📇 Thinking out Loud: 04 — Phone pickups

Reflections on screen time and forgetfulness

I pick up my phone. Lift, unlock, and then what?

More likely than not I end up doing something automatic. Often I enter via notification. Check it. Scroll. Browse…. But weren’t there other notifications on the lock-screen too? I should check…. Oh and slack has a badge. Oh and I should check the latest on Twitter. Email? Definitely. But what about personal email? Done. Pull to refresh. Nothing there. Great. Put the phone down.

Sixty seconds pass by… Clock-hands tick. And they tock.

Phone goes back up and the cycle repeats itself.

When I’m truly tired I’ve sometimes had the urge to check my phone *when I’m using my phone!* — that’s bananas.

Like the good productivity junky that I am I’ve tried a ton of things to reduce phone usage: greyscale mode (worked for a few weeks), screen time alerts (future self != past self), notebooks (complementary but not sufficient)… I’ve recently come to the conclusion that there’s only really one thing that works for me : I need to make a a conscious, purposeful goal to minimize phone pickups per day. 

The reason this is the only option is because more often than not, 30 seconds into using my phone, I’ve forgotten what exactly I was supposed to have been doing in the first place.

A frequent occupational hazard for Twitter designers, engineers and product managers is that they pick up their phones to check a specific thing on Twitter for work and very quickly forget why they opened it in the first place. They scroll for a while, close Twitter, and then remember what they were supposed to do thus reopening the app.

There is a physical world analogue to this: entering a room to look for something and forgetting what it is you were looking for... Here’s a passage from “Remember It” by Nelson Dellis (4-time US Memory Champion):

“Dr. G. A. Radvansky, a professor in the Department of Psychology at Notre Dame, published the results of his research on this exact phenomenon in a paper titled, “Walking through Doorways Causes Forgetting: Further Explorations.” What he discovered is that our brains tend to compartmentalize events or thoughts and attach them to a room or space — typically, the place where the thought was initially conceptualized. So when a person has a thought in one room and moves to another, the brain basically creates a file containing all the details about the first room, what you did there, and what you thought there, and stores it away. When you move to the second room, your brain creates a new file, making it harder to remember what was in the file for the previous room. This happens subconsciously, so there isn’t any way that we can be aware of it and control it. But it is interesting to point out that you are more likely to remember something when you simply walk from one side of the room to the other, rather than walking through a doorway into an entirely new room!” (emphasis added)

In other words, since our brain was evolutionarily formed while moving physically through places (hunting, gathering, walking, etc.), we use places as memory schema. When we move into a new room / new place our brain says, “new place! new memories.” Thus new rooms lead to forgetfulness of rooms past.

The main techniques to avoid new room forgetfulness involves paying more attention. This is the basics of most memory improvement techniques — be more conscious about not forgetting (aka increase “motivation to remember”) and supplement with various mnemonic techniques. 

Back to our phones: I posit that every time we open our phone it’s like entering a new room. And similar to entering a new room, when we unlock our phones our brain compartmentalizes the memory schema. Without clear motivation to remember what we do/do not want to do when we open the phone, we’re prone to meandering. In fact it might be even more extreme — every time we change apps, it’s like changing rooms. This phenomenon then leads to time dilation and absent-mindedness.

This is why I think that screen time interventions are only mildly helpful. While they do remind you in the moment that you’re likely dithering, it’s like someone stopping you in the new room and asking you why you’re there. If it’s even a mildly entertaining room, this is all too easy to ignore. “Do you really want to be in this fun room?… Yes phone. Yes I do. Now stop bothering me.”

So if screen time isn’t a useful metric, what is?

For me, it’s phone pickups — this is the clearest metric of phone use efficiency. On weekends I sometimes try something I call “Secular Sabbaths” where the goal is zero pickups per day - it’s a real luxury for me nowadays given my job but when I can do it, it’s amazing. On days where I don’t do sabbath but do low-usage I can get down to the 10s or 20s (usually can only do on weekends). Without having clear motivation to reduce pickups though, I can easily get to 140 pickups per day which is… a lot.

The struggle is real.

Efficiency per phone pickup — that’s my metric. Godspeed.


Other suggestions on phone use? Thoughts on the newsletter? I’m on Twitter @gasca.