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Why I Built A Minimalist Smartphone

The difficulties of trying to balance minimalism with using a smartphone

Smartphone switched off
Photography by Andreas Haslinger

About midway through last year, I started tracking my phone usage. I found out I was using my phone 20-30 hours per week. That didn’t seem healthy to me. I decided I would simply use my phone less. That made about zero difference to my weekly usage.

Next, I tried deliberately getting a phone plan with low data. This was an ill-conceived idea. After burning through my month’s data in about five days, I then had to purchase ‘top-ups’ at a more expensive rate.

I felt things were getting serious, so I deleted the Facebook and Reddit apps. The next day I just used the Chrome browser to access some of my most used social apps. Next, I set my phone display to grayscale. However, I ‘needed’ the colour to see the map properly, so I turned it back to color.

I decided I would delete the Chrome Browser (and the default browser too). I quickly discovered you cannot delete the system browser. You can only disable it, which hides it away. I’m sure you can guess what happened next. I ‘needed’ the browser for legitimate-sounding reason, so I ‘temporarily’ re-enabled it.

This was when the idea of a “boring” phone began to form. With the help of my friend Jasper, I ‘rooted’ a spare Android phone, which allowed me to actually delete the browser, Play Store, and other apps. I then put my sim card in it and my new minimalist smartphone was in hand.

At first, it seemed like the idea behind the phone hadn't had the desired effect. I still pulled my phone out at every available opportunity to check if there was something new on it.

However, after about two days, I found I was looking at my phone less and less. There was really nothing on it to check. I could talk to my girlfriend on the Signal app, but I would be alerted to that by the vibration. Apart from that, there was really no reason to check it.

Without all those seemingly interesting and exciting things, the urge to check my phone dissipated like fog in the morning sun. I felt calmer and less anxious and agitated. At home, I picked up my Kindle and for the first time in ages, spent solid chunks of time just reading books.

Like my attempt to ‘hide’ my apps from myself, I believe that technology enabled a certain type of aesthetic minimalism. The music collector no longer needs a house full of records but can still get sucked into endless hours obsessing over digital possessions. I can have a sparse and functional apartment and only three icons on my phone’s home screen—but that’s only an aesthetic if I have a cupboard stuffed with junk, or a full set of applications just a swipe away.

For me, the true benefits of digital minimalism became real when I found a way to actually give up the distracting elements.

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