The Great Nokia Time Travel Experiment (How I Learned to Shake My Notifications Habit)

In the middle of 2017, I found myself reading quite a bit of the current research on the effects of heavy smartphone usage on cognitive function. You can see an overview of what I found here. In short, the persistent drip of dopamine our brain releases when we get rewarded with repeated notifications can negatively affect our ability to concentrate as well as diminish our ability to transfer short-term memory into long-term memory. Cool, right?

Coincidentally, as I was reading all of this research, my iPhone battery was, as they say, giving up the ghost. Knowing I would at some point have to part with my iPhone for some 24- to 48-hour period for repairs anyway, I decided it was, with the help of the newly relaunched Nokia 3310 3G, time to attempt to return to a simpler era.

Instant weight loss

I went online and put down my hard-earned $59.99 (plus tax and shipping) on a new, unlocked Nokia 3310. When it arrived a few days later, I opened the box and was surprised at the way this tiny phone felt in my hands. It was familiar. Or, at least as familiar as any other sense memory I had leftover from 1997. I pulled my iphone 6 (with its now required to last through the day Mophie battery case) out of my pocket and suddenly struck with just how heavy my daily driver iPhone really was.

Next, I slipped the Nokia into my front pocket where the iPhone normally resides. Again, struck by the comparative lightness of its retro form factor. This, I could get used to—4.5 oz. versus the nearly 10 oz. of my iphone 6 plus battery pack. As soon as I sat down, I realized I simply didn’t feel like there was a phone in my pocket. Or, rather, I realized just how bulky my iphone/battery case actually was.

I don’t know anyone’s phone number anymore

The next step was attempting to transfer 10+ years worth of contacts from my iPhone to the Nokia. It turned out to be a bit more arcane and cumbersome a process than I had hoped. Ultimately it required syncing iPhone contacts with the contacts application on my Mac, then exporting a single combined VCF file. A bit of playing around with the Android File Transfer application, and voila, contacts added. I wish I had done a better job of documenting the process because everything on the subject of contact transfers that I found online, not surprisingly, covered going the reverse, from feature phone to smartphone.

It was time to transfer my SIM (saddled into a micro-sim to mini-sim adapter—nothing is ever  simple).

Where are my texts?

Another “gotcha” lurking for anyone leaving the iPhone ecosystem—the iMessage Bermuda Triangle. Basically when you allow the messages app to take over standard SMS functionality, Apple becomes a man in the middle, routing your standard SMS through their own servers and syncing them across all of your registered iCloud devices. So, if you plan on ditching your iPhone, you’ll need to follow this process to deregister your phone number or your texts will never reach your phone. They’ll show up on your mac, or your iPad, but not your phone.

And finally, the Gmail issue…

The mail app on the Nokia is a fully capable POP mail client for Gmail. The trick I found is that you cannot use your standard Gmail password. You need to create an app password. Admittedly, I only discovered this after scratching my head at a half dozen send and receive failures and I remembered that I had needed to do the same procedure to connect my desktop iMessages app to Google Chat years prior.

Once that was taken care of, it was quite evident that polling every few minutes for new emails made a drastic difference in how long the tiny handset could go without a charge. Without the email app polling the server every few minutes, the battery would last at least two or three days between a charge. With an aggressive every-four-minute polling schedule in effect, the battery would last far less than a day.

Of course, I also realized that setting this phone to poll so often was only feeding the very habit this experiment was designed to break. So, I turned off automatic polling and decided I could check email manually when appropriate. Problem solved.

Withdrawal sets in

I never really considered myself a smartphone junkie. But once I had set aside my smartphone, what became evident to me was how often I was unconsciously (or at least subconsciously) pulling out my iPhone and glancing at the lock screen. Now, the first full day with the retro-modern Nokia 3310 in my front pocket, the automatic gesture of checking my lock screen was finding no purchase. It caused the once automatic motor behavior to suddenly deliver negative rewards. I could almost feel my brain asking where the good stuff went. The good news is that it only took a couple days to stop reaching into my pocket for my phone every few minutes.

What happened next was surprising

Even though the physical “checking” behavior subsided in a few days, initially there were still quite a few brain waves, trained by years of dopamine reactions, continually thinking about that behavior. Eventually, even that process waned. And I realized I felt calmer. More relaxed. Not always, but rather, I saw my days had still moments that previously I would have filled with checking—Facebook, Instagram, email, LinkedIn, Flipboard, et al. Standing in line to buy some lunch? Check Facebook. Waiting for a meeting to start? Check Instagram for a minute. I mean, why would anyone possibly wait to see what amazing people have looked at their LinkedIn profile?

Leaving all of that behavior behind, I felt my attentions were easier to direct toward things that mattered. I’d like to say I saw huge improvements in short-term to long-term memory retention, but without actually quantifying any such a thing, it’s best to stick with subjective impressions. And my subjective experience was that I was, in any case, enjoying this newfound, calm and surplus attention span.

Modernity asks for a meeting

Despite this new, totally bearable lightness of being, a few cracks began to form in the walls surrounding my attention garden. A year-round cyclist, I use my 30-minute commutes to and from the office as an opportunity to let people much smarter than I spill knowledge into my brain. That may come in the form of a podcast or a book on Audible. Neither of which my 90’s-style feature phone could accomodate easily. The podcasts, I theoretically could have downloaded as MP3 files and manually transferred to the phone, but the Audible books, not so much.

I thought about resurrecting an old iPod or iPod touch to take over the duties, but as I’ve mentioned in a previous blog about wearables, I have a limit on the number of “things” i will commit to carrying. Specifically, I have a limit of four NEED to remember when I leave the house: Wallet. Keys. Glasses. Cell phone. If I add a fifth, I’ll likely forget one of them at home. So, no iPod. Suddenly, the calculus of the value of this newfound calm has changed. It was time to reopen negotiations with the old iPhone—newly repaired and returned from its battery transplant surgery at the hands of an Apple Store tech.

The grand compromise

While using the Nokia—more specifically—my experience with Gmail, I realized that even this old school handset could provide unending distraction if properly (improperly?) set up to do so. The afflictions resulting from iPhone use are not inherent in its glass touch screen, but rather from the default preponderance of notifications. The next step. Return to the iPhone, with all notifications off.

I cannot recommend it enough

Not the Nokia, sorry. Texting with T9 is still an awful way to communicate. But an iPhone with notifications turned off is a definite life improvement. Eventually I found I needed calendar reminders and text notifications (without previews). But that's it. Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn are not mission critical. Maybe not even enjoyable when they get full reign over your attentions.

Of course, I will keep the Nokia as a pending threat to my kids if their smartphone usage gets out of hand.