Part 1, Discovering Time Where There Was None

I guess it started around the time iOS 8 came out.

I knew I was going to get a new iPhone a few days later, so when I restored and updated my iPhone 5 (I didn’t buy the 5s, so this was to be a big upgrade) to the production version of iOS 8, I purposely decided to keep my app count light. I saw no reason to spend a ton of time reinstalling everything and logging back in to a bunch of accounts. I never restore from backups, always doing clean installs, and while I have my process down to near-science, it still does take at least a little while. Then there’s the week afterward in which you discover all the little tweaks and settings adjustments you forgot to do on day one. But I was skipping all that. Keeping it simple. On Friday, I’d have a new phone and I could go nuts then.

But Friday came and went, and I didn’t have my new phone. I didn’t get up in the middle of the night to upgrade because I usually manage to get one at our local Apple Store on launch day. Not the case this year. I wanted a 6 Plus, and they only receieved a handful, selling through them almost immediately. I’d have to wait, or order one at this point, and bear the interminable 3–4 weeks of shipping/tracking number-hounding misery that would follow. No, I’d take my chances with the store. I’ll grab one eventually, hopefully within a few days. I was certain. How long could it be?

As of this post (9/30), I’m still waiting. It’s cool. I’ve made my peace with it.

I continued to use my iPhone 5, trusty warrior that it is. I installed only the most necessary of apps to do my day-to-day work. No games, no fluff, nothing extraneous. My home screen was a mere handful of apps, mostly default iOS, and a few third party favorites. I stuck the rest (bank, credit card, other necessities) in a folder and I was done. Signing into everything took me less than a half hour, and I was fully functional. I wasn’t fiddling with a litany of URL schemes and settings, constantly checking the App Store to see if I had any updates (no, I don’t do automatic updates, I’m old-fashioned and like to see what I’m installing before I do), or doing any of the million other time-wasty things I would ordinarily do with my phone to kill a few minutes dozens of times throughout the day.

I discovered something unexpected: I was picking up and using my phone in short bursts to catch up on the stuff that seemed worth catching up on, and then putting my phone down. Or I was chipping away at the tons of good content I’d saved in Pocket and then doing something else. Namely, spending time looking around at other things: my kid, my wife, trees, other people, etc. Earlier in the summer I’d read this post on using a distraction-free phone and while I enjoyed it, I had a very “great story, but not for me” kind of reaction. Yet here I was, unknowingly backed into just such an experiment by the simple fact that it was new iPhone season and I was just stuck waiting for the specific model I wanted. I didn’t go as far as the author of the post did, but it was far-removed from the way I have always used my phone.

It’s been almost two weeks at this point, and I don’t miss most of the apps I used to have on my phone at all. There are definitely a few that I’ll put on the new phone that aren’t on the current one, but I think I’ve turned a corner in how I think about this always-present, always-beckoning device. I can’t say it’ll last forever. Hell, this might all be over when I finally get that glorious giant glass beast that’s just out of my reach. But I think I’ll try to keep this up. I truly feel a change internally, on some tangible emotional level that was not only unexpected, but that I welcomed as it became revealed to me, which speaks volumes about how I felt before without realizing it. My phone remains my digital Swiss Army knife, but like the multitools that I love, I only take them out when I need them–I don’t play with them all day long, looking for reasons to use them.

Part 2, Changing Habits and Revealing New Things

I’ve always loved third-party apps on iOS. They can offer things that the stock apps simply can’t, for a variety of reasons, and the freedom of interface design and variety of different takes on the same problem always excited me. In some cases, I’ve even been resistant to use the default/first party offerings both on the phone and from various services because of some real or perceived weaknesses or flaws that I had identified. A great example of this phenomenon is how I think about Twitter.

I was a huge Tweetie fan from the start. That app was the perfect blend of simplicity and functionality, and pioneered some UI conventions that we now take for granted. Twitter is something I do every day, and I’ve enjoyed and used most of the apps on iOS over the years, settling on a few favorites, namely Twitteriffic and Tweetbot. I love them both for different reasons, just as you wouldn’t love one child over another. And that may seem like an asinine thing to say about Twitter clients, but I think a lot of you will just nod and move on anyway, so let’s leave it at that.

Twitter acquired Tweetie back in the spring of 2010. It proceeded to make some minor changes to the interface, along with a series of poor decisions, most notably this one. Overall, I lost any interest I had in the app itself, as what I wanted from the app and what Twitter wanted me to want seemed to be on divergent paths. Ads in my timeline? Heresy. Favorites made public? Balderdash. Twitter making choices for me that I should be making myself about what I see and how and when? Good DAY, sir! I exclusively used third party apps, even as they came under fire at various times from the company, as the business moved forward and choices were made to keep the experience focused on user acquisition and marketing. The nerd circles I travel in all agreed; the official app wasn’t worth even considering. Indie devs could always do a better job. I accepted this without contest, it was written, it was true.

Recently I noticed several of my friends both in real life and on the internet using the app, and this weekend I finally posed the question. It spawned a lively discussion that revealed to me quite a few things of which I wasn’t aware. I had a ton of great feedback from all kinds of users and decided to put the app on my phone again (it’s not installed by default, but if you sign into your account in Settings, it asks you to download it so it’s pretty close). What happened next surprised me.

Giving myself over to the new experience, I surrendered my preconceived notions about how Twitter was supposed to work. My timeline–which had gone from a place I loved to be to another number to clear–became a shallow pool of information that I chose to dip in and out of without consequence. My timelines stopped syncing, which meant I stopped caring about seeing every tweet coming in. Even the things I thought I would despise–the Discover tab, the promoted tweets–don’t bother me at all, and in some cases provide a new way of looking at a tool that I’ve been using every day for the past six years. My eyes are open differently to how I process and interact with this information, and that has, in turn, forced me to reexamine a lot of other things I’m doing.

Shifting perspective can be invigorating, it can be upsetting, and it can be net neutral. I pride myself on trying new things and gaining the lay of the land accurately, but in truth, I was actively avoiding keeping my mind open to the possibilities that there was something out there I hadn’t seen–or more importantly, that I would like something I was sure I wouldn’t. Along with revisiting a simpler phone setup and some of the simpler stock apps, this process is re-shaping the way I think about what I’m doing, and what other normal people (i.e. potential customers who may one day buy a product I release) do and want from their devices as well. I may not stick with the app long-term, but it’s been an extremely valuable exercise.

It’s worth reminding myself that no matter how perfectly architected the things in my life may feel, there’s something to be gained by breaking them down and starting over. I’ll be doing my best to keep this thought close to the front of my mind.

Author: Seth Clifford

I'm here for the open bar.