Life Without A Smartphone

Some people have this innate desire to break away from technology — harkening back to a time of old media: pen and paper, notebooks, whiteboards, sticky notes, and wall calendars. I’m not one of those people.

There’s no shortage of articles and write-ups from others who have foregone technological innovation for short, long, or crazy periods of time. It’s the usual argument: less technology means more time and energy. The conclusion is usually that less technology can be a good thing.

Maybe it’s true. But I’m skeptical.

Don’t get me wrong: I realize the value in having a simpler life, one without the constant badgering from Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, and those of their ilk. I can’t remember the last time I’ve gone a day without my iDevices. It’s been at least a decade.

Maybe I should take this technology-free lifestyle trend more seriously…

Wait. A new Apple product launch, you say? The new iPhone 6 Plus is going to be much bigger? 5.5 inches? It’ll let me make payments without a credit card? It will be even faster? It’ll have optical image stabilization? It could very well be the greatest thing ever?

Well damn.

Even better, I have a $200 credit from Verizon Wireless that I need to spend before I can ditch Big Red, and eBay is leading me to believe that I could sell my iPhone 5s for a respectable price. I could own the new iPhone 6 Plus practically for free, without contract.

Yeah. We’re doing that.

In preparation for all this and to hold me over, my sister would lend me her iPhone 4. It’s a four-year-old device — and I eventually had to buy an older, 30-pin style Apple charging cable — but apparently it is working without issue.

With no time to spare, I shipped off my iPhone 5s to the winning bidder (who paid $550, while I netted $500 after fees), acquired my sister’s old iPhone 4, got my number switched over, and was left feeling happy about how everything was panning out.

I only needed to survive with the iPhone 4 for a few weeks, stay up at 3 AM to pre-order the new iPhone 6 Plus, have it delivered on launch day, and do a celebratory dance when all is said and done. Easy.

One Dumb iPhone

What I didn’t know of at the time was that my sister’s iPhone 4 was locked to a hacked iCloud account. Even worse, it’s hooked into a hacked email account that is long gone. Toss in the “Find My iPhone” feature, which locks the device from being manipulated without access to that specific iCloud account, and now I have a problem.

It all makes sense for a lost or stolen device; it makes no sense here.

(This makes me more security conscious and frustrated at the same time. I always enable Find My iPhone, have two-factor authentication setup, and use randomly generated passwords with 1Password. I take great strides to secure my devices and protect myself. But what happens if someone manages to nefariously access my accounts — including iCloud and email — and take control? Can they lock me out of my devices? Will Apple render my devices useless, all while not bothering to help me restore them?)1

Without knowing this, I went ahead and deleted every single third-party app from that old iPhone 4. Facebook, Yelp, Google Maps, and everything else. Gone. The goal was to do a clean factory restore. I would then install all my apps and sync it to my own iCloud account. But that wasn’t going to happen, and I was not happy when I realized what was going on.

I was left with a dumb iPhone.

Suddenly all those thoughts about foregoing a smartphone and living a simpler life started coming back to mind. Why not? I might as well embrace it, and treat this like an experiment. I don’t really have any options at this point. Life couldn’t be too difficult without an iPhone, surely.

And so it began: my life without an iPhone.

The Impacts

Let me start by saying that going from an iPhone to practically nothing is not easy. It’s jarring. It has a serious impact on your daily life, especially when you’ve come to rely on such a device so heavily.

I had a pretty solid foundation and routine built: my Macbook Pro is exclusively for work, my iPad is for fun, and my iPhone is for a little bit of both and everything else.

That foundation came crumbling down.

Not checking my iPhone every few minutes meant that I had more time to myself, but all those initial productivity gains were quickly lost.

I had assumed that my iPad would come in and save the day. I gave it an honest attempt. But I was disappointed in the end. I wanted to like and use the iPad, but for whatever reason it rarely panned out that way. All I did with it was play Hearthstone; it’s the only reason I ever dust off the iPad lately.

Why? It’s all about input. I’m typically more productive and efficient with a laptop or smartphone. I can type and interact with those devices without trouble. Typing on an iPad, by contrast, is a nightmare — the keyboard is both too big and too small for me to achieve much of anything. I can only truly appreciate the iPad as a productivity tool when I connect a Bluetooth keyboard to it. But who wants to do that?

I continued using my laptop for work-related tasks, but I also began using it for casual and personal tasks. I found myself checking Google News, Reddit, Digg, and Hacker News. I started visiting blogs, which is something I typically avoid by utilizing Instapaper. As a result, I became a consumer of information; a zombie to the vastly impressive and overwhelming World Wide Web.

Speaking of being lost: my day-to-day life turned chaotic.

I’ve come to rely on productivity applications to manage everything in my life. Over the years, I’ve bounced back and forth between Trello and OmniFocus. For now, however, I’ve settled on Todoist. It’s an excellent and affordable service for planning and managing everything in your life.

Losing Todoist was devastating. It’s not that I couldn’t go onto my computer and access Todoist. I could, and did. But I have Todoist setup to send SMS and push notifications to my iPhone for pretty much everything: taking medications, going to the gym, paying bills, noting special events, contacting important people, buying groceries, managing finances, and everything else imaginable. I also have it setup to remind me of specific tasks when I arrive and leave certain locations using geo-fencing. It’s important.

For better or for worse, this is how I manage my life. Without Todoist and other similar tools by my side, even for the slightest bit of time, I felt completely lost.

My ability to take notes was also severely limited. I had come to rely on Simplenote for this task. I used it for ideas, notes, reminders, names, and everything else you could come to imagine. It acted as my memory, because I certainly don’t have much of one otherwise.

(Sure, that crippled iPhone 4 had the Notes app — and I could have used it if I wanted — but in fairness to this experiment, I decided not to.)

Some of you might say I’m an idiot: “Carry a notebook, James!” Unfortunately, I had to travel light because of a recent surgery that required me to use a cane. Carrying anything excess was not desirable. My Moleskine notebooks, which rarely had any use either way, stayed at home.

Instead, I tried something quite remarkable: I tried really really really hard to remember things in my mind. You can already assume how well that went.

Unfortunately, the disconnect continued from the world around me.

Communication between me and my friends dropped significantly. That goes without saying. But most of the people I know don’t talk on the phone or send SMS messages — they use Facebook. If you recall, I deleted that app too. Checking in on Twitter every once in a while was also something I was missing.

It was a bit lonely.

There was also the news, or lack thereof. Tweetbot for iPhone served as my primary newsreader. I had lists setup for all my favorite authors and sources. When I had some free time, I would usually flip through those to see what happened throughout the day. The most interesting bits got sent over to Instapaper for reading later on.

Without this workflow, I had to get a bit more creative.

I dusted off ReadKit, which is a solid RSS reader for Mac. It filled in the gaps, and I adjusted to reading RSS feeds once again, so this wasn’t too bad in retrospect. I also had a Web browser on hand, which I mentioned earlier. I managed.

Keeping myself entertained was another story. I really missed my music and podcasts. My iPhone had Spotify and Overcast, by the brilliant Marco Arment, respectively servicing those needs.

Driving in my car meant going back to FM and satellite radio. I don’t know why I have Sirius XM enabled in my car, because I’m surely not paying for it, but I was again reminded of why I don’t bother. I never found anything that really interested me. I might be an overly picky connoisseur of music, or maybe I despise advertising. Perhaps I’m simply spoiled by getting my way with music on Spotify and radio on Pandora. But I’d never go back to the old way.

I also really missed my podcasts. Overcast makes blasting through podcasts quite easy and enjoyable. Without it, I resorted to watching and listening to full podcasts on the Web, and not while driving in the car.

In the end, the only sound I heard while in my car was from the road.

Visually, I had no camera with me. This meant that I paid more attention to things at the cost of not being able to capture special moments.

Now I’m not one of those people who has to pull out a camera anytime something even slightly remarkable happens. You won’t find me filming fireworks, recording a concert, or doing something else silly like that. We know what fireworks look like. We have YouTube for watching music videos. As for cat videos… well, okay, you can share those.

The one important reason I do like having a camera on me, however, is so that I can record noteworthy events. For example, I managed to capture a tornado, film a few car accidents, and document several other things of genuine interest to myself and others. If something happens, I can make a record of it. I missed that.

What I didn’t see, however, was that my health was negatively impacted. I use an application called MyFitnessPal to keep track of my calories. It helps me lose weight and to maintain a healthier lifestyle. Without the app, I still kept note in my mind of what I was eating and what I shouldn’t be eating, but I didn’t pay as much attention to how much and how often I was eating. Consequently, I stopped losing some extra pounds.

I Missed My iPhone

In retrospect, I must say that life without an iPhone was taxing. It wasn’t like the world was crashing down upon me in a blaze of glory, but it was a struggle, one that I felt was completely unnecessary to put myself through.

I know that others might have much more success with doing an experiment like this. For example, I could imagine that someone who has a family could have the opportunity to spend much more time with and focus on their family, which is a great thing. I could also see how someone who spends every living day and night of their life on the Internet2 could greatly benefit from getting out and enjoying the world a bit more.

I realize I am biased. I have been looking for more reasons to miss my iPhone, instead of objectively going all in on the side of “tech is a distraction.” It actually makes sense in my case: I’m a technophile. I like this stuff.

But all that is irrelevant.

All that matters to me is that I was left feeling a massive relief when I received my new iPhone 6 Plus on launch day.3

If you want to stop the distractions of technology, most smartphones offer features to disable notifications or to only present notifications when it is convenient for you. I’ve already taken steps to minimize distractions, and you can too.

You could:

  • turn off push notifications for email, Facebook, and Twitter;
  • disable background notifications for non-essential apps;
  • ensure that the notifications you receive are actually worthwhile;
  • delete useless, overly noisy, and non-productive apps;
  • or setup “Do Not Disturb” (on iOS) to silence the phone during the early morning and later evening hours,4

Maybe the most important thing is that I can hear my phone ding or feel it vibrate, and I can simply let it go. I won’t feel bad for not checking on what just happened. I can set at a restaurant with my phone on vibrate with friends and family, and go without checking my iPhone the entire time I’m with them.

I am in control of my attention, not my smartphone.

As long as that remains true, it’s easy to appreciate a smartphone for all the great things it offers. It connects you to the world, and if you’re using technology to enhance your life and the lives of others, then it’s truly a great thing.

  1. Unfortunately, from what I understand, my sister’s attempts to resolve this with Apple over the phone and in store had failed. But I later learned — after talking with Apple support over the phone — that this could be resolved with some additional effort on her part. 

  2. Wait, that’s me too. 

  3. The experience of acquiring the iPhone 6 Plus is a completely different story. 

  4. One thing I’d like to see in a future version of iOS is much more customization and the ability to set up multiple intra-day and weekly schedules for Do Not Disturb