Hack back your smartphone
Change how you check the time
As someone who hates being late, I used to glance at my phone throughout the day, causing me to get sucked into a notification on my phone’s lock screen. Instead, I started wearing a watch again. Just because your phone can seemingly do everything, that doesn’t mean it should.
Rearrange your apps
Tony Stubblebine was the sixth person to be employed at Twitter and is fully aware that the platform was designed with human psychology in mind. Now editor-in chief of the popular Medium publication Better Humans, he recommends sorting your apps into three categories: primary tools, aspirations and slot machines. Primary tools, he says, “help you accomplish defined tasks: getting a ride, finding a location, adding an appointment. There should be no more than five or six.” He calls aspirations “the things you want to spend time doing: meditation, yoga, exercise, reading books, or listening to podcasts”. The third category, slot machines, are “the apps that you open and get lost in: email, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, etc”. “Rearrange your phone’s home screen so that it includes only your primary tools and your aspirations,” continues Stubblebine. “If the app triggers any mindless checking from you, move it to a different screen.”
In 2013, Apple announced that its servers had sent 7.4trn push notifications. Six years later, few people do anything to avoid those external triggers. According to Adam Marchick, CEO of mobile marketing company Kahuna, fewer than 15% of smartphone users adjust their notification settings, meaning the remaining 85% allow app makers to interrupt them whenever they like. An audible notification is the most intrusive. Ask yourself which apps should be able to interrupt you when you are with your family or in a meeting; I only grant text messages and phone calls this privilege. After sound, visual triggers are the second most intrusive form of interruption. I only allow the red circles on the corner of an app’s icon, and I grant this permission only to messaging services (email, WhatsApp, Slack, Messenger).
Hack back email
Cut out the spam
Some spammy marketers make it hard to find the unsubscribe button, or keep sending you emails after you’ve opted out. For these, I use SaneBox, a program that runs in the background as I use email. Whenever I encounter an email I never want to hear from again, I click a button to send it to my SaneBlackHole folder. SaneBox’s software ensures that I’ll never hear from that sender again.
Slow down the email ping-pong
The key to receiving fewer emails is sending fewer emails. Instead of banging out a reply and hitting send right away, email programs such as Microsoft Office and tools like Mixmax for Gmail allow us to delay a message’s delivery. Whenever I reply to an email, I ask myself: “When’s the latest this person needs to see this reply?”
Never open an email more than twice
Checking email isn’t so much the problem; it’s the habitual rechecking that gets us into trouble. Does this sound familiar? An icon tells you that you have an email, so you click and scroll through your inbox. While there, you read message after message to see if anything requires a reply. Later in the day, you open your inbox and, forgetting what was in the messages you read earlier, you open them again. If you’re anything like I used to be, you might open and reopen some messages an embarrassing number of times. Instead, the first time we open an email, only do one thing before closing it – answer the question: “When does this email require a response?” Tagging each email with either “Today” or “This Week” attaches the most important information to each message (those that don’t need a response at all should be deleted or archived immediately). My daily schedule includes dedicated time for replying to emails I’ve tagged “Today”. In addition, I reserve a three-hour timebox each week to plough through the less urgent messages I’ve tagged “This Week”.
Hack back feeds
Eliminate automated feeds
Just because Big Tech uses sophisticated algorithms to keep us scrolling doesn’t mean we can’t hack back. A free web browser extension called News Feed Eradicator for Facebook does exactly what it says: it replaces alluring external triggers with an inspirational quote. Another free technology called Todobook, which works across several other social media sites including Reddit and Twitter, replaces the feed with the user’s to-do list; only when it has been completed does the News Feed unlock.
During my scheduled social media time, I click on a button in my browser to activate an extension called Open Multiple Websites. As the name suggests, the button opens all the website addresses I’ve preloaded. Since I don’t want to land on my LinkedIn.com feed, I’ve preloaded LinkedIn.com/messaging, where I can read and respond to messages. With the same click, the browser extension opens Twitter.com/NirEyal, where I can respond to comments and questions without seeing the infamous and inflammatory Twitter feed.
Reduce YouTube distractions
Similar to a news feed, thumbnails of recommended videos appear as soon as you land on the homepage, sending you on a hunt for more digital treasure. The free browser extension DF Tube scrubs away distracting external triggers – both suggested videos and ads along the side of the screen. Regardless of the exact tool we choose, the key is to regain control over our experiences rather than allowing feeds to control us.
• This is an edited extract from Indistractable: How To Control Your Attention And Choose Your Life by Nir Eyal, published by Bloomsbury at £20. To order a copy for £17.60, go to guardianbookshop.com.
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