Anyone who knows me in real life knows that I really like, nay love, my iPhone. Probably to a degree that is inappropriate for an inanimate object. This love has been confirmed by science. Obviously, this relationship is unhealthy, and has led me to become “that type of iPhone owner” who is occasionally more focused on his or her iPhone than their surrounding environment. I understand that this can be quite annoying for people in one’s company, especially if you constantly drift in and out of conversations to check on the latest alert or noise made by your iPhone.
The extent of the problem
I am not alone in this love/addiction.
A recent how-to article titled “How Can I Stop Using My Phone And Connect With People In Real Life?” suggested, without any apparent self-awareness of the parlous state of affairs that necessitates such advice, had to impart some hopefully obvious, but sadly necessary advice, that “[y]ou only use the phone at stoplights, and only to check directions or change music.”
The Internet is also the source of some more creative solutions, like the “Phone Stack Game“, where dining companions must choose between touching their phone during dinner or paying the bill, which illustrate that the annoyingness of smartphone users is both a widespread problem and that people are beginning to take action.
The Economist went even further and recently concluded that the problem is one that is now a collective problem and that:
The faster smartphones become and the more alluring the apps that are devised for them, the stronger the addiction will grow. Spouses can help by tossing the darned devices out of a window or into a bucket of water. But ultimately it is up to companies to outsmart the smartphones by insisting that everyone turn them off from time to time.
A company edict that employees stay away from their smartphones is unlikely to become widespread anytime soon. Even if it did, some people are more dominated by their smartphones in their personal lives than their work life. So unfortunately, this is a real #firstworldproblem that appears here to stay.
Not a connectivity problem
The annoyingness of smartphone users is often couched in terms like “hyperconnectivity” or not being able to switch off. Speaking personally, and I imagine for many other owners of smartphones, disconnecting is not something I really want to do (nor do I want my spouse to throw the “darned device out of a window or into a bucket of water” as suggested by The Economist). I really like being connected to the Internet. It is pretty amazing to be able to carry a computer in your pocket has more computing power than Apollo 11.
However, I readily admit that there are definite downsides to having a device in your pocket, or within reach, that is a constant source of information and alerts of varying levels of significance. That said, I really don’t think that being “too connected” to the Internet is the problem, even a #firstworldproblem. This is like arguing that your apartment has a “hyperplumbing” problem if it is flooded because you left all the taps on.
Turning off the taps or dialing down the notifications
I live in Hanoi. Anyone who has been to Hanoi knows that motorbike drivers like to honk their horns. Alot.
There is so much honking that the message conveyed by the honking is completely obscured. Does it mean “You are in my way”, “Hello, good day to you!” or “Watch out! I am driving with complete disregard for both your and my safety!”. My iPhone was beginning to operate like Hanoi traffic. It would make various sounds that could have been a text message, Twitter alert, email, game notification or even that my podcasts had been refreshed.
A solution, that I am presently trialling, is to “turn off the taps” (to continue the above analogy beyond its usefulness, or horn – to mix a metaphor) by finetuning the ways in which I am alerted to various events, depending on whether or not they are really time-critical or should command my attention.
Some practical steps that I am trialling
Here are the steps that I have taken so far, in the pursuit of being a less annoying iPhone user:
- Limiting the notifications shown in the lock screen of my iPhone. If my phone is locked and is sitting on my desk or in my pocket, there is a 50:50 chance that I am doing something that is more deserving of my attention than playing Words with Friends. So, I don’t really need to have a noise, vibration and flashing graphic alert me that my mother has played me in Words with Friends. However, if someone is calling me or has sent me an SMS, it is helpful that I am alerted to that fact by my phone. Likewise, if I have an appointment in 30 minutes that a past version of myself has put in my calendar, then I am happy for my phone to alert me as best as it can.
- Turning off unread badges. I don’t know about you, but after 3 years of having an iPhone, the unread badge on email, games, RSS readers, Twitter clients now produces a compulsive urge to clear the unread count to zero. Helpfully, these unread counts can be turned off. I have turned off all badges on my iPhone except on my to-do list app, where a compulsive urge to clear the count to zero works in my favour.
- Trialling Awayfind email notification Turning off unread badges for email is that it doesn’t mean that the compulsion to check email is reduced. As I have written about before, our online lives are often driven by a fear that we are missing out. This fear definitely extends to email. After hearing about Awayfind through a podcast of Merlin Mann, a productivity guru of sorts, I am currently giving it a shot. Hitherto, I think it provides a great salve to the fear of missing out. Awayfind will notify you of certain emails that you determine, in advance, to be important or time critical. The notifications can be based on certain keywords, important people or domain names, people with whom you have a scheduled calendar appointment. So far, it has been great. It is a neat solution to the problem that an email from a close friend may be as important as an SMS or call from a distant relatives.
- Using banner notifications. The banner notifications on iPhones are a great way of receiving less important notifications (e.g. Words with Friends, Twitter replies) in a less obtrusive manner. They will only appear once you have taken the active step of unlocking your phone and will automatically be dismissed after a few seconds.
So far, so good
So far, I think my strategy is working and hopefully making me a less annoying iPhone user. By making my iPhone less prone to beeping, chirping, flashing, honking or vibrating, and trusting that it will alert me to things that are genuinely important, I am checking my phone less frequently and hopefully being less annoying.
If anyone is still reading, firstly, thank you, and secondly, please let me know if you have any comments or suggestions or require any technical help in dialing down your notifications, please contact me. If you see me in person, please let me know if I am being a less annoying iPhone user.