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It’s like a closet purge… but for your phone

digital detox

Long before Marie Kondo hit the scene, I was performing a similar closet clean-out, twice a year. I’m not sure that I ever whispered “thank you for your service” to an old sweater or pair of jeans, but I did pull everything out of my closet, one drawer or bar at a time, and evaluate whether I was still going to wear it. If not, it was tossed in a “for-friends”, “donation” “re-sale” pile.

This always makes me feel better— I like to have an edited closet, filled with only the things I wear regularly. It makes me a little nuts when things get too crowded, and I like knowing that, if something isn’t useful, that I can give it away to someone who might find it so.

OK, so about your phone…

Is your phone like a cluttered closet in need of a KonMari clean-out? How many apps do you have on your phone? And how many apps do you really use… like REALLY really use every day… and how many use you?

In the name of digital detox, I think it’s worth doing twice a year: Take inventory of the apps on your phone.

Then, as you swipe through them all, figure out which ones benefit more from you than are a benefit to you?

Why are some apps harder to let go than others?

I like to think of apps in two different categories: Utilitarian, parasitic and hybrid.

Utilitarian apps are apps of convenience, built by people who you already pay in one way or another. Like your banking app (you’re already a customer of the bank), your New York Times app (you already have a subscription), your smart thermostat app (you own the thermostat) or your password manager app (that you likely paid for in the app store). Those apps have a clear value proposition for the developer (keep people using their services, keep their existing customers happy, or earn a living by building an app that people will pay for) AND they have great value for YOU because you can use them to get things done faster and more conveniently (ie. depositing checks online, reading the headlines, storing passwords safely).

Parasitic apps make more money the more time you spend on them. Think Facebook (all those ads scrolling by as you see what your friends are up to), Instagram (geez is it just me or has it turned into a giant shopping mall??) and app games (if you’ve never succumbed to in-app purchases I want to shake your hand). These are the apps that are harder to let go of, because they’ve been designed to keep you scrolling and spending. Your banking app doesn’t care whether you use it once every 3 months, or twice a week… but your YouTube app sure does, and it will keep autoplaying those videos to eat up all your free time. You might feel like you wouldn’t be able to function without it on your phone, but I promise you, it’s possible (and you may even like how this digital detox makes you feel, or how it opens up pockets of free time).

Then, there are the Hybrid apps: Things like Google Maps and Amazon… they provide tremendous utility but also are collecting data about you, which they can monetize through advertising. They’re more of a soft sell than the parasitic apps, but do want you to use their apps all the time because the data they collect can be sold to advertisers who want your attention, or to market you the products you’re likely to buy.

digital detox

Questions to ask yourself

OK so now that the criteria are in place, go through your apps one by one and ask yourself:

  • How do you feel after each use?
  • Is the app in question a good distraction or a bad one?
  • Are the apps on your phone are for your benefit…or someone else’s?
  • Is the convenience of this app worth the potential exploitation of my personal information?

Final thoughts

In his book Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport writes, “Digital minimalists recognize that cluttering their time and attention with too many devices, apps, and services creates an overall negative cost that can swamp the small benefits that each individual item provides in isolation.”

Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport


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Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport

Don’t get me wrong, this digital detox thing isn’t easy. But I install so many apps to test them that they have a habit of taking up residency on my phone, so I have to do it often. The apps that remain are the ones I truly can’t live without. And every few months or so, I delete the rest.

Letting go of digital clutter has a major calming effect, not to mention an organizational one, too. It feels great to swipe through my phone and know that what’s on it has a purpose. I’m also aware of what’s there vs. apps that lurk in the background using me for my data and more. It’s kind of like my closet, but with less white shirts, frayed hem jeans and mules. (I have a uniform.)

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