Study Hacks Blog

The Advice I Gave My Students

December 6th, 2019 · 59 comments

Toward the end of class today, one of my students asked me what advice inspired by my books I’d give them as they headed into the university’s final exam period.

I thought about it for a second before recommending a simple hack that I’ve been experimenting with recently and finding useful:

Use your smartphone only for the following activities: calls, text messages, maps, and audio (songs/podcasts/books).

I suggested that my students try this for one week while studying for their exams. I further suggested that they actually record on a calendar or in a journal whether or not they succeeded in following the rule 100% for the day. One slip to check social media, or glance at email, or look up a website, and they don’t get to mark the day as a success.

They can still do all of these online activities, but only on their laptop. When they’re away from their computer, their phone is still useful for basic operations, but it ceases to act as a crutch that helps them avoid the world around them.

This hack is lightweight — far less aggressive than what I recommend in Digital Minimalism, and therefore easier to convince people to try.

But if you give it a chance, it’s still disruptive enough to your normal routines to provide key insight into just how dependent you may have become on mediating your experience through a constant background hum of digital intervention.

59 thoughts on “The Advice I Gave My Students

  1. Carol says:

    Following my digital detox, this is how I now use my phone (apart from maps, I still prefer a paper version, though the app is useful if I find myself unexpectedly lost!), and I can’t believe what a difference it has made. It really made me realise that so much of the time I spent on my phone was wasted, pointless and just a huge avoidance technique that was getting in the way of me really achieving anything. I now feel much calmer, happier and more productive since I’ve stopped using my phone as anything other than a phone. I honestly feel as if a weight has been lifted – it’s astonishing.

    I hope your students make the same discoveries!

  2. Lu says:

    Love the blog and I have read Deep Work and So Good They Can’t Ignore You.

    The message around abandoning social media use is enlightening and a bracing one. I do, however, miss the days of So Good…, when we were given case studies of how individuals achieved what they achieve. I feel those are much more inspiring stories, all in all, and is a more positive motivation to abandon the distractions.

    1. Shawn Spann says:

      As a current undergrad student, I love all the study hacks and do miss them also. That being said, this blog has been a great help to my own personal development. I just wonder if any of the core ideas have changed to reflect any new strategies or developments Mr. Newport has picked up

    2. Trish says:

      Agree! I’m a longtime reader of Cal’s blogs and books (they saved my undergraduate career), and I’d love to see a return to the detailed, inspiring case studies for “A World Without Email.”

      1. Study Hacks says:

        I’ve been trying to share DIGITAL MINIMALISM related case studies. I have some more on the way. As we get closer to WORLD WITHOUT EMAIL (we’re about a year out from publication now) I’ll definitely start getting more detailed with examples there as well.

  3. Paul says:

    The latest smartwatches allow for all of the functionality you mention (call, text, map, audio) and also have a pretty poor experience in terms of mindless web browsing or using Facebook, which is great! With LTE, you can even make or receive calls from your watch without having your phone.

    Perhaps smartwatches become the middle ground between basic phone and smartphone? Just enough smartphone functionality to be much better than the basic phone but just hard enough to use for social media/email/browsing that you don’t get sucked into the vortex.

    The danger with keeping your smartphone but exercising self control for limited functionality, as you know, is that the tech companies have spent hundreds of billions engineering a phone that overrides the self control.

    1. Sai says:

      I agree! I often just leave my phone behind in my room, and I just carry my smartwatch around. It’s very difficult to waste time on it, it just serves utility.

      1. Study Hacks says:

        This might be a dumb question: do smart watches work if you don’t have your phone with you as well? (That is, do they need to tether to your phone?)

        1. xkvd says:

          Some do, some don’t.

        2. Kamran says:

          Hey Cal,
          I’m not the commenter you replied to but I do have the answer to your question about the smart watches. From what I know, the apple watch does not require you to have your iPhone on you. I very recently watched a video of a youtuber who experimented going a week with just using the watch as a little digital minimalist experiment. It’s great because you can still listen to podcasts and make calls and don’t have the ability to browse social media and junk food sites.

        3. EA says:

          Cal – Apple Watch can work without a phone, as in you can leave your phone home and still use most if not all of its functionalities, including receiving phone calls. However, to setup it, upgrade it, etc you need to own an iPhone.

        4. Paul says:

          That’s right, the newest apple watch and newest samsung galaxy have LTE connectivity. You keep your same phone number and can make outbound calls, texts, etc from your watch with no need to tether to your phone.

      2. Sai says:

        Hi Cal,
        Smart watches need to be synced regularly perhaps once every day or so, but other than that they work just fine without the phone

  4. Kamran says:

    I appreciate this. I like how simple it is but effective.I’d imagine if you get in the habit of using your phone only for these purposes it’ll encourage you to find better ways to keep yourself entertained as well(more reading, outdoor activities, etc).

  5. Joe says:

    The only things that kept me from the Light Phone II is the lack of audio and maps. I’d love a phone that just did what you’ve suggested to your students.

  6. Raf Castillo says:

    After the 30 day detox, I’ve found that my smartphone use, according to the weekly report from my iPhone, has been cut by 50% and is holding steady.
    I’ve redownloaded Instagram, but found myself using it significantly less than previously. Aside from checking it once or twice a day to see what my artistic/athletic wife has posted, I use my phone for texts, emails, package/delivery tracking (seasonal this time of year), music, & meditation/fitness. No more whiling away time on Instagram and various games to “pass time”. My time spent working deeply (using the Toggl app on my Desktop computer) has doubled from 2 hours a day to 4 hours a day). Just have to give thanks to Cal. Reading Deep Work & Digital Minimalism as a personal productivity 1-2 punch has been simply amazing.

  7. Jeff says:

    Excellent advice.

    There is another option for your phone if you have some technical knowledge – buy an inexpensive Android (Amazon just had the Motorola G7 for $199) and use a custom ROM like LineageOS and DON’T install Google – in fact it comes without it by default. Presto, a modern phone without the distracting (and intrusive spyware) crap. If you have to add third party apps like a podcast use an appstore (F-droid.)

    1. Taylor says:

      This is a good idea but I like to take pictures with my phone and I’ve heard that the camera quality will sink if you install LineageOS

  8. Elliot says:

    Another option for the less technically savvy – a way to “Light Phone” your Android.
    Download a custom “Launcher” from the Google Play Store. I tried a few and my favorite is called “Slim Launcher” (no, they don’t pay me to say that).

    Slim Launcher hides your app drawer and only allows you to have access to a maximum of 8 apps, that are listed in plain text (no icons) on a plain background (your choice of several colors). Then, to really reduce the abillity for distraction, go to App Settings and diable Chrome and Google. Google Maps will still work without the Google app enabled.

    1. Nazar says:

      I just downloaded and installed it seconds ago. It is pretty lit. Thank you!

    2. Elliot says:

      @Nazar – so happy to hear it is working for you! It’s been a game-changer for me.

  9. Scott says:

    In 2011 after almost driving into a phone pole I began to realize that I was a mess (digitally). I was responding to an “important” text.
    WAKE UP CALL.
    After a week of leaving my phone home, -sanity began to replace anxiety….
    This victory inspired me to go back to a flip phone.
    Its coming up on 2020 and Im still running a flip phone.($10/month unlimited talk)
    Now, I run 2 businesses – both with an flip phone and email only!
    All other digital activities happen on a PC, in the evening- when Im “home”.

    Recently a friend mocked me for using no SM or “apps”.
    When we went for lunch he proudly showed me how he saved $2.00 on the purchase
    because he downloaded the restaurants “app”.
    Thats cool I said….But have you considered that your phone costs you $1200 and bills out monthly at $125 on top of that??
    He slid his phone back into his pocket and changed the subject…..

    1. Scott, what make/model flip phone do you use? I am also a business owner and would really love to be able to abandon the smart phone.

  10. Scott says:

    Corey, awesome!
    Free your self, you will never look back (but you will spend alot MORE of time looking at your surroundings, not the screen…
    I use an 2011 Vintage Kyocera Duracore model flip.
    Service through Tello wireless (Sprint Network)

  11. Shane Grogan says:

    I listen to a massive amount of podcasts/audiobooks and I ensure that they’re all on a totally separate device from my phone.

    I listen to these during my downtime to relax and unwind – so bright, intrusive touch-screens, messages, plus the temptation to compulsively check/browse apps kind of defeats the reason I’m doing it in the firstplace.

  12. GEORGE says:

    Nice article as always Cal.

    However, I beg to differ here with respect to the laptop. If someone can mindlessly browse social media on his phone, then the same thing can happen when he is on a laptop with internet connection. So when a student is back home and he is about to study for his upcoming exam, he can easily use his laptop and drift to a delightful state of procrastination by checking social media and browsing the Internet. If there is a destructive element in smartphones, the same element exists also in your laptop. It just is not so easily portable ( and laptops are extremely portable these days).

    While smartphones can easily shift your focus from the external world back to social media, laptops can also easily shift your focus from any home related activity (preparing for an exam, reading a book, listening to a podcast, playing an instrument, reflecting on recent experiences, etc.) back to social media.

    Personally with respect to my smartphone, I experiment with the phone Foyer method and I have uninstalled Facebook ( I don’t have other social media). With respect to my laptop, I have uninstalled all texting apps and I block Facebook using an extension called SayFocusd that gives me access to Facebook only for a few minutes per day. If I feel the urge to send a text, I will go to the Foyer and send it standing there.

    I understand that these rules can be intimidating for a modern person but the key word here is “try”. He can give it a try let’s say for a month and if he feels extremely uncomfortable, he can always return to his old surfing habits afterwards.

    1. Study Hacks says:

      One step at a time. For my students, losing the constant companion model of the smartphone is a key first step. A second step I would probably then advise is dual-mode studying. That is, when doing school work on your laptop, there are two modes. In your dorm room, you can be connected to the internet and download and look up material you need. The second mode, which occurs in the library, has you turn off wi-fi (using tools like Freedom if necessary), so that you’re working with complete disconnection.

  13. Lara says:

    Thanks for the tip, Cal!

    You include books in the audio activity. What if one reads books (especially books in epub format) instead? Would it be advisable to still do it on the smartphone?

  14. scott says:

    I see an interesting recurring theme with those who are ready to toss the “smart” phone.
    Most are voice concern about the “loss” of two important features.
    “Maps” and “podcasts”.
    -What about stand alone GPS? PLANNING ahead on a PC or(or obviously paper maps).
    -What about “downloading” MP3 files to a (still available) MP3 player, or stick to play in the car? No internet needed for playback…
    Break the addiction. Your worth it.
    Your sanity is priceless .
    I can tell you with surety that these small changes are worth it…. worth slowing down to the speed of life- again!

    1. P. says:

      Scott, the trick is that buying a traffic-tracking standalone GPS and/or an MP3 player costs an amount of money that for some is considerable, but the phones we’ve already paid for… we’ve already paid for.

    2. Joe says:

      Throwing the baby out with the bathwater is still a bad idea.

      As someone pursuing both digital minimalism and financial independence, I have no interest in purchasing another device just for podcasts or printing anything more than absolutely necessary. I bought my newest phone for $260 after trade-in and use Google Fi for service (my bill has been over $32 once). There’s no “addiction” to break with maps or with podcasts being played via Bluetooth at scheduled times and in prescribed settings.

      As for “planning ahead” for maps, let me know when you live 2+ hours from the nearest minor city and often have to travel and navigate rural back roads for hours at a time. Now go into one of those trips with construction being done and try to navigate a detour that isn’t marked well (if at all).

      I’ll take a single, inexpensive device that makes calls, texts, has quality up to date maps, and handles podcasts well. No internet, social media, or any other time wasting nonsense. Just high quality, useful features in a single device.

      1. Not to mention live traffic updates. I know my way around where I live in Suburban New York, I can get around without my Car or Phone’s GPS if I wanted to. But I’d rather not get stuck in traffic and use Waze before heading out to see what roads are clogged and during my drive if conditions have changed, in order to find the least trafficked route to my destination.

      2. Scott says:

        Good points Joe. I do agree that throwing the baby out with the bathwater is a bad plan.
        Just for me there was no baby…never had a “smart” device -so I see things from a different point of view~!

        You suggested a 2 plus hour drive w/o smart phone / maps app?
        I just completed 14 hours with a general route to route guide on paper –
        but most importantly I used a stand alone GPS purchased for ($79) 5 years ago.
        It stays off in the glove compartment til its NEEDED (I use my memory more)…
        Im glad your limited tech is working well for you as well. Its refreshing to exchange ideas, stories here on Cal’s blog!

  15. Nassim says:

    Hi, Cal.

    After following you for a year or so I have noticed a topic that you could write about that seems to be going under the radar when it comes to digital minimalism. You see, I have a problem with my digital curiosity.

    During periods of time where I’m with my thoughts I often found myself thinking about a topic and than becoming curious to the point of going on my laptop/ phone to google about it. This has caused me to realize that I’m a search addict.

    I go on searching about career salarys, specializations in computer science, which javascript framework is the hottest and so on. While I care about the topics I search it just has blown into a full addiction and I don’t really know how to tackle it.

    Being a 20 year old college student, search engines have revealed themselves to be quite beneficial for further understanding what was taught in class. It’s also how I discovered you and your books.

    However there seems to be no way for me to get a healthy relationship with search engines and blocking them simply isn’t possible.

    On one hand I’m getting tons of valuable information on some topics on the other hand I’m wasting too much time.
    How do I become more selective of what is worth knowing and what is not? Maybe you could go further and write about how information was historically scarce and therefore any information was valuable therefore we paid attention. We could conclude that this is another example of how our modern tech is hijacking our brains.

    1. Crawford Hiker says:

      Nassim, I am exactly like you. When I want to know the answer to something, I have to know it now! This leads to pulling out the phone and googling, but almost always, this leads to more useless surfing, sometimes hours.

      I needed to fix this, so I created what I call an “iScratch”. It is a small notepad and pen. (I customized it so the pen velcros to the pad). It fits in my front pocket.

      Now when I have to know something, I write it in my iScratch and my itch has been scratched (and thus enabling the sweet double entendre of scratch pad and itch scratching ). Then once a day I sit down and Google all the things I was dying to know. Viola! No more internet black holes.

      What I found is it rarely takes me more than 10 minutes to google my daily list. And it saves me hours of wasted time I would have been surfing useless stuff.

    2. Mohamed Raaneem Ahmed says:

      I’ve been tackling this addiction to information for sometime. There are few people who have studied or are studying about this.

  16. Elisabeth says:

    Dear Cal,
    It has been great to follow your articles and read through all the interesting comments in recent years. It’s good to know that I have not been alone in resisting the idea that smartphones are a necessity. In fact, it seems that there are many people out there that feel the same way! I have always thought that having access to my e-mail while on the go would be truly annoying. For this reason, I still use a phone without internet, and limit my internet access to my laptop and tablet at home. Since my work requires me to be on the go a lot (I am in the relocation business and constantly have to travel all over the city), every year I think about whether I should be getting a smartphone or not. Luckily, I regularly read your posts and remind myself that it is probably best to stay with the same setup (although none of my colleagues would be able to imagine that this is possible). So far, it has worked very well! I have to say, that the best moments in the day are when I am on the go and nobody can reach me. E-mail traffic has literally become overwhelming and I treasure those moments when I’m on my own without constant communication. Many times, I don’t even hear my phone that I carry in my bag. I then simply call people back when I’m in my office.
    Thank you so much for all the work you put into showing that there are alternatives to the current mainstream use of technology!

  17. Luke says:

    Hi Cal, your podcast leniency surprises me. I find podcasts are the ultimate solitude deprivation media. Podcasts can punctuate every moment of boredom like no other: I cannot check social media during exercise, when driving, while cooking, during a shower, mid-chore, etc. I cannot have it on my phone.

    1. Study Hacks says:

      That can be step two. Simply diminishing the constant companion nature of the phone is a good first step toward the next steps of the minimalism journey (solitude, analog alternatives, face-to-face socializing, etc.)

  18. Bishal says:

    I think I should give it a try 😉

  19. Jason says:

    I like it. I tried to think of acronyms for it:

    T-MAC: Text, maps, audio, calls
    TV-MA: Text, voice, maps, audio
    …..

  20. jameslgb says:

    I find that after my detox. I use my phone/ipad mainly for the few apps Cal listed but also the following:
    Calendar: Namely to keep track of my family and their schedules with three kids we have to have a way to track when and where to pick them up and deliver them. Paper doesn’t work as we need one unified calendar.
    Evernote: I use this much like Leonardo da Vinci used notebooks. To capture my ideas for work, or when I have a solution to a problem and I am not at my desk. I also use it as my journal.
    Fitbit: This is solely to keep me honest with myself about whether I am actually staying active. I also am using it to track my sleep because I was averaging about 6-6.5 hours and I have been able to work it up to 7+ hours.
    No games, No email, Disable Notifications, and use airplane mode and do not disturb as much as possible.

  21. Great idea, curious as to the results. While I am sure most of your students had difficulty, have you come across any students that are ‘ahead of the curve’ and either don’t use a smartphone or implement digital minimalism.

    In my uni days, digital minimalism was 8 hours in the library with a textbook, pad of paper, and a pen.

  22. Adolfo Neto says:

    This is great advice!
    I would change a little bit:

    My extended list of activities/apps:

    Call
    Text Messages
    Commuting (maps, ride-sharing, transportation timetables)
    Audio (songs/podcasts/books)
    Time (calendar, alarms, chronometer and stopwatch)
    Weather
    White/brown noise.

    https://github.com/adolfont/deepwork/blob/master/smartphones.md

  23. Katie says:

    What about camera use? I find this is the key compelling reason to have my phone always on me – having a camera in my pocket at all times. Would you suggest that’s also a distraction?

  24. Samantha says:

    Admittedly as a way of procrastinating studying, I messed with the settings on my iPhone and found a way to limit the apps available – and to prevent myself from undoing it easily.

    First, I deleted all the apps other than the ones I’d decided I needed (Messages, Phone, Google Maps, Google Photos, Spotify, and Camera). Then, using The Content & Privacy Restrictions settings under Screen Time, I disabled App Store purchases and used the Privacy and Allowed App settings to hide some of the default Apple apps that I wasn’t able to delete (including Safari, so I couldn’t get to the Internet browser).

    Lastly, I set a Screen Time passcode. If you want to prevent yourself from undoing these settings, you can have someone else set the passcode, or write it down somewhere hard to get to and forget it. I did the latter, and in fact accidentally forgot to save the file where I’d written the passcode. I think I could reset it by going to the Apple Store or calling Apple support, but for now I’m happy with my new limited phone. I’ve been more present and more productive already! As an added benefit, my phone battery lasts much longer and I haven’t had to worry about bringing a charger with me during the day.

  25. ABE says:

    I personaly have found the hack of keeping the slot machine (smart phone ) in the pocket for just an hour without betting( browsing the internet) absolutly impossible . We the addicts simply can’t resist the temptation of this monster addiction.

  26. Tim L says:

    Challenge them only to use Maps when on WiFi. I recently went to the U.K. for a vacation, and not wanting to pay the international roaming, I found the directions for where I needed to be when I had WiFi in the morning. It made the trip so much the better. I had to be a lot more thoughtful about where I was, when I should turn, etc., so I feel like I was even more immersed in my surroundings than usual.

  27. Tomer says:

    What about reading ebooks?

  28. Jeremy Hatch says:

    I would add ebooks (which I use instead of social media or news media now to kill time) and the camera. With those included, totally on board with this.

  29. ABHILASH says:

    When you recommend using a phone for text, does it include messaging apps like snapchat and whatsapp?

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  31. Shawn says:

    Hi Cal, love your insight. Yea, perhaps like you suggested to your student, I should just delete all the social media apps on my phone and only access to social media on my laptop. I need to try this out. 🙂

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