Phone Organization Tips to Promote Creative Habits Over Distraction

Image from Unsplash

You’ve done this at least once: habitually looked at your phone for some type of “mental relief”. Your phone is designed to do this, and this post will help you redesign your phone to change that.

That habit is a sign that you’ve been wired, through neuroplasticity, to crave your phone. When this happens you’re looking for some type of stimulation that will release rewarding neuro-chemicals into your system.

Think back to the famous rat and dog association experiments performed by the behaviorist psychologist Ivan Pavlov and repeated by many universities. A more recent experiment by John Hopkins discovered that rodents can be trained to link rewards to visual cues.

We are also trained to crave the visual cues and sounds of our phones.

To break the cycle of long hours of purposeless distraction and to promote creativity, we must be aware of these cues creating our predicament so we can redesign and organize our phone with newfound purpose.

Your Phone is Your Environment

To break your trained cues, and to conquer your phone habits, you must mold your “digital environment” into a place of tranquility and purpose.

One of my favorite books on the psychology of habits is Atomic Habits by James Clear.

Below is an image of the “four stages of habit”. Our goal is to break bad phone habits by removing the “cues” that we have been trained to crave and respond to.

The Four Stages of Habit by James Clear

He outlines the importance of “the environment” when it comes to breaking habits:

“Your mind is continuously analyzing your internal and external environment for hints of where rewards are located.”

Clear’s explanation of how our brain searches for rewards can help direct us towards morphing our digital environment into something that promotes our preferred mindset and not fight against it.

In Atomic Habits, Clear recommends hiding objects that cue bad habits. If your goal is to learn guitar instead of watching TV, you could start by hiding your TV in a closet and putting a guitar in its place.

Its that simple!

Objects act as physical reminders of what you can do. By removing habit prompting objects, you can conquer your habits and promote creativity.

Now apply this same concept to your phone’s apps and pages. Swipe right and left and review your “digital environment”. Take into account all the apps there and how they are presented to you. Which apps promote distraction vs. creativity?

Which apps should you delete, move, or keep?

A Different Approach to Choosing the Right Apps

Image from Miklagard

Apps are the digital “objects” within the “environment” of your phone.

Every app already serves a purpose, but is it serving your purpose?

To begin, beware of the “any benefit approach” when choosing which apps to keep or remove. Adopting this approach means that any benefit an app has signifies you should keep it. This is a shallow approach to choosing the right apps.

This approach is flawed, because it neglects all of the other negative variables an app has that detracts from that one benefit it does have.

Its best to weigh the pros against the cons of each app thoroughly before you choose them to live inside of your digital environment.

Facebook may connect you with your friends, but are the hours of distraction it promotes worth using it for that one goal?

In economics, we would call this sort of questioning opportunity cost analysis.

Opportunity cost” is the trade-off that always happens when you make a choice. (e.g. if you choose to browse social media, you invariably will choose not to do a bunch of other things.)

Image that demonstrates opportunity cost. Image from St. Louis Fed.

If you decide to distract yourself with Facebook now, you’ll prevent your future self from achieving a variety of things.

There’s a trade-off with what apps you choose and how you use them.

Distracting apps, like Facebook, aren’t all bad since they can be used to achieve specific goals well. If your goal is to advertise your business and generate income to support your family, Facebook is a fantastic tool.

In a situation like that, the pros far outweigh the cons.

Keep your goals simple, but the reasons you use the tools to achieve those goals complex. This is the opposite of the “any benefit approach” and is called the “craftsman approach”.

Using the “craftsman approach” for deciding which apps to keep and remove, allows us to design an arsenal of tools that helps us stay creative.

Think of a master carpenter. Do you think they have tools that don’t serve a purpose? Do you think they have a TV in their shop while they work on projects? They would do neither, because they understand the value of a “purposeful environment” and thoroughly thought out tools.

My craft is writing. To write well I need a “purposeful digital environment” composed of carefully selected apps to help me capture and transform my thoughts into cohesive articles, blog posts, and daily ideas.

In this image of my home screen: I have Speechify for reading books, Notion for writing drafts, Obsidian for conceptual note taking, and a few other apps for alternative uses like navigation and tracking my day.

My selection of apps is particular and non-addictive. When I look at my home screen nothing prompts my mind to “click here for dopamine”.

Your selection should feel a similar way. As you organize your pages, close your phone, open it, and scan your pages while your search for a mental “jolt” that begs you to click on a particular app more than others.

If your home page feels tranquil, then your digital environment has been organized properly.

What you should think is: “Huh, all these apps are useful, but I’ll have to make a conscious decision to use them for a purpose rather than for a feel good moment.

The end result is a simple phone layout that promotes your preferred habits.

Apps that are “Helpful”, Can Make you Dumber

”The brighter the software, the dimmer the user.”

— Nicholas Carr

The Shallows” by Nicholas Carr, a book on the cognitive and cultural effects of technological innovation, outlines the nasty effects that “user-friendly” applications have on our cognitive ability.

Sourcing a study by Christof van Nimwegen, Carr validates the legitimacy of the quote above.

In the study it was discovered that the more user-friendly something is, the worse it can be for your long-term mental effectiveness and prowess.

The best way to combat the downside of user-friendliness is to use bare-bones apps that don’t aid you past their basic functionality.

Google Search autocomplete is an example of “user-friendliness” that can lessen your ability to formulate questions yourself.

Google offshores your cognitive power onto its server’s microchips and in effect, Google becomes not only an extension of your mind, but support for it.

The more support you receive, the less effort you have to put in, and you won’t develop skills as effectively.

Image of Google autocomplete

If your goal is to improve yourself, choose apps with bare-bones functionality, since you’ll become smarter using them.

I’ll use my writing as an example to further demonstrate this concept.

I don’t use Grammarly, because it will change my writing style to whatever the “Grammarly writing style” is. If I used Grammarly every day, I’d likely get worse at spelling, grammar, and writing.

This is the exact opposite of what Grammarly sells to you!

Image of how Grammarly makes “writing easier”.

Grammarly makes your writing better, but it doesn’t make you better.

In a similar vein, writing AI that is algorithmically suited to match your writing style isn’t good for improving your writing either.

If your goal is to pump out good content fast, using a Writing AI can be a powerful booster for your workflow. That’s only if you treat writing as an occupation, and not a artistic thought retreat like I do.

If you want to become a good writer (or anything) in the long-term, its best not to lean too heavily onto “easy to use” digital tools.

Realizing that “user-friendliness” is a downside aids in your ability to better approach your apps with a craftsman-like attitude.

4 Key Takeaways

To recap, I’ll summarize all of the tips in this post…

  1. Our phones are designed to train us. We must retrain ourselves.
  2. Our phones have a “digital environment”. That environment can be modified to promote creative habits over distracting ones.
  3. Your apps are tools. Use “opportunity cost analysis” and the “craftsman approach” to redesign your phone’s environment with apps that promote tranquility and purpose.
  4. Apps that are “user-friendly” can make you dumber in the long-term. Line up the level of helpfulness needed out of an app with your goals before choosing to use it.

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I skipped college, now I write for fun and not for grades.