David Heinemeier Hansson

August 10, 2022

Turning the phone into a tool again

I've been keen to use my phone less for a long time. So on a recent holiday, I banished it completely for a week, while reading Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport. That felt great. But as Newport notes, it's easy to fall back into bad old habits, if all you do is a sabbatical from your phone. His book details a bunch of good remedies, but one approach I've found especially effective since returning to daily life has been to essentially remove all apps from the Home Screen. Mine now looks like this:

home screen with cosmos and three apps.jpeg

I do have other apps on my phone, but starting any of them now requires pulling down from the top to reveal the search area. I then type the name of the app, and just start that:

searching on ios.jpeg

This setup accomplishes several things. First, it adds friction to any use of the phone beyond the most basic, like messaging with my wife, or making a phone call. Any use that's actually worth doing is easily worth the friction, but any frivolous use now faces a helpful hurdle to deter it. Second, I no longer open my phone to do one thing, then get dragged into a muscle-memory tour of other apps while I'm there. It's far easier to simple do the thing I desired to do, then put the phone away, when I'm literally staring into the cosmos after completing any single task.

The photos app is there as a form of digital metadone. If old habits overcome my intentions, and I frivolously reach for the phone to kill a moment, the only slot machine available on the first row is my personal photo album. If you long-press on the Photos app, you'll get the option to see pictures from One Year Ago. So I'll do that, enjoy 5-10 photos, usually of my family, or racing, or traveling, from a year ago, and that'll be that. There's no forever scrolling feed of novelty that can suck me in for hours on end. Just a small slice of happy memories.

While this has been working really well so far, Newport is right to note that escaping the phone addiction takes more than just a quick or clever hack. You have to replace the time spent using the phone with better alternatives. So this is hardly The One Thing Silicon Valley Doesn't Want You To Know, but it's a help and a start. Give it a try.

About David Heinemeier Hansson

Made Basecamp and HEY for the underdogs as co-owner and CTO of 37signals. Created Ruby on Rails. Wrote REWORK, It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, and REMOTE. Won at Le Mans as a racing driver. Fought the big tech monopolies as an antitrust advocate. Invested in Danish startups.