For a few weeks toward the end of 2016, I bought a flip phone. I wanted to disconnect. I wanted the option to walk away from the internet without being inaccessible to family and friends. I wanted to recall what it was like to not know something. No Google. No Wikipedia.
Did I get what I wanted? Not quite.
What It’s Like Using a Flip Phone Today
I have fond memories of flip phones. My first one was the Samsung Alias, a device that could fold out both vertically and horizontally, supplying a full keyboard or number pad depending on the orientation. My then-girlfriend (now wife) later had the Alias 2, which made things cooler by using e-ink buttons that actually changed when you opened your phone. Those were fun to use, and they did what we wanted.
Fast forward to the end of 2016, when I bought an admittedly cheap phone, the BLU Diva Flex 2.4. I figured it shouldn’t matter, since all I wanted were the basics. I was wrong. The handset lacked T9 for texting, and the advertised music player could only display all tracks at once or store them as playlists. Even managing a lowly three albums is a pain when you have to browse through all 30 songs in alphabetical order.
None of this mattered in the end. This phone didn’t have the necessary bands to provide a reliable connection where I live, and if my phone is largely going to be just a phone, I’d like for it to be a good one.
To get around this problem, I decided to get a phone straight from the carrier: the AT&T Cingular Flip.
Signal on the Flip was great, but sadly, voice quality wasn’t. That wasn’t all. Flip phones typically don’t come with much bloatware compared to smartphones, but I was disappointed to find a contact list filled with AT&T numbers I couldn’t remove. Since AT&T starts with “A”, that meant I had to scroll by them every time.
As for the music player? It displayed album art, which was snazzy, but it couldn’t list music by albums either. All of my old flip phones did this ten years ago. What makes this too much for flip phone makers to bother with now?
Disappointed, I went back to my smartphone. Turns out it actually was better at being a phone.
But I did enjoy some of the habits I formed during the weeks I spent using a flip phone. I enjoyed the freedom from notifications. I liked not bothering to carry my phone with me everywhere or look at the screen to deal with boredom.
So I decided to replicate as much of the experience on my smartphone as I could. Here are some of the steps I’ve taken.
1. Turn Off Data and Wi-Fi
Our phones don’t need a data connection in order to manage calls and texts. But they do need internet access to retrieve tweets, show us Facebook arguments, download work attachments, and supply an endless stream of blogs. Toggling Wi-Fi and cellular data off is the single easiest thing we can do to remove those distractions.
Most Android phones come with a toggle in the notification shade. If you don’t want to adjust that manually, you can also disable data on a per-app basis.
Making this change has not only helped me stay focused on other things, it has also greatly extended my phone’s battery life. Today we take it as a given that brand new smartphones won’t last longer than a day (I used to be happy if my old Nexus survived until evening).
But these devices have bigger batteries than flip phones, and if you tell them to stop searching for connections and processing notifications 24/7, they start lasting a whole lot longer. During periods when I’m not listening to music or podcasts all that much, my smartphone now lasts over half a week.
2. Only Keep Essential Apps
Take inventory of the apps on your phone and uninstall the nonessentials. I recommend removing all games and social networks. Both serve as distractions that suck us out of the present moment whenever we’re vaguely bored.
What tasks do you want your phone to do? For me, that list includes: make calls, send texts, take photos, listen to music, and navigate. I also like the option to take notes and listen to podcasts. This may sound like a lengthy list, but most of these functions have long come standard on flip phones.
I make other exceptions for utility tools that don’t compete for attention often. A compass app is only interesting when you’re lost. Similarly, an app that scans paper mail isn’t something that pulls you out of dinner conversation. If you want to keep these tools around, I don’t think they will deprive you of the benefits of cutting back.
Ultimately, what qualifies as essential will change from person to person, but there are a few apps I will push you to get rid of if your goal is to detach from your phone. Keep reading.
3. Disable the Browser
You could say a smartphone isn’t a smartphone without a web browser. This one app is considered so important that it’s nearly always one of the four apps on a phone’s dock by default. But web browsers can be better than any other app at causing you to stare at your phone for far longer than you intended.
Do you really need to read articles on your phone? Save that to do on your laptop at designated times. If you strongly prefer the experience of reading on the go, you can enable the browser during those times, then disable it again when you’re done. This extra step forces you to stop and think every time you’re about to fall down the rabbit hole.
4. No Email
Email has a way of changing the trajectory of our day. A response from a colleague or a request can have you in front of your computer working for two hours. These things seem urgent, but often, they can wait. Our email addiction thrives on us thinking that they can’t.
I’ve cut back. I still have email installed, but I disabled notifications. The app doesn’t even download mail in the background. It’s only around for instances when I need to access email in a pinch and I’m away from my computer.
Not everyone has this option. If your co-workers have grown accustomed to your constant availability, it may be too late to change expectations without changing jobs. You have even less flexibility in an environment where all employees are expected to be on standby. But if you’re a student or work for yourself, a lot more of the control is in your hands.
5. Turn Off All Notifications
Did you decide that you can’t part with a social networking app? What about certain games? Fine. You can still cut back by disabling notifications. Don’t let a morning direct message on Twitter drag you into a two hour conversation when you intended to go for a jog. That game doesn’t need to tell you that more fuel is available or that your barn is complete. You’ll find out when you sit down to consciously open those apps on your own.
This is important. Notifications are a big part of what make us feel out of control. Each incoming chime is the phone’s way of telling us when to pick it up. We obey more often than we’d like. By turning those alerts off, we approach the device on our terms.
Make an exception for calls and texts. This is a phone, afterall. If you want to include other messaging apps such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger as texts, that’s your call. Our social circles all communicate in different ways.
6. Download Music and Maps for Offline Use
Local files don’t need access to the web, so you don’t need to re-enable Wi-Fi or LTE whenever you want to play your favorite songs. This reduces how often you connect to the internet, saving you from temptation each time.
You can do the same with navigation. Google Maps lets you save sections of an area for offline use, but it’s rather limited. I recommend downloading an alternative that lets you store entire countries offline.
These changes help your battery last longer, since you don’t need the extra strain of maintaining an internet connection.
Bonus: Get Rid of Google Play
Smartphones come with more built-in software than flip phones. Take a look at the default software. Chances are you already have a browser, a music player, and a way to take notes.
If you want to simplify things, don’t install a single additional app from the Play Store. You can even remove Google Play entirely!
This doesn’t just remove temptation — it comes with substantial benefits for your battery life. Google Play services, which provides functionality that many non-default apps depend on, runs in the background and drains your battery. There’s no easy way to remove it without rooting or installing a custom ROM, but doing so will extend how long your Android phone lasts.
Are You Going Back to the Basics?
The original point of carrying phones in our pockets was to be accessible. We’ve since warped that to mean ever-connected and always-on. This has direct effects on our health, our social interactions, and the way we go about our lives.
A phone is a tool. Like a hammer or a ruler, there are certain tasks that make me glad I have one around. But my life doesn’t revolve around other tools, and it shouldn’t circle around this one either. I’m cutting back.
What about you? Have you taken steps to reduce your phone usage? Will you try any of the options above? Join me for a conversation in the comments!
Image Credit: iconogenic via Shutterstock.com