Digital de-clutter


My on-going journey to digital minimalism

Toby Kurien articles digital declutter digital minimalism

Over a month ago, I came to the realization that my smartphone was having several negative impacts on my mental health:

  • Anxiety over tracking and loss of privacy. Over the years I've mitigated most of these concerns by rooting, flashing LineageOS, disabling Google apps (de-googling), replacing native apps with web versions using my WebApps app, etc. However this year things have stepped up a notch with things like Google FLoC for tracking in the browser itself, and CNAME cloaking for bypassing 3rd party blocking, etc. Can I even trust the Android WebView anymore? Why should I jump through so many hoops, just to even maintain my Android app [1]?

  • Shortness of attention span. The constant need to fill any boredom gap by checking my phone, even if this boredom is while watching a supposedly entertaining movie/series or reading a book. It's too easy to pick up the phone and start doomscrolling. The decline in the number of books I read has been a red flag for me.

In a desperate attempt to regain some control, I ditched the smartphone. I put it into airplane mode, stuck it into a drawer, then went out and bought the cheapest dumbphone I could find, a Nokia 105. I stuck with this phone for 3 weeks while I figured out how to find a balance. During this time, I discovered the book "Digital Minimalism" by Cal Newport [2], which was the perfect book to get me back on track! It explains the negative effects that smartphones have on us, and how we can continue to use technology in a more focused and intentional way to still get value out of it. A number of podcasts on YouTube featuring Cal Newport [3] and Tristan Harris have also been quite enlightnening.

The upshot of all this is that I decided to stick with the dumbphone idea, and instead move all of my computing to the laptop/desktop. This mitigates most of my concerns and gives me back control over my computing device, while also adding a bit of friction (I have to walk to the study to use my laptop) to prevent me from mindlessly checking for notifications and tweets. Over the month, I've actually weaned myself off social media entirely, and finished reading 5 amazing books! I also have my attention span back, and can easily enjoy sitting outside for hours with nothing but a beverage in hand, the view, and my thoughts.

It wasn't all smooth sailing, though! Here are some of the issues that cropped up and how I dealt with them:

  • Spam calls! The dumbphone doesn't have a feature like "Do not disturb", so three weeks in, I was woken up in the middle of the night by a spam SMS. That was the end of the dumbphone experiment! Instead, I hauled out my low-end 2015 Android One smartphone (running LineageOS), wiped it clean and used that as a dumbphone (i.e. no apps, no internet). Later on, I added OsmAnd for offline GPS, and DAVx5 to sync contacts and calendar for reminders. This means I manually, maybe twice a week or so, enable internet for DAVx5 to sync, then turn it off again. The battery lasts 9 days!

  • Instant messaging. I use Telegram for chatting, and so I installed Telegram Desktop on my laptop and use that. I only really use my laptop once or twice a day, so that's when I check my e-mail and Telegram. My friends know not to expect a fast response. They call or SMS if they need immediate attention.

  • Music, podcasts, and audiobooks. The dumbphone does not support SD cards, and I could not find a music player I could buy that can play formats like OGG, FLAC, and m4a. In addition I was pretty adamant that the music player must not connect to the internet. I also wanted features like hardware buttons for play/pause and skip forwards/backwards (no touchscreen!). Previously I had dumped my entire music collection onto my smartphone and realised that this is bad because I get paralyzed by choice and only listen to a few favourites (not a fan of random play). I often forget that I had added some podcasts or music shows and they go unlistened. I wanted something like the old days of cassette tape, where I could pop in an audiobook tape, listen to it part-way, then later pop in some genre of music, and later still go back to the audiobook tape and continue where it left off. Except instead of tape, I'd be using USB thumbdrives. Oh, and of course I want it to have a high-quality headphone amplifier! The only solution was for me to make my own music player that does all of these things [4] (I could post more about this if there is interest)

  • Taking photos. I'm not an avid photographer, and when I do take photos, I don't care too much about taking instagram-worthy pics. I already have a compact digital camera with optical zoom, which will now be my only photo taking device. My smartphone camera wasn't great anyway.

  • GPS navigation. This was solved once I moved to using my old smartphone as a dumbphone, with the bonus that OsmAnd is a great offline navigation app that uses OpenStreetMap.

  • Going away on a trip. Should I carry all these devices (music player, laptop, camera, smart-dumb-phone?) Should I just cave and install some apps on my smart-dumb-phone? Of course not! I carried all the devices and they worked a treat :) Not totally true, I didn't carry the laptop, instead I took my Raspberry Pi tablet [5].

And that's where I am at. I almost never look at my phone, except to check the time. I use my laptop for all my internet-connected computing needs, and it's so much more of a pleasure to use than my smartphone was. I installed Lubuntu recently and I love how minimalist, lightweight and fast it is. I spend most of my time listening to content (music, audiobooks, podcasts) while enjoying being outdoors. This feels like a step in the right direction for me, and I don't see myself going back to, or buying a new smartphone (even if it is FOSS) anytime soon.

[1] Expressing my frustrations with Android and Web on a Github issue
[2] "Digital Minimalism" by Cal Newport
[3] Cal Newport: Deep Work, Focus, Productivity, Email, and Social Media | Lex Fridman Podcast #166
[4] Raspberry Pi music player: Pi Zero + Pimoroni Pirate Audio HAT
[5] DIY Raspberry Pi Tablet