How to Simplify Your Phone and Get Back to the Basics
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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 How to Prevent Any App From Using Mobile Data on Android How to Prevent Any App From Using Mobile Data on Android If your apps use too much mobile data, try restricting background data on Android. Here's how to turn off data and save money. Read More .

How to Simplify Your Phone and Get Back to the Basics AndroidPhoneBasics Data Usage Restrict

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 5 Simple Ways to Be a More Mindful Smartphone User 5 Simple Ways to Be a More Mindful Smartphone User It's easy to get sucked into the smartphone world in the modern age and forget about the real world. Here's how to take back control of your life. Read More .

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.

How to Simplify Your Phone and Get Back to the Basics AndroidPhoneBasics Browser Disable

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 How to Beat Your Email Addiction (You Probably Do Have One) How to Beat Your Email Addiction (You Probably Do Have One) Read More .

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.

How to Simplify Your Phone and Get Back to the Basics AndroidPhoneBasics Email

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.

How to Simplify Your Phone and Get Back to the Basics AndroidPhoneBasics No Notifications

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 What's the Best Maps and Navigation App for Android? What's the Best Maps and Navigation App for Android? Using the rights maps and navigation app can mean the difference between making it to your appointment on time or being late -- so we examine the best of them for you! Read More 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 How to Use Android Without Google: Everything You Need to Know How to Use Android Without Google: Everything You Need to Know Want to use your Android smartphone or tablet without Google? Want to use open source software? Here we take an in-depth look at exactly how to do that. Read More !

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 How to Install a Custom ROM on Your Android Device How to Install a Custom ROM on Your Android Device Ready to revitalize your Android phone or tablet? Installing a custom ROM is the best way to do that -- powering it up with even better performance and features. Read More , 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

Explore more about: Android, Declutter.

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  1. Carlos Silva
    January 31, 2017 at 4:17 pm

    A "vintage" Nokia phone has all you were looking for. Sometimes is great to disconnect.

    • Bertel King, Jr.
      February 2, 2017 at 3:23 pm

      Ah man, nostalgia.

  2. Gary
    January 30, 2017 at 10:30 pm

    Yup, self control is the way to go. I use my phone for what I need, my phone does not use me! Stays in my pocket and my headphone button controls the play/pause for my music and answering calls. When I go into meetings at work, or at any time I feel it would be rude for phone to make noise, phone goes into silent mode with the tap of a button. I only keep apps that I need and very few games. All twitter and email notifications are turned off, only check at breaks and lunch.

    • Bertel King, Jr.
      February 2, 2017 at 3:24 pm

      Nice. You seem to have a good handle on things.

  3. Anonymous
    January 30, 2017 at 6:50 pm

    Or you could just have some self control.

    • Bertel King, Jr.
      February 2, 2017 at 3:27 pm

      Some people condition themselves not to reach for something they find addictive. Others do better if they remove the temptation in the first place. To each their own.

  4. Anonymous
    January 30, 2017 at 6:49 pm

    Or you could just have some self control.

  5. likefunbutnot
    January 30, 2017 at 6:15 pm

    While I do feel that it's a bit silly to carry a powerful pocket computer and then remove nearly all the communication tools that make it a powerful computer, I will say that Android DeBloater is very helpful for removing unwanted software.

    My phone carrier, Sprint, installs both Facebook and a NASCAR application as part of its activation package. They don't come with the phone or from Google, but if I activate an Android device on Sprint, it's GOING to get Facebook and NASCAR. Since the Debloater doesn't require root access and can be used to disable arbitrary software on an Android phone, including packages that have Carrier or Manufacturer mandates, it's very helpful for someone who wants a stripped down Android experience.

    • Bertel King, Jr.
      February 2, 2017 at 3:23 pm

      Thanks for bringing this app to my attention! I may end up checking it out down the road.