Distracted in 2016? Reboot Your Phone with Mindfulness

This piece has also been cross-posted to Medium.

People often tell me that starting a movement for a whole new type of technology that’s built to help people spend their time well sounds nice (and naïvely ambitious), but what are the things I can do to have a more mindful relationship with my devices right now?”

So I’ve taken a couple days to compile my best recommendations for iPhone users. The tips below are meant to:

  • Minimize Compulsive Checking & Phantom Buzzes
  • Minimize Fear of Missing Something Important
  • Minimize Unconscious Use
  • Minimize “Leaky” Interactions (“leaking out” into something unintended)
  • Minimize Unnecessary Psychological Concerns generated by the screen.

Note: These recommendations are for people who live by their smartphone (not casual users), and they’re based on findings from psychology and behavioral science.

Tip #1: Create Your “Essential” Home Screen 

We check our phone 150 times a day, and each time we unlock to see that grid of apps and red badges signaling everything we’ve missed, it immediately triggers a whole set of thoughts, feelings and concerns in our mind.

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What is Time Well Spent (Part I): Design Distinctions

Organic, LEED Certified, Time Well Spent(?)

I’m often asked, so what is Time Well Spent software? How do we define it? What does it mean to design for it?

Time Well Spent is a consumer movement to shift what we want from the companies who make our technology. Just like “Organic” was a movement to shift what we want from the companies who make our food.

With Time Well Spent, we want technology that cares about helping us spend our time, and our lives, well – not seducing us into the most screen time, always-on interruptions or distractions.

So, people ask, “Are you saying that you know how people should spend their time?” Of course not. Let’s first establish what Time Well Spent isn’t:

  • It is not a universal, normative view of how people should spend their time
  • It is not saying that screen time is bad, or that we should turn it all off.
  • It is not saying that specific categories of apps (like social media or games) are bad.

I thought I’d put some of the possible differences of Time Well Spent into a chart – to distinguish how a company would design an app, website or service differently:

Aspect Before Time Well Spent After Time Well Spent
Stance “I care about engaging users as much as possible. It’s up to them to stop when they want to stop, up to them unsubscribe when they want to unsubscribe and up to them to uninstall my app if they find it too distracting. How much they get out of using my product is up to them.” “I care about serving people’s ideal lives and helping them spend time well. It’s my responsibility to help people continually get the most out of what I offer, including to stop when they want to stop and help them unsubscribe when they no longer benefit.”
Ability to Disconnect  “Users want to be connected and reachable 24/7, all the time. If they want to disconnect, they can always leave their phone at home or uninstall my app.” (All or Nothing choice) “Users have a right to set boundaries between their work and personal life, bound their use according to their preferences, and set aside time to focus. I will design to empower them to create these spaces.” (Choice within being Connected)
Quality of Attention “Frequent brief, bursty, interruptive use is no better/worse than long and continuous uses. If interruptive use is what gets people to click, that’s what I’ll maximize.” “People’s attention is sacred. I will design to help people attend to one thing at a time, minimize task-switching, interruptions, and other unnecessary choices.”
Measuring Success “I measure success in # transactions (clicks, shares, visits, swipes, sales, rooms booked, messages sent)” “I measure success in net positive contributions to people’s lives.” (time reading articles they were glad to spend, places they were glad to stay, people they were glad to meet).
Greenwashing “I talk about my product in terms of catchy one-liners about how it benefits humanity.” “I talk about my product with humility, doubt and self-examination to see its full range of impacts more clearly– both positive and negative.”
Design Goal “I design to help users complete tasks and transact.” “I take into consideration whether completing those tasks would add up to time well spent (for them), and I design to empower them to tell the difference.”
Respect “Users are sheep I can influence, put through conversion funnels, and get to do what I want. It’s up to them to say when they’ve had enough.” “Users are people whose time, attention, relationships and lives I respect. I care whether I’m bringing them closer or further away from the life they want to live.”
Model of User Behavior “Users are only doing what they want and freely choose to do. “I deeply influence what users are doing, feeling and thinking with my design choices – I can’t not influence people’s choices.”
Influencing Psychological Instincts “I design to make people’s psychological instincts and biases work for me.” (I set defaults adversarially to most benefit me. Users can change it if they want.) “I design to make people’s instincts work for them, not against them.” (I choose default settings that most benefit them.)
Minimizing Psychological Externalities “It’s their fault if my product adds new looping concerns, feelings of guilt, fear of missing something, or other stressful thought patterns to users’ minds.” “It’s my responsibility to minimize psychological externalities that arise from using my product.”
Menus and Framing Effects “People make choices rationally. How I frame and organize choices won’t change what people choose.” “How I frame and organize choices (sorting by recency, price, rating, or using different words) deeply influences what people choose. I will frame choices by what’s most empowers and matters to them in the long-run.”

These distinctions also apply differently for different kinds of technologies.

  • Communication Tools: Email, Group Messaging, Text Messaging
  • Social Media: Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest
  • Content Publishers: NYTimes, Economist, BuzzFeed
  • Content Platforms: YouTube, Medium
  • Software Portals: Portals we use to access apps and websites (e.g. Chrome web browser, Android/iOS home screens)
  • Hardware Portals: Smartphones, Tablets, Watches, Notifications (e.g. iPhone, Samsung Galaxy Edge)

I’ll go into great detail about these distinctions in future posts, along with specific examples of they show up in current products and potential new ones!

To learn more, check out http://timewellspent.io or http://empoweringdesign.org for details on future meet-ups and events!