My broken phone and a lesson on focus

It was the first day of my summer vacation with the family. As we arrived, my youngest daughter was terribly excited to get into the large swimming pool. Off I ran, carrying her in my lap, and plunged into the pool for at least half an hour of the kind of fun that makes life worth it. Then, as we walked out of the pool to go into yet another pool, I felt something heavy in my right pocket. Joy turned to despair when I realized what it was - my phone.

The phone was clearly dead for good. The thought of spending at least a week - seven days of vacation time, plus the time it would take to fix this one or get another phone - seemed too much to bear.

A day passed, and nothing bad happened. I didn't miss seeing the day's irresistible new meme. I did not miss out on my life's greatest opportunity by not checking my notifications every five minutes. Surprisingly, completely missing out on the day's political news on Facebook actually felt pretty good.

When I got back home, I got myself a Motorola V3, loaned by my dad who had one sitting in a drawer. That has been my phone for close to a month now. It has no GPS. No Facebook, Foursquare or Whatsapp. No email. No wi-fi. No distractions. I haven't looked back.

Motorola V3 phone

Damn, it looks sexy

There are two important features missing from my new phone. One is the ability to sync contacts with my Google Apps account. The other is receiving notifications when certain important emails arrive in my inbox - not every email, just those that follow certain criteria. The former, I've not been able to fix. As for the latter, I have a pretty good solution in place thanks to Zapier and Twilio. I have created a "zap" - that's how Zapier calls their workflows - that sends me an SMS message (through Twilio) whenever an email arrives in my inbox that matches a certain search expression. The solution costs me US$1 per month for a Twilio number, plus about US$0.02 for each SMS message sent, which is actually an incentive to only get notified about the really urgent stuff.

Switching to a feature phone has taught me a few things. One of them is about anxiety. When my phone first died, I was very concerned that I'd miss out on some important thing, or that maybe by not being able to immediately reply to some email I would miss out on an opportunity. After a few weeks, guess what? None of that happened, and I actually walk around feeling lighter not having to check my notifications every other minute.

That leads into another thing I've learned, about productivity. Not having something beeping at me every time anything remotely interesting happens does a lot of good to help me keep my focus at work. I get fewer distractions, and the whole exercise has actually motivated me to be more conscious of my own productivity. Big win.

I've also learned about focus in a product. A modern day smartphone does a lot of things, and we feel each version that comes out or each new app released should allow us to do that little bit more. Does that really make me as a user happier, though, or more productive? It appears that by stripping things down to the bare essentials and eliminating distractions, the user is able to do more, not less. That seems counterintuitive and may not be easy to achieve or to observe since the "doing more" might be happening outside of your domain. But the user will certainly be happier with your product. Happy users are good for you.

I'm not saying I will never switch back to using a smartphone. Being in the business of building software products these days makes it impossible to not build mobile experiences so, obviously, I can't just ignore smartphones. Even if that happens, I will certainly be much more conscious of how I use it and of what apps earn the right to disturb my focus. Until then, I get to hear this when someone calls me: