Smartphones press our virtual buttons as much as we press theirs.
To break the cycle, I spent a week with black, white and gray where there was once color. I switched my phone to monochrome mode to take the power back from the colorful little dopamine machine that is my constant companion. It was hard.
Let’s give phone makers and app developers the benefit of the doubt and assume they’re not actively thinking about human psychology and our passive response mechanisms. Even though I’d be willing to bet they do.
As your overloaded notification tray may attest, apps really want you to come back and come back often. It’s not enough to keep on top of your email inbox. There are Facebook messages, notifications about posts, entreatments to share a photo from a recent trip and there’s the never-ending quest to keep on top of all your friends’ status updates.
There’s Instagram suggesting you really should show so-and-so’s Story post some love because it’s their first attempt and they could probably use the encouragement. A friend has posted for the first time in a while. The implication is obvious.
There are Snaps to swipe through, fitness trackers telling us to stand up, sit down, limit our screen time. There are games inviting us to come back and unlock a box or take on Cupcake Carl who’s been talking trash.
Little dopamine machines
It’s a well-worn analogy but think of your phone as a tiny slot machine. Every time you fish it out of a pocket or purse and unlock, you’re pulling the handle. Sometimes you get a payout, sometimes you don’t. The memory of the times you do are what compel you (and me, and just about everyone) to pull said phone out at every micromoment of inactivity. It’s called ‘variable reinforcement.’
Every time could be the next big hit. The tweet gone viral, the Facebook post that nets your first ever earned <3 on Facebook, the truly majestic cat pic you've been waiting for all these years.
Mindful smartphone use
The best way to beat smartphones at their own head game is drop out. Go back to a feature phone or maybe just cancel your phone plan and walk away from the whole affair. Perhaps start a greenhouse under a geodesic dome and go off grid.
We’re not doing any of those things. It turns out that having a tiny computer in your pocket is actually pretty useful. Now that we have them, we’re loathe to give up the convenience.
Cutting the color from the whole smartphone experience seems like it could cut the well-researched dopamine response our phones trigger; the payoff for every pull of the slot machine handle is quieted somewhat. Or, like, I assume it is. I’m neither a brain scientist nor a rocket surgeon.
Day one: A gray day
It all happened so fast. I was deep into a text menu at the time so the effect was muted when I first flipped the switch.
When I hit the on-screen button to go home, it was a bit of a shock. No color anywhere. I was expecting it, of course, but it still felt as if I was unprepared.
Immediately, I thought I should work on my home screen organization. Everything looked so foreign. I didn’t realize just how much I relied on color to identify the app I want to launch at a glance. I’ve got the first page organized into things like Social, Work, Biking, Transportation, Games, Shopping and the like… but the next page isn’t quite such a pretty picture.
Day two: Email becomes exciting
Now, I’m not very good at email and I’m especially bad at personal email (this is a safe place, right?). I tend to leave messages unread rather than sorting, deleting, archiving or, really, dealing with them in any way. My work inboxes are tame compared to my personal inbox, pictured.
Suddenly though, I’m finding myself drawn in. It’s almost like, when you strip away all the fun stuff, everything kind of feels like email anyway so I’m subconsciously going straight to the source.
I like it.
I already feel like I’m a little more mindful when I check my phone. Instead of just pulling it out to see what’s going on, I’m finding myself thinking, “I wonder if so-and-so got back to me,” and I’ll unlock specifically to check… and not get sidetracked.
Early days and it makes sense that I’d be considering the regularity of my phone use given this little experiment, but it’s interesting at the very least.
Day three: This isn’t a game
Last night, I tried to play a couple of my guilty pleasure games. I discovered that the candies still crush just fine and, in C.A.T.S, my vehicle still does pretty well in battle… but somehow the half hour I’d often zone out and play at the end of the day feels, I don’t know, frustrating. Like everything is taking too long and it just isn’t worth my time. Which, I suppose, it isn’t.
Placing monochrome stickers on a monochrome battle vehicle body with monochrome weapons, wheels and accessories then watching a monochrome cat creature drive it bravely into a monochrome 1v1 battle… well, it just doesn’t have the same appeal.
I read a book instead.
Day four: Look into my eyes
That said, I’m using my phone less. I am conscious of the fact that I’m thinking about my phone less. Or am I thinking about not thinking about my phone more?
I rode the train home today and, instead of pulling out my phone and passing the 20-odd minute ride with whatever distraction my phone has to offer, I looked out the window and occasionally made awkward eye contact with strangers as I people watched. Not sure if I’ll count this one as a plus or a minus.
Day five: The full Ansel
Weekend! Using my phone camera to take pictures of the kids having fun at the park, I forgot that everything would be in monochrome. I guess I was expecting the camera to get a pass. It didn’t. Obviously. It doesn’t affect the overall picture taking, though I’m kind of assuming the color will come out nicely, even though I can’t take it into account when composing a photo.
Bright side: The screen actually seems easier to see when taking pictures outdoors in the bright sun because it’s in monochrome. I have no science to back this up. It might be wishful thinking.
While the viewfinder is in black and white, I confirmed that the photos I’m taking are in color by popping into Google Photos on my laptop.
Day six: Phantom vibrations
I still pat my pocket just to make sure my phone is there. I still sometimes pull it out with no specific intention in mind… but I do think that, even with just this short experiment, it’s less habitual. When I do pull my phone out to “check the time,” I find I do actually just check the time and put it back in my pocket.
A lock screen notification might catch my attention but I don’t have a lot of apps that have permission to pass a notification through to the lock screen. I will maybe spend a few minutes to really understand which apps can alert me on the lock screen and maybe I’ll be even more selective.
Day seven: I’m out
Last day of forced monochromacy.
I had an idea. What if I set up a second user account on my Android phone? There, I’d keep all the little distractions that try to steal my attention away when I’m busy doing other things.
Maybe I have a profile where I spend most of my time. All I have under this profile are things like my email, Slack, my work and personal calendars and that kind of thing. Maybe it’s in monochrome but maybe it doesn’t need to be.
Under my second profile, I put all the time wasters. Things like Facebook and Snapchat, games and other distractions that might otherwise vie for my attention when I pull out my phone to accomplish some task or another.
Or maybe going monochrome could be a thing like Lent. Maybe I should give up color every so often in order to ask myself if I’m being mindful of how I’m using my smartphone and, indeed, who’s in charge.