Study Hacks Blog

A Piece of Advice I Wish I’d Included in My Book

October 21st, 2019 · 33 comments
Photo by Roman Harak.

One of the questions I’m often asked during interviews for Digital Minimalism is what advice I’ve learned more recently that I wish I had included in the book. There are several candidates for this missing advice, but one I’ve found myself talking about a lot recently is what I call the phone foyer method.

This strategy was innovated by parents who were worried about the negative effects of using their phone too much around their kids, but it applies more broadly.

The idea is simple…

The Phone Foyer Method

When you get home after work, you put your phone on a table in your foyer near your front door. Then — and this is the important part — you leave it there until you next leave the house.

If you need to look something up, you go to your foyer and look it up there.

If you need to send a text message, you go to the foyer. If you’re holding a back-and-forth conversation, then you need to stand there while you do it.

If you’re expecting an important call, put on your ringer.

If you feel the urge to check in on social media, it’s waiting for you in the foyer.

And so on.

(The one allowable exception: listening to a podcast or audiobook during tedious household chores. Let’s be reasonable…)

This method, of course, doesn’t require that you have a foyer, I just liked the alliteration. The key is that your phone stays in a fixed location while you’re at home instead of traveling with you as a constant companion.

Many who have tried this technique are surprised to discover the degree to which having a phone with them at all times completely transforms their experience when at home. We’ve become so used to the persistent fragmentation of our attention during our leisure hours that we’ve forgotten how recently this behavior arose.

To be clear, it’s not self-evident that home life before smartphones was better. The phone foyer method will provide you the before and after comparisons needed to decide for yourself.

But if you’re like a lot of people who have tried this method and reported back to me, once you rediscover the improved presence, the strengthened interpersonal connections, the mind-settling moments of solitude, and the doses of boredom that motivate meaningful, but difficult action — you’ll probably become a believer in the power of the phone-filled foyer.

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Another podcast recommendation: I recently joined Jia Tolentino, who wrote about Digital Minimalism for the New Yorker last spring, on Charles Duhigg’s How To! podcast. It was an interesting discussion. If you’re looking for more of my recent podcast appearances, check out my media page, I’ve listed 45 or so interviews from the past year.

33 thoughts on “A Piece of Advice I Wish I’d Included in My Book

  1. Corey says:

    I use a very similar method. We come in our house through the garage door and have a hanging organizer on the back of it. I put my phone in one of the slots when I get home and it stays there until I plug it in to charge at bedtime.

  2. Ozgur says:

    I love the idea. I especially appreciate how Cal is keeping a healthy balance of the role of technology within our lives, and suggesting tips on how we can be in control, and be the master so to speak, as opposed to being a slave of the digital attention economy that is designed to take as much as time as possible from us without us noticing it.
    When we are all in death bed, I’m sure none of us are going to say, “I wish I would have spent more time after work hours staring at a screen”, but I’m sure a lot of people are going to say “I wish I would have been more mindful, present, and spent more time with my kids and loved ones”. It is a constant battle to change bad habits, but we have to keep trying, day by day, hour by hour…

  3. Scott says:

    “Being present” surfaced at about the same time that the “smart” device came on the scene.
    Presence is LOST by simply not being “where you are”.
    This issue simply didnt exist
    before the “sma ness” did.
    you tell me.

  4. Scott says:

    I choose to manage my complete existence on the “internet” on my PC.
    No option of “smart” device.
    My PC at home , thats my” foyer”.
    Great work, great point Cal.
    Thank you – once again.

  5. Shane says:

    I absolutely love audiobooks and podcasts, but I have them on a separate device (a fiio mp3 player, they’re the closest thing to an ipod classic). The thought of an intrusive glowing screen or messages pinging through interrupting the book would drive me crazy.

    1. Ari says:

      How do you download podcasts/audiobooks onto an mp3 player? Curious to do this bc I still use my phone to listen.

  6. Eric says:

    For a year, we tried this method but had the phones all plugged into the kitchen. It helped, but not much. Two weeks ago, we got an elegant looking phone/iPad bamboo charging station and put it literally in the foyer. Problem solved. The phone goes away until I leave again. The location is just as important as not having it on your body.

  7. Rayna says:

    I have done this for about a year or so now on the weekends or any time I am off, at home. I leave the phone plugged into the wall, upstairs in the bedroom. So not only is it in a different room, it requires stair climbing! 🙂

    I will go up and check usually once a day – there are rarely any notifications (in part because I only get text message and phone call notifications). It’s so lovely not to have it attached to my person. I often forget about it.

  8. Vishal Kataria says:

    But… but… but this is… Genius!

    Why didn’t I think of it? I’ll apply it right away. Starting today, my mobile phone will function as a landline device.

  9. P says:

    This picture up here was taken in North Korea in the lobby of the hotel. I find it interesting. North Korea – where Internet doesn’t exist. But that is another story.

  10. Judy says:

    I agree this is a great ‘house rule’ to adopt. It should also be extended to all family members, especially children (who should not be permitted to keep their cell phones in their bedroom).

  11. Russ says:

    I really like this idea and would love to be able to implement.

    The one thing stopping me is my kids.

    What happens if my phone is in the other room and they need to get ahold of me?

    The irony is that it’s almost never urgent.

    But there are times when it is.

    Any solutions?

    (We don’t have a house phone, and I’m definitely not going back there.)

    1. EA says:

      Solution is easy if you’re so concern – and if the concern is real. Apple Watch with notifications only for phone calls. Anything else is without notifications of any kind. If they call you, you can answer from your watch.

      1. Russ says:

        Yes, I am concerned.

        There are legitimate times my daughter might need me (she’s 17, drives etc.)

        And if something happened to her, I’d want to be able to help.

        It won’t happen often of course … but I’d hate to be unreachable if something did happen.

        That said, your tip is great, thank you.

        I even have an Apple Watch but I stopped using it because it was so annoying telling me to stand up etc. But it will probably only take 10-15 minutes to set it up so I only get notifications that I want.

        Thanks again.

        1. Joanna says:

          You can either leave the sound of the incoming phone call on or, if you are getting to many phone calls, set it up in a way that allows the sound only if she calls (muted for calls coming from other numbers).

        2. EA says:

          Russ – ah, teen drivers! You should be able to remove all the notifications that you don’t need (include the stand up reminder) to a point in which it’s basically a watch that receives messages and calls from whoever you want (put it in silent mode, and add your daughter as a “favorite” which should bypass the silent mode). It’s definitely worth a try, especially since you don’t have to buy anything. One suggestion: instruct your daughter that if there’s a serious problem (she got hit by or she hit a car) to call 911 first and to tell the license plate of the other car IMMEDIATELY. Trust me on this.

    2. Like the other commenter, I have (ironically) found the Apple Watch a great way to detach from my phone. I have it set to alert me to phone calls only. My children are young and go to preschool and daycare, and the provider CALLS me in the event of an emergency or illness. I don’t need to be distracted by every text, email, or other phone reminder.

      It feels strange to add a piece of tech to reduce the use of tech, but this has helped me immensely.

    3. Joe says:

      Turn the ringer on. It’s that simple.

  12. Meutia says:

    I have two (smart)phones because my old smartphone can be operated again recently. I installed social media apps (actually just WhatsApp hehe) in my new smartphone, so the old one is pure for making a phone call, sending, or receiving SMS.
    Recently, I leave my new smartphone in my house (in nonactive mode) whenever I go to the campus (from 8 AM to 5 PM). And, when I come back to my house, I’ve already felt tired so instead of checking my new smartphone or “social-snacking”, I’d rather sleep.

    (Sorry for bad English :D)

  13. John says:

    Thanks for the reminder Cal. I remember reading about this in Digital Minimalism and tried it for a little bit before I gave up. I want to start doing it again so that I can have peace from my phone in my apartment when I don’t need it.

  14. This is a very good method to increase the productivity and also the peace of mind. I use this method when I read books or write papers.

    I have tweaked my mobile alerts as it rings only for phone calls, not for any other application like WhatsApp, email, this and that. Phone call implies something important; and all other notifications can be managed or replied later.

    It really helps.

  15. This is an interesting challenge. I’d say it is simple but not easy! Made me think that if I left my phone in the foyer, I might be forced to – gulp – use my “real” computer more to check social media etc. What a concept. There would be a small inconvenience, which is a big factor for using a smartphone always in your pocket. Digital Minimalism might be less convenient, but a fragmented mind is too.

  16. FloatingSara says:

    Very good idea! My husband has bought a USB Charging Station, which is becoming our “phone foyer” in the corridor. Now I force myself to leave my mobile there and if there is any message, I reply while standing on my feet. It’s just about waiting until a new habit has become the norm.
    Thank you for the idea

  17. I am not convinced. I personally don’t use a smart phone so I am not ever tempted to unnecessarily play with my dumb phone. I do question though the practicality of the method. I generally have lower confidence in any productivity hack that relies on my self-discipline to resist temptation. Its like saying ‘only eat one potato chip’. Ok, sure that might happen.

    However, I am becoming increasingly interested in physical proximity and habit formation / behavioural architecture. The further something is from my physical presence, the less likely I am to engage with it. I used this principle to help master keyboard shortcuts – for one (or more) hours I would keep my mouse at least 2 metres from me, and forced myself to drive windows using only a keyboard.

    And to your point about podcasts and audio books – you can use your laptop to provide the same utility. I did so last night while washing dishes (actually listened to you and James Atomic Habit podcast – great stuff!).

    1. FloatingSara says:

      “I generally have lower confidence in any productivity hack that relies on my self-discipline to resist temptation.”
      I agree with you, which is why I like the phone foyer idea: getting to another room to check the phone discourages you to check it every 1 minute.
      Of course it’s not a solution itself, every procrastinator knows that the path to the fridge is always shorter than the path to the bookshelf.

      1. EA says:

        “every procrastinator knows that the path to the fridge is always shorter than the path to the bookshelf.”
        THIS is gold!

  18. Philip Moser says:

    Thinking of Cal while watching the Nationals big win last night. Imagining him listening to the game on the radio in his backyard by a fire pit!

  19. pictures says:

    check the pictures

  20. D. K. Wall says:

    Oh, wait, so the “throw the phone down when you come inside and then frantically search for it when you hear it ringing method” isn’t preferred?

    Seriously, since I work from home, my cell stays on my desk in my study. And we don’t have a home phone, so that means if I am away from the study, odds are I don’t know if you are calling. Works well for me.

  21. James says:

    I think that this phone foyer method will be useful for especially those who have a hard intensive day. Because when I have a relaxed day, I don’t even think that the phone can disturb me.

  22. This is great stuff! And turns out we even have a foyer table.

    My first thought was “I need my phone to use as computer remote when using our projector” (or to play music). So what I did is put a different phone on the living room table that has just the required apps (Remote and Spotify). Problem solved.

    Now the biggest challenge is to get my wife on board with this. Her big law office has a “always on” culture, so I’m for sure going to hit some resistance about her having to get up from the couch to go to the foyer table and check her phone. Worth a try though!

  23. Andy Ballentine says:

    Yes, Scott! That’s the way I create the boundary as well.

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