a word that popped up in Germany only in 2015. It's hard to imagine
now, but a decade ago, a scene, typical today, of smombies shuffling
along city streets would have been but a cliché in a sci
fi novel. But here we are.
When we lack the words to precisely
describe something, it becomes difficult to recognize it, never
mind debate and discuss it. Albeit some decades ago, the Digital
Revolution burst upon us all, a series of tsunamis of such dizzying
celerity that our vocabulary is still catching up. Only a few
years ago a much-needed term was coined a few years ago by Jake
Knapp: "Distraction Free iPhone." I came across
the term when I read Knapp's recent update
on his experience here.
DISTRACTION FREE SMARTPHONE
= DFS = defis
I'll switch that last word from
"iPhone" to "smartphone" to make it a Distraction
Free Smartphone, DFS for short. I did not think of my smartphone
as distraction free until now, but for the past several years,
that's precisely what I have been moving towards, a DFS. Hmmm,
that sounds a mite snappier!
And I hereby tweak DFS to "defis,"
which, I note, is the plural of "defi"
which means "challenge" or "defiance." Indeed,
using a distraction-free smartphone is an act of defiance towards
BEYOND PRO OR CON
The magic is, this new word, DFS, or defis, nudges us beyond
the rigid ping-pong of pro or anti-smartphone; forward-looking
or old fogey. As I wrote in this recent
reigning paradigm is the same one we've had since forever: if
it's digital and new it must be better; those who resist are
old fogeys. It's a crude paradigm, a cultural fiction. And it
has lasted so long a time in part because those who resisted
either were old fogeys and/or for the most part could not articulate
their objections beyond a vaguely whiney, 'I don't like it.'
"As an early adopter of digital technologies for decades
now (wordprocessing in 1987, email in 1996, website 1998, blog
2006, podcast and Youtube channel 2009, bought a first generation
iPad, Twitter 2008, and first generation Kindle, self-pubbed
Kindles in 2010, etc.), I have more than earned the cred to say,
no, my little grasshoppers, no, if it is digital and it is new
it might, actually, maybe, in many instances, be very bad for
"In other words, adopting a given digital technology does
not necessarily equate with 'onwards and upwards; neither does
rejecting a given digital technology necessarily equate with
backwardness. I so often hear that 'there is no choice.' There
is in fact a splendiferous array of choices, and each with a
cascade of consequences. But we have to have our eyes, ears,
and minds open enough to perceive these, and the courage to act
Of course, when it comes to using
digital technologies, different people have different needs,
different talents, goals, obligations, opportunities, and vulnerabilities.
A responsible mother with young children will probably want to
use Whatsapp with the babysitter; a real estate agent who wants
to stay in business needs to be available to clients, whether
by phone, email or text and so on. Some people slip into
the vortex of addiction to social media or gaming far more easily
My aim here is not to judge other people (although I'll admit
to some eye-rolling at smombies slapping themselves into streetlamps),
but to examine the nature of digital technology and my own use
of it. I am not a mother with young children, nor a real estate
agent. Games bore me, always have. I am a writer of books. I
blog about digital technology because first, it's my way of grokking
it; and second, I trust that what I've learned may be of interest
to my readers for I know that many of you are also writers.
We writers are hardly alone in the need for uninterrupted chunks
of time. Brain surgeons, composers, painters, historians, statisticians,
sculptors, software engineers
many people, in a wide variety
of professions and vocations need, to quote Cal Newport, "the
ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding
task," that is to say, engage in what he terms "deep
Writing a book is deep work. And literary travel writing is especially
demanding deep work. From my
2009 post on the nature of the genre:
travel writing is about first perceiving in wider and sharper
focus than normal; then, in the act of composition, shaping and
exploring these perceptions so that, as with fiction, it may
evoke in a readers mind emotions, thoughts, and pictures.
Its not meant to be practical, to serve up, say, the top
ten deals on rental cars, or a low-down on the newest 'hot spas.'
Literary travel writing, at its best, provides the reader the
sense of actually traveling with the writer, so that she smells
the tortillas heating on the comal, tastes the almond-laced hot
chocolate, sees the lights in the distant houses brightening
yellow in the twilight, and, after the put-put of a motorcycle,
that sudden swirl of dust over the road."
Writers have always battled distractions, but with the ubiquity
of smartphones, and increasingly sophisticated app designs and
algorithms to lure us and trap us into "the
machine zone," we're at a new level of the gameor
war, as Steven Pressfield would have it.
Whatever might or might not be an optimal use of digital technology
for you, I know this:
book that can claim a thoughtful person's time and attention
is not going to be written by someone who is pinged by &
poking at their smartphone all the live-long day.
"OUT IN THE WORLD"
Some writers have outright rejected
smartphones but so few, in fact, that only two come to
Michael Greer, a prolific blogger and author whose stance
on modern conveniences is, as he titled a collection of essays
on his vision of the post-industrial future, Collapse Now
and Avoid the Rush; and journalist Sebastian
Junger. As Junger
said on the Joe Rogan podcast:
I'm out, I want to be out in the world. If you're looking at
your phone, you're not in the world
I just look around
at this-- and I'm an anthropologist, and I'm interested in human
behavior and I look at the behavior, like literally, the
physical behavior of people with smartphones and
anti-social and unhappy and anxious, and I don't want to look
like that, and I don't want to feel like how I think those people
While I say a quadruple "AMEN" to Junger's comment,
I decided to keep my smartphone because I value having the emergency
information-access and communication backups enough to pay for
the smartphone for that alone; plus, I much prefer using the
smartphone's camera and dictation app to having to carry separate
appliances, and I use these often in my work.
For me, the question was never whether or not a smartphone is
useful. Obviously it is. The question is rather:
can I maximize the benefits of this sleekly convenient multi-tool
/ communications device, while blocking its djinn-like demands,
and so with sharpest powers of observation and consciously directed
concentration, stay awake in this world?
I answered this question by turning my smartphone into a distraction
free smartphone, as I realized, ex-post, when I read Jake Knapp's
Knapp's version of "distraction
free" turned out to be different than mine-- he deleted
his smartphone's Mail and browser apps, which I kept. And when
I Googled around a bit to find other writers who had tried to
convert their smartphone to distraction free and they were
astonishingly few I found that each had a different version
of distraction free. Some recommended using
grayscale, which I did not find helpfulbut you might.
Again, no surprise, what works for one writer may not work for
And that got me noodling
over the year-end holidays, instead of going to the movies, I
stayed home and made my App Evaluation Flowchart for a Custom
Distraction Free Smartphone, which you will find at the end of
THIS WRITER'S DISTRACTION
FREE SMARTPHONE (DFS or "defis")
In early 2019, here's where I
stand, comfortable at last, with my smartphone. My defis, as
it were. In order of importance, I use my smartphone as / for
(for stills and video)
Audioplayer (various apps for audio books, podcasts, and music,
which I usually listen to when flying or driving, never when
walking or on public transport)
Recorder (dictation app for interviews)
Emergency Google Maps
In essence, I use my smartphone only when I decide it will serve
me for a specific purpose, e.g., to take a photo, make a call,
record an interview. Otherwise, it stays in the charging station
at home or zipped into its felt bag in my backpack, wifi off,
roaming off. I do not allow it to beep, rill, cheep, chirp, ding,
ping or vibrate.
Other than the above-mentioned apps, I have deleted all apps
(except the ones Apple will not allow me to delete; those I corralled
into a folder I labeled "NOPE." Do not ask me what
they are, I do not remember.)
No social media apps, no Whatsapp, no news, no games.
Allall notifications are off.
About the smartphone as a phone:
I make a call from the smartphone maybe two or three times a
month. I never check voicemail. Ever. I don't know how to check
voicemail and don't tell me its easy because I don't want to
Text messages? Not my circus, not even my planet.
If you leap to conclude that I'm living the life of a Luddite
you'd be wrong. I do make and receive plenty of telephone phone
calls except for emergencies, on a landline. I Skype. I
spend hours galore on email but at my desk, on a laptop.
On the laptop I also manage my website and blog. I podcast, too,
editing the audio with GarageBand (listen
in anytime here). And on occasion I film and edit short videos for my YouTube
and Vimeo channels.
When I first got an iPhone nearly a decade ago, oh, did I fiddle
with apps, apps for this and apps for that and apps that would
confect a fairy's hat! I was becharmed by apps! Ingenious things,
I was on FB, too, until 2015.
But I am a writer of books, and this smartphone rabbit-hole-orama,
it wasn't working for me.
THE TWO MAIN PULLS
For me, the two main pulls to pick up the smartphone have been:
(1) to see any messages from people and/or about matters I care
(2) to have something convenient to read / look at when I'm away
from my desk and feel bored.
Once I had this clear, I could formulate a more effective strategy
than vaguely "finding a healthy balance" or blanging
down the anvil of will power.
Over the past several years, trying to figure this out, backsliding,
and trying again to figure this out, what I have found actually
works is to remove or minimize temptations to even look at, never
mind pick up, the smartphone when it is not in my fully conscious
and decided interest to do so; and crucially, I have replaced
those "pulls" to look at the smartphone with what are,
for me, either superior or at least realistically acceptable
Fogg of Stanford University's Behavior Design Lab has been
an influence in my thinking about the smartphone. His basic equation
for inducing a behavior is Motivation + Ability + Prompt (all
three simultaneous). You can read more about Fogg's behavior
He's all very sunny and even uses puppets when talking about
his behavior model and how it can help people improve their lives,
and I for one sincerely appreciate this. But I suspect people
with darker designs (oh I dunno, like those starry eyed newbies
with VC in Silicon Valley who would launch a platform / app that,
with maximimum speed and efficiency, sucks the life-hours, money,
and data out of you) also look to professor Fogg as a guru. What
I'm saying is, more likely than not, you are being very, very
cannily manipulated by any one of a number of apps to pick up
and remain focused on your smartphone despite what you know perfectly
well are your better interests. And understanding the way in
is to understand the way out.
THIS WRITER'S STRATEGIES
I don't pretend that my strategies will work for other writers;
this section is not meant to be a series of recommendations but
an example: what works for me, a working writer. [You can find
the App Evaluation Flowchart for a Customized Distraction Free
Smartphone at the end of this
post on the blog.]
digital communications on email, and always at the desk, on the
This is, to-the-moon-and-back,
the most powerful strategy for me. (Read about my game-changing
email protocol here.) I take email very seriously. However,
with rare, emergency-level exceptions, I check email only
on my laptop, only after 3 PM, and I batch it. I thereby establish
the boundaries I need to be able to do my work, and I can truthfully
say, "I welcome email," and "the best way to reach
me is by email." And if not perfect, I am ever better about
responding to email in a timely manner-- since I have relatively
Many people have told me that they would prefer to communicate
with me on FB or Whatsapp, but
too bad! I am a writer
who writes books, which means that I need to funnel communication
into specific times, not allowing interruptions to leech my attention
willynilly throughout the day. If someone cannot summon the empathy
to appreciate that, well, like I said. (Anyway, I love you guys.)
This strategy allows me to keep the smartphone silent and in
the closet (its charging station) or zipped in its bag inside
my backpack. In B.J. Fogg's terminology, I have hereby eliminated
the motivation, the ability, and the prompts to pick up the smartphone.
So I don't.
out and about, if there's a chance of having to wait a spell,
carry a paperback
This is the second most powerful strategy for me, and it took
what seems to me now an embarrassingly long time to figure it
I've always been an avid reader of books and magazines, but when
I got an iPhone, suddenly, in spare moments, such as waiting
at the dentist, in line at the grocery store, waiting for a friend
in a coffee shop, I found myself pecking at it. I was reading,
it was, in fact, more often skimming, watching, and
As Nicholas Carr explains in The
Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, reading
a book and clicking & scrolling on a smartphone (from, say,
website to website, to Twitter to FB to Whatsapp to YouTube to
Instagram feeds x, then y, then z), do two very different things
to one's brain. The latter literally retrains your brain, resulting
in what Carr calls "the shallows," and once you're
in the shallows, tasks requiring sustained cognitive focussuch
as writing a book become ants-in-the-pants-nigh-impossible.
Don't tell me I could use a Kindle
app to read ebooks on my smartphone; I don't and I won't because,
again, my goal is to remove as many siren calls to the smartphone
as possible, relying on acceptable or superior alternatives.
For me, a paperback provides a superior reading experience to
an ebook; and if it's not too heavy, I don't mind tucking a real
book in my bag. But I do read Kindles on occasion, using the
Kindle app on my iPad, as a last resort only, when a paper copy
is unavailable. (I also use my iPad for reading news, which I
inevitably regret, a select few favorite blogs, and for listening
to audiobooks and podcasts in the kitchen. If not in its charging
station, my iPad is parked on the kitchen counter.)
In B.J. Fogg's terminology, with
this strategy, I have reduced the motivation to pick up the smartphone.
Also in his terminology, I build a tiny habit: when tempted to
take out the smartphone to surf, take out the paperback. (You
can watch his TEDx
talk on tiny habits here.)
(3) For a
calendar, "to do" lists, and selected contacts, use
This strategy is an old
one for me, tried and true. As Getting
Things Done guru David Allen says, "low-tech is
oftentimes better because it is in your face." The Filofax
is a century-old British system designed for engineers that is
so efficient it still has legions of devotees, among them myself,
for over 30 years now. My lovely and ridiculously sturdy cherry-red
leather Filofax normally stays next to my laptop on my desk;
I can, but I rarely carry it with me.
As for contacts, I keep the addresses and telephone numbers I
need at-hand in the Filofax and the rest in a separate system,
but not on the smartphone because, again, I aim to focus my communications
on email, and always on the laptop. (My smartphone does have
my article about the Filofax for Kevin Kelly's Cool Tools blog.
In B.J. Foggese: For my to dos and calendar, I have no motivation
nor prompts to pick up the smartphone.
an alarm clock use an alarm clock (and for a watch use a watch)
Back in the days of my
starry-eyed wonderfest with apps, I downloaded three different
alarm clock apps. The cornucopia of "alarms," from
harps to waterfalls to drums to roosters yodeling, that was fun.
But I deleted them all and instead use a little plastic alarm
clock powered by two AA batteries. It weighs almost nothing,
cost less than ten bucks, and works just fine so I can
keep the volume on the smartphone on mute. Don't tell me I could
adjust the volume on the alarm clock app because I don't want
to touch the smartphone if I don't have to, and certainly not
as the last thing at night and first thing in the morning. And
I don't want the smartphone parked anywhere near where I sleep.
This strategy might sound silly. How is the alarm clock app different
than say, the calculator or the flashlight or the camera or diction
app? The answer is, by definition an alarm clock distracts, it
prompts me to pick it up to turn it off and that is precisely
what I do not want my distraction free smartphone to do.
This is not trivial.
In B.J. Foggese: another motivation, ability, and prompt to pick
up the smartphone eliminated.
You read that right. People laugh at me. I laugh back! Sometimes
I use a store-bought map but more often, before I go out, I've
Googled on my laptop and printed out or sketched the directions.
I do make use of Google Maps on the laptop and on my smartphone
in emergencies it's one of the reasons I keep a smartphone.
But by relying primarily on paper, rather than GPS via the smartphone
in realtime, I have removed yet another reason to pick up and
start poking at the smartphone.
An added benefit, crucial for me as a travel writer, is that
my sense of space, direction, and the lay of any given landscape
have remained sharper.
(If you love the planet and believe everything paper should be
digital, I would invite you to Google a bit to learn about server
farms and what goes into smartphone batteries.)
carry a pen and small a notebook
Another reason not to pick up the smartphone.
keep it zipped in its bag
I don't make a habit
of holding my smartphone my hand, carrying it in a back pocket,
or setting it on the table next to me. Unless it's an emergency,
or I have good, fully conscious reason to take it out and use
it, the smartphone stays dead quiet and out of sight in its bag
inside the bag.
In B.J. Foggese, I thereby reduce my motivation, ability, and
prompts to touch it.
My smartphone is now simply a lightweight selected multi-tool
(camera / recorder / audio player / caculator / flashlight) and
emergency information-access and communications device which
I carry when I go out of the house, unless it is to walk the
dogs. (I never take it when I walk the dogs because when I walk
the dogs, I walk the dogs.)
My smartphone does have Mail, Safari, and Googlemaps buttons,
but because I rely on my laptop for email and other Internet
access, and paper for out-and-about navigation, I no longer feel
that pesky tug to pick up and peck at the smartphone-- but I
do have these apps available to me should I need them. And sometimes
I do need them.
Ditto the telephone.
Again, and of course, what works for me may not necessarily work
for you. But may this new term, Distraction Free Smartphone,
or as I would suggest, DFS, or defis, serve you in thinking through
your own concerns and strategies for your own smartphone and
your own writing.
I'll add one more term: "DFS mode." A smartphone need
not be distraction free almost all the time, as mine is. Let's
say one needs to be available on Whatsapp, voicemail, email or
to use some other app for family or work that may ping, ring
or ding-ding you at random intervals, and so be it; then, for
the time alloted for writing (or other deep work), one's smartphone
could be put into DFS mode. As I hope I have made abundantly
clear, this would not necessarily be the same as "airplane
P.S. Cal Newport's Digital
Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World
will be out next month. From what I've read of his other books
and blog, this promises to be a pathbreaking book. If nothing
else, the term "digital minimalism" can help add depth
and nuance to our thinking about digital technology and our use
THE APP EVALUATION FLOWCHART
FOR A CUSTOMIZED DISTRACTION FREE SMARTPHONE can be found at the end of the blog
post at Madam-Mayo.com
> Your comments are always
welcome. Click here
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