The Digital Detox Project: How to Have Mindful App Usage

Friday, March 13, 2020
I am an app addict. I don't know how many apps I've installed and uninstalled just to find the right thing that fits my needs. I think a lot of good comes from trying to find digital services that fit the way you work and create. If it takes experimenting and testing to find what works, that is just what it will take.

But sometimes I find myself holding on to apps that do me more harm than good. They can be time thieves, money wasters, or detract from what I'm trying to achieve in my life. In my last post, I gave a short introduction to my digital detox and why I'm doing it.

After getting a grip on my email, I moved to the next pain point in my digital life: app usage.
Since there are so many app choices out there, I believe that being mindful of app usage is very important. I've learned it's important to ask myself, "Is this app healthy for me? Does it help me reach my goals? Or is it nothing more than a mindless distraction?"



Being aware of why you use certain apps and how they make you feel helps you to make sure that your digital life is serving you, and that you're not becoming a slave to your device.

Here are the steps I took to detox my apps, not only on my phone but on my computer as well. The same principles can be applied to websites that you visit often too.

Step 1: Remove unused apps.

Remove any apps that have not been used in the last one to two months.
Any apps removed can be easily reinstalled, so there is no need to worry that if you uninstall an app, it's gone forever.

Step 2: Remove Apps that Don't Serve Your Values

To know if an app serves our values or not, we have to ask the big question: what is valuable to me?
One of the things that have helped me to see what is valuable is noticing how I spend my money and time. I like to spend money on notebooks and art supplies, so I know that creativity is important to me. If you enjoy spending money on vacations, relaxation or adventure may be important to you. If you enjoy trying out new restaurants, culinary experiences are important to you.

Also, your values can be seen in what you wish you were doing. If you're working a lot, and you wish you could spend more time with your family, relationships are something that you value. So note how you spend your money, your time, and what you wish was different.

Plus, if you have any life goals, those also reflect your values. Take a note of them on your values list. 

Examples of values: Creativity, Health, Relationships, Spirituality, Adventure, Nature

Now that you know your values, ask yourself: What kinds of apps will support my values and goals? Which apps hold me back from them? Remove all apps that don't support your values and keep you from honoring them.

Sometimes we end up using certain apps because all of our friends use them. But, if that app causes negative feelings regularly, it's not worth holding on to, even if it is popular with your friends. Real friends won't mind getting a call or text in the place of social media. So don't hold on to an app because of fear of isolation.

Speaking of fear of isolation and negative feelings, I have zero apps on my phone that deliver the daily news to me. I've turned off all alerts from Google news, and I don't subscribe to news sites.  I can check the news after lunch online any time I want. It's not going anywhere. I've found that having news alerts is not only distracting, but unnecessary.  And news sites in general can cause you to waste a lot of time.

If you're on the fence about if a specific app is supporting you or not, ask yourself:
  • Why am I using this app? Is it because I want to or because other people say that I should?
  • Does this app ever cause me guilt because it makes me waste too much time?
  • Does this app ever cause me guilt because it makes me waste too much money?
Unfortunately, sometimes the app that serves your values can also cause you to spend too much time or money. The next section covers what can be done about that.

After going through this process you should only have apps on your phone that work for you, not against you. Once you're done cleaning up, organize your apps into folders that make sense to you.

Step 3: Limit the Apps that Serve You, but Waste Your Time or Money

I am an avid Pinterest user. I've used Pinterest for everything from planning stories to planning what clothes I would like to buy. I've also used Pinterest to explore personality types and archetypes.

Pinterest definitely falls into my list of apps that serve me. But unfortunately, Pinterest can also waste a ton of time if I'm not careful.

This is where app blocking services come in. Use an app blocker to limit the time you spend on sites and apps that you need, but can cause you guilt. Right now the apps that I've set time limits for are Amazon, Pinterest, Instagram, and Canopy.co. I don't naturally spend enough time on news sites to limit them, but if that's your problem, limit those as well. On my computer, I use a Firefox extension called Leechblock. On my phone, I use Screentime for Android. Both of these apps allow you to set time limits.

Another nice thing about Screentime is that you can see into what categories your daily phone usage falls into. Most of the time I use my phone for the books and reference and productivity categories. I'm pretty happy about that.

Step 4: Bring Peace to Your Device

Stop your phone from interrupting you. Turn off all app notifications, except for your text messages and phone.

In Android, you can easily do this from the app settings menu. When you click on an app in the list, it gives you the option to control the notifications. Select block all notifications.

I got so much more peace when I stopped Instagram from sending me random notifications throughout the day. Also, turn off your email notifications and decide on a specific time when you want to check on email. I usually check mine around lunch.

Choose a minimal launcher. The nice thing about Android is that you can easily change your phone's environment. If you look up "Minimalist Launcher" in the Play Store, you will get a bunch of options. Right now, I'm enjoying using KISS Launcher. I love how it keeps my home screen uncluttered. The search bar on the bottom makes it easy for me to get to my commonly used apps. If you really want to go hardcore, try Slim Launcher. Other launchers that look good are Takan and Evie.

Go Natural. As a highly sensitive person, I noticed a difference in how I feel when I decided to choose nature-inspired wallpapers for my devices. Looking at nature pictures are so calming. My favorite wallpapers are of roses, cherry blossoms, the night sky, and the forest.

The nature theme doesn't have to be visual only. You can also do something similar with your notification sounds. Some examples of more natural notifications and ringtones are bells, water, wind, and non-electric instruments (acoustic guitar, piano, violin, etc...). So now, not only have you reduced notifications in general, but the notifications you do get are more calming.

Overall, I understand that many people feel a strong need to break away from the screen, and that can be good at times. But the truth is, you're going to have to return to your phone eventually. Why not make that experience a good one?

If you are using apps that help you to exercise more, read more books, take a moment to breathe, journal regularly, work through anxiety, write a novel, and grow a garden in your backyard, would you intentionally need "no phone" time? Choose apps that work with your real life, and enjoy what they can do. Choose apps that help you to reach your values and goals and remove or limit the apps that hold you back.

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