My fight for digital minimalism.

Timothy Kiefer
6 min readOct 18, 2019
I went through many phones along my journey to tame my habit.

After having my wife ask me one too many times to put my phone away during a date, and realizing I was the person looking at their phone during a green light (whom I hated), it was clear I needed to get some healthy space between me and my smartphone. Certainly under the average American’s 4+ hours a day on their phone(!), my phone habit has nevertheless had a noticeable negative effect on my life, so I decided to put some hard systems in place to restrict use. Wish I could simply have more discipline in this area — instead I’ll be satisfied with the strength derived from knowing my weakness.

As an enthusiast, this meant I dove in fast and deep, scoured options, read articles, and made purchases and returns until the itch was thoroughly scratched. Demoting the importance of a cell phone would not have been possible if I were still operating Food Pedaler, my little bike-based food delivery service that recently flew the nest. On demand delivery is…demanding…and a lot of people relying on you can keep you tethered. Giving up those responsibilities allowed me freedom to rearrange my digital priorities.

iPhone Fail

I’d never previously owned an iPhone, primarily because when I needed to help my couriers with their phones an iPhone issue always took exponentially more effort to fix. Well, my goal now is to not use my phone, so maybe this was the perfect fit! My first try toward using my phone less was having less phone in the first place — I loved the compact size of the SE, it is a recent enough model to have a decent camera, and can now be picked up for a little over a hundred bucks. Unfortunately, it was counter-productive for nearly every task to need at least one click (or long click) more than with Android. It was clear this attempt to keep use to a minimum actually added time at the screen, as well as frustration. I planned to give it a solid week to see if I could adjust, and found myself unable to go more than a day without switching my SIM back to the Pixel 2 for blocks of time… Within days I fully surrendered.

I had a new appreciation for the UI of pure Android. I also discovered that, thanks to the more open OS, developers sympathetic to my disease were able push out apps to changed the entire appearance and function of your phone to provide minimal experiences.

Android Launchers to the Rescue

Like the Prodigal Sun coming home to the feast, I was more certain than ever that Android was home and found more options to help with my quest than I previously imagined.

There were tiny phones, like the Palm Phone and Atom, of which I gave the second a try. At less than 3.5 inches it is so small, though I was amazed at how well I was able swipe despite the 2.5 inch screen. My qualms were poor connection from multiple carriers, it didn’t support newer versions of Android (that continue to crank out step-saving features), and it had proportionally awkward thickness (likely required to achieve its mil-spec impact rating). The Atom needed to go back. I long for a 4 inch Android with premium camera and minimum bezel…

In the meantime I found a number of launchers that help you lock down your phone addiction. The ones I checked out have you pick a limited number of apps you have access to, and make it difficult to those switch up. My favorite, and what I continue to use, is Slim Launcher. You pick 7 apps, in addition to dedicated spots in the bottom corners to access your phone and camera. You can still access other apps via the settings with 4–5 clicks, for me that’s enough trouble to keep me in check. I already removed all social media a while ago, so if I’m branching out beyond my chosen 7, it eill a little-used app like the calculator that I’m opening briefly for a practical purpose.

The Slim Launcher afforded me just enough apps, and the aesthetics really get me. With the ability to name apps, I chose 4-characters for each of mine to add to the neatness. “Gram” is obviously not Instagram, the most time-draining and addictive app I’ve ever used (even the ads work on me) — it’s Telegram, my most important app and the next tool to mention.

The Killer App

My primary use of a phone is for messaging, not calls if I can help it. Therefore, what I use for messaging has a profound impact on my overall experience. Fortunately, there is the app for that.

Telegram Messenger will receive its own detailed and doting post from me soon, but still deserves some love here, as it is the most time-saving productivity-boosting tool in my box. Not only is messaging itself way faster and more reliable than SMS, it’s amazing how much being able to reply to specific messages and edit ones you’ve already sent saves you. With my closest people I’m a heavy voice messager — it provides the extra dimension of voice and ease of not needing to swipe or type, while giving the recipient the convenience to check when they’re able.

Those are just a few of the basic functions of this messaging app. Additionally, SkeddyBot has virtually eliminated my use of Calendar or a reminder app, and GmailBot has freed me from needing the native Gmail app while forcing me to clean up incoming email with even better filters. I’ve also built several of my own little bots to help keep me connected to the world at a safe distance, for example I receive selected tweets (muted) without needing to be in the Twittersphere.

But sometimes you just need to check out altogether…

An Entire Day Each Week with No Touchscreen

I was into cell phone minimalism before screen addiction was a staple of our popular culture! Apple’s phone hadn’t been out for two whole years when I was already feeling at odds with the persistent digital connectivity around me. Thanks to the novel new Google Voice service and a cheap pay-as-you-go phone, in 2009 I nearly eliminated cell phone use. A helpful voicemail greeting routed non-urgent communication to text messaging, which I batched at regular intervals behind a computer. I would go days and weeks without answering the phone (and to this day I rarely take phone calls).

So here I am, 10 years later, with this supercomputer stuck to my eyes like a barnacle on the side of an old ship. The custom launcher and removing certain apps made a huge difference, and overall this invention is a wonder that greatly enhances life if I can ensure it serves me. I still need time without swiping at all. While phones have become mind-bogglingly more capable, and likewise exceedingly more expensive, I was delighted to find they also stayed the same, and plans for “dumb phones” can be found crazy cheap.

I stumbled upon Tello, a service affordable enough to simply get a second phone and leave the smartphone behind when I wanted to. Sundays have been chosen as a family and phone-free day, though it’s going so well I might ditch the Pixel regularly for entire weekends. This is made possible by a $5/mo service and phone with no features. I was able to easily connect Google Voice and route texts just like a decade ago. After nearly a month, I’ve only used 9 of my 100 minutes, from testing to make sure Voice was working correctly and a quick call to my wife at the grocery store (it was more to say than T9 could handle).

5 different phones and several apps later, the recipe I’ve found for taming my phone habit is:

  1. A limiting launcher for Android.
  2. Telegram for smarter messaging.
  3. Ditching the smartphone altogether for at least one full day a week.
  4. Google Voice to route calls to voicemail/sms, to route number to dumb phone on off days, and to batch text messages from the computer.

I feel more relaxed, and after just about a month there is already a noticeable reduction in impulsive reaching for my smartphone. I’m looking forward to the benefits of this positive change, and settling into my extra hours productively and serenely.

In the midst of all the phone-swapping, I also developed my new upgrade strategy: I’m going to buy the previous google flagship when the new one is coming out. Very satisfied with the Pixel 3 (under $300), and Beth is enjoying her hand-me-down 2.

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