Apple Health, Fitness, Streaks 34 🛠️ 🔥
Photos Photos 22 🛠️ 📱
Music Apple Music 16 🛠️ 🔥 📱
Camera Camera 15 🛠️ 🔥 📱

I’m grouping NYTimes into the “Circus” category not as a commentary on the newsworthiness of the publication. Again, I just only use the app on my phone for the Crossword.

The circus rows add up to 622 minutes. If I deleted these applications off of my phone I would reclaim 622 minutes of my life which sounds even worse when you describe it as 10 hours. Do any of those hours offer value?

Instagram is the most interesting culprit. If you live in a different country, and especially on a different continent, from the place where you spent most of your life then you’ll be familiar with the value of Instagram. The application is the absolute easiest way to keep up with “Circle 3” of your social life.

I think about my immediate family as Circle 1. I text and call them. My closest friends are in Circle 2 and I have long-running group chats or direct conversations with them on iMessage or WhatsApp. Circle 3 is where Instagram thrives. These are folks who I knew well in college, friends that attended my wedding but I don’t chat with that often, cousins and family members I love but just don’t see frequently. Instagram gives me a way to stay connected with them by sharing some photos on my Story or adding an emoji reaction to theirs.

These are people I would almost never text out of the blue. They would think it was a scam. Instead, we can maintain this kind of passive friendship over Instagram. That way they know I’m not dead, they see a little bit of my life, I am up to speed on theirs, and if they are ever in Lisbon they can send me a note and we’ll have a great dinner.

The closest analog parallel to this that I could find are the Christmas cards my family would receive each year growing up. We would check the mailbox to find multiple physical cards each day in December. Most would come with a kind of computer paper print-out “family update page” that would list out the major live events in that family over the last year. Marriages, new hobbies, a trip or two. I loved receiving those.

We’d get cards from people we hadn’t seen in a decade, but still considered friends, and could read about how their dad celebrated his birthday with a golf trip with friends or that the oldest daughter was headed to Duke University in the fall. The kinds of things we’d only know if we called them, but we weren’t “phone call to check up” close.

Instagram seems to fill that void for my generation. Of course, Instagram captures way more of my time than just catching up with friends. It’s dangerous. The entire app is designed to keep me spending more time in it scrolling. I have converted an activity that took four hours each December in the 90s to a weekly commitment of 2-3 hours.

Reddit has a similar challenge but is more of a “me” problem - I’m naturally very curious and Reddit thrives as a collection of somewhat specific communities clustered around interests that I share. Twitter has become almost entirely banal and useless, but I can’t stop watching.

What am I going to do about it?

Isn’t the easy answer to just delete Instagram, Reddit, and Twitter? Yes.

Am I strong enough to do that? Probably not.

Today I box myself in from spending too much time on Twitter or Reddit (too much is a loose definition, but I have a Screen Time limit of 20 minutes for each). That means a maximum of about 2 hours, which feels like a lot but let’s bucket that under entertainment.

I probably need to follow the same pattern with Instagram. If I’m really using it to catch up with folks back home in a casual way, then I don’t need to do that for 3 hours each week. I’m trying to replace a habit (holiday card reading) that took up one evening each winter.

I also want to interrogate the time I spend in Safari. That number surprised me and I think it is a mix of a really long tail of activities. If there was any real clustering, Screen Time would surface it like they do Wikipedia which I access in the browser but not the app. I went and looked through my browser history and mostly found things like looking up a restaurant, some holiday shopping, looking up other works by Dan Carlin. The kind of aimless searches that originally drew us to the Internet.

Published Dec 21, 2023

Austinite in Lisbon. Emerging Tech at Cloudflare.Sign up for emails