The monolith from 2001: A Space Oddysey; it's a giant black rectangular slab.

If you're anything like me, the idea of teeing off your smartphone into the fucking sea is an exciting, nearly erotic proposition. I have fantasized about "Office Space"-ing this little demon rectangle so frequently and viscerally that I find myself clenching my fists and curling my toes even as I'm typing this out.

Why? What did this undeniably valuable, obviously useful piece of technology do to me?

My smartphone has viciously, deeply, and possibly permanently shattered my attention span. Every day is the same miniature tragedy repeated a thousands times: I try to cling to the surface of whatever work it is I want to to do but find little purchase. The slightest roadblack - code compiling, an unfamiliar API, a moment of doubt - and I'm reflexively off consuming capital C "Content", the kind of vacuous crap that boils out of every seam on every device in my life.

No matter how engaging the work, how carefully tuned my diet/exercise/sleep, how desparate the deadline - my attention slides off the glassy surface of "what I need to do" and plops, flan-like, onto a pile of junk food Internet crap.

Not long ago, smartphone OS manufacturers began sharing reports with their users about screen time; if you haven't already, I can't recommend enough looking at these reports on your device. Go on, I'll wait.

Had a look? Yeah, I know, right? When I first started looking at my reports, I was averaging four hours a day, often more. I both couldn't believe it and was unsurprised. Around the house, it wasn't unusual to find me stuck somewhere, phone in hand, mindlessly poking at the screen.

"Sorry, got trapped in the rectangle."

Libby and I even made "rectangle" into a verb:

"Whatcha doing?" "Just getting in some 'tangle time."

"Hey! You up there 'tangling?"

I've undertaken a few interventions to claw back some of my attention span. I made some gains with the "greatest hits", e.g. deleting social media1 and blocking news aggregators like Reddit on my home network. These are soothing, but the psychic damage is deep and the scar tissue thick. I eventually moved on to stronger stuff.

When you've exhausted your software options, it's time to move upstream to the hardware. Over the years, I've done a "cleanse" with less featureful phones a few times, including a not-quite-smart flip phone made by Mennonites. No, seriously, Mennonites3.

I've found using a dumb phone almost immediately brings back my ability to engage and disengage my focus. It also opened my eyes to just how interruptive phones have become - it's amazing how casually we all slip our seductive little glass slabs out mid-conversation. Seriously, you'll be shocked.

I've gone many months using these devices; however, at some point I always ended up sliding my SIM back into the cursed rectangle. Usually I backslide for a good reason4 - travel abroad, backpacking, and so on - and although at first I'd keep my good 'tangle hygiene, bad habits slipped back.


Recently, I've discovered the magic of Do Not Disturb. By keeping my phone on Do Not Disturb all the time, the texts, emails, and other interruptions I formerly considered essential are no longer there to break my focus and drag me into a 'tangling sesh. I'm way less distracted and unlike with the Mennonite device I don't have to keep sheepishly explaining why my phone looks like it was built in 2002. Although it's unlikely to work forever, my screen time reports show a 50% drop, which is a breath of fresh air.

And what next? Well, when you run out of hardware, you've got to move upstream, to the real hardware. No, I'm not planning on getting shock therapy or anything, but I do want to be more deliberate about managing my focus this next year. I think the place where I'll have the most impact will actually be on the other side of the problem - the obsession with productivity, the need to squeeze every minute for more.

This year I turned 35, a milestone birthday. In some ways, I feel younger than ever - I'm undeniably faster, stronger, and more fit than I've ever been. Look, I have charts! And that's not all - I'm better at my job, being a partner, and I've become a more patient and adept craftsman.

However, I've also finally started to see my limits. I'm waking up tired and sore more often; I'm realizing that I've got to be selective about where my energy is going to go for the day, and that there will be trade-offs. I'm admitting to myself that some projects are more time-consuming than I could predict, and outside my limits to accomplish. That there is a budget not just for my attention, but my time - and no matter what I choose, it will be spent. There just isn't time for everything.

It's been a difficult feeling to process - a mix of grief, existential dread, and also a kind of relief. Accompanying that has been something else, something strange; focus! It turns out that it takes energy to keep up that kind of anxiety. Letting go of those expectations and pressures also freed up a bunch of mental resources to allocate elsewhere. And so that's my plan - to recapture my focus, I'll let go.

  1. Except LinkedIn, where you're almost certainly joining me from. Don't look at me like that. ↩︎

  2. Fun aside, I rigged up my own "Google SMS" (RIP) for turn-by-turn using Apps Script and the MapQuest API. And it worked! I even tried rigging up Zork-via-text, but that's another story. ↩︎ ↩︎

  3. This is the only phone I've found that:

    • Works with 4G.
    • Does group texts via MMS.
    • Has maps, including turn-by-turn.
  4. Using a less-featureful phone means you have to be a little creative - without services like Maps at your fingertips2, you're a bit on your own when you need information quick. This is fine in small doses, but sometimes it's worth carrying the real thing. ↩︎