In this article I’ll present how I used to organize myself, mainly using my smartphone for that, and why and how I started changing this.
On January 1st 2023 at 00:30, my Android smartphone died, and it made me realize how dependent on that device I was. I used it for many aspects of my life: to stay organized, to be informed, to be entertained, or to move around.
Luckily, at that time I was working for Purism and I had a Librem 5, that was the perfect opportunity to try it out in real conditions, as the device I depend on. I started by listing all I used my previous smartphone for, and tried to fulfill the same needs with the Librem 5. It didn’t go well. The device has some great upsides and interesting features, for sure, but the Linux smartphone ecosystem was very far from something I can depend on, especially given how much I was asking from my smartphone.
I ordered a new smartphone in mid-February 2023, and being back on Android after 1½ months not using it helped me discover things I wasn’t expecting.
Going back on Android after a forced withdrawal period helped me notice how much I was bombarded with notifications from YouTube, from Twitch, from Discord and more. Every time I need my phone to do something productive, they are there to tempt me, right from the lock screen so even looking at the clock isn’t safe.
These notifications are external unsolicited distractions that are at all time close at hand in my pocket or next to me, if not already in my hands given I need my phone for everything. Even without notifications, these distractions are right there, these apps are just a few centimeters away from the app I need to reach.
When I yield to the temptation, I end up on YouTube and its autoplay, on Twitch and its FOMO and raids, on infinitely scrolling social, or on an endless flow of short videos. The distraction is endless and it can be hard to go back to what I initially needed to do.
When I was using the Librem 5, granted I didn’t have access to these applications on my phone, but I was feeling more at peace, I was able to keep my focus on what I am doing more easily, getting things done was easier as I was less disturbed. Using an Android smartphone is like sailing on the Sea of Entertainment, having to be very careful not to fall for the haunting notifications of the sirens, at the risk of drowning in the depths of the Bay of Infinite Scrolling.
Looking for Better Oganization
A smartphone is a full package, so as long as I use one for everything, I can’t bring my calendar and to-do list with me without also bringing YouTube and Twitch along. Because they are on the same device and as I need my productivity tools to always be at hand, distractions are always at hand too. I need to find some way to not bring nagging distractions with me when I want to work, or at the very least I need to keep them away from the tools I need to work.
I decided to reduce my dependency on my smartphone, which implies fulfilling some of its use-cases with tools that don’t subject me to unsolicited distractions. The more I have other ways to do what I use my smartphone for, the less I’m likely to fall into its attention traps. Another benefit would be that if one of my tools fails, there’s only one task I can’t perform anymore. If I depend on my smartphone for everything, it’s a single point of failure and I’ll be screwed when it will inevitably fail.
If I can do things without having to bring my smartphone with me, that’d be perfect. My goal isn’t to get rid of my smartphone, but to stop depending on it for everything, as I currently don’t have the choice to not use it. Having a single device that’s just a thin and light slab that fits in a pocket is extremely comfortable, so if I replace it with many other dedicated tools, I need these to be as small, light, simple, sober, comfortable and to the point as possible. They must do one thing and do it well.
Moreover, distractions and stimulations are important as they help you recharge your batteries and to remain focused longer. I don’t want to remove distracting applications from my smartphone as they are welcome on some occasions, I do need to find ways to rest and to have fun without my smartphone. Distractions should be solicited by me, not soliciting me, and they should be either finite or easy for me to drop out to go back to work.
While I disliked the idea of depending on a Google service, I was somewhat satisfied with how I kept track of events and tasks on Google Calendar. I thought about using a planner but I never was super satisfied by them, they mostly bring bad memories from high school, but a few months ago I heard of bullet journaling, and it piqued my curiosity.
I decided to replace Google Calendar with a bullet journal. I took some base ideas from the original bullet journal method and tweaked it to better match how I was planning on Google Calendar to make the transition smoother. In practice, I dedicate half a page to the tasks I need to perform during a given week whenever I find the time for it, then I dedicate half a page for each day of the week for tasks I want to perform on a specific day. I rinse and repeat until I reached a month’s worth (so 4 or 5 weeks) and dedicate two pages for tasks that should be performed after the already written weeks, and I only add a month or two at a time.
I’ve been using this method with an 250 pages A5 hardcover notebook since the end of July 2023, it’s a bit early to judge if it worked but so far this new system isn’t much worse than the previous one. The main downside is that having to carry such a large notebook with me at all time is quite inconvenient, and I end up letting it at home when I’m going out, and even at home I tend to forget about it. If I want such a journal to replace my previous planning method, I need to make it easy to carry around at all time, even when I’m at home. I’m considering switching to an 80 pages pocket-sized journal, because I don’t need to bring a year’s worth of planning around with me, I only need to plan a few weeks ahead, and there probably are better methods to plan further ahead.
Another downside I’ve noticed is that I used to plan with time slots in mind, but now my to-dos are tied to a day. I need finer granularity and flexibility, I need to find some way to easily sort when I will perform a task and for how long, and ideally I should lay the tasks down in a graphical way that will help me get a sense of how the day will go. Without that, my days are just a mishmash of to-dos that I end up not doing at all. The good thing about bullet journals is that at heart, they just are DIY planners. I can let my system evolve as I see fit, and if I end up switching to smaller journals I will be able to make them evolve more quickly as each one should last 2 months and not a year.
Knowing the Time
Then I did something that may sound pretty straightforward as I got myself a wristwatch, but it actually wasn’t that simple as I never really liked them. Every time I saw one, either they were large, bulky and heavy, or they had an uncomfortable wristband that just made them annoying to wear, or they were littered with useless features bloating the dial, or they had virtually no notation that could make the time readable. If not all of these at once.
All I wanted is a simple, sober, small and light watch that just showed the time and did it well, which is what I ended up finding with Casio’s MQ-24 series which is priced at around 20€–25€. You can find some really sober and well designed models from Swatch too, though while they seem slightly more polished they will cost you around 60€–75€, which is a non-negligible difference.
I bought a Casio MQ-24-7B2L mid-August 2023, I’ve been using it for a week now and it turns out I like it a lot! To my surprise, I actually like wearing wristwatches, I just needed to find the right model.
Listening to Music
I use my phone to listen to music as I’m walking, biking, or working. While when listening to music on my phone when I’m walking or biking I can’t be distracted as easily by notificiations, that’s still a reason for me to bring it with me, so I’d rather have a dedicated way to listen to music.
As for the wristwatch, I want a simple, sober, small, light and long lasting device that just plays music and do it well. High end devices are large, bulky, expensive, and full of features I don’t care about, so they aren’t what I’m looking for. Low end devices tend to be pretty simple and straightforward, but they all have a display that takes space, add weight, reduces their battery life and are so low quality that you could just as well not have them. So, I started looking for small music players with no display, rapidly leading me to the iPod Shuffle series and devices inspired by it. Such devices have the added advantage of forcing me to not care about choosing what I’m listening to, letting me focus on what I’m doing.
I think my perfect device to listen to music would be similar in form and function to an iPod Shuffle G4, have a good build quality and UX, use mass storage and microSD cards, offer 20 hours of audio playback, feature VoiceOver, feature Bluetooth, use USB C (though using the 3.5mm jack is fine too), have some good color options, and have no internet connection whatsoever. No device matches all of these, and I could be satisfied with less. I found a few devices offering some of these features, but ultimately I settled for a second hand G4 as their build quality is top notch and you can find some for the price of new similar devices of lesser quality. I may have to replace its battery soonish, but they are fairly affordable and the operation doesn’t look too hard.
I’m not fond of having to use some special software to load music into the iPod, but at least there are several FLOSS options. Rhythmbox and Clementine from Flathub didn’t work, the former didn’t recognize the iPod at all and the latter couldn’t use because it wasn’t built with libgpod. Then I’ve tried this Python script which worked just fine and even supported VoiceOver, but didn’t handle the database very cleanly. Later I tried Rhythmbox from Fedora, and it let me easily handle the music on the device is a clean way, with the downside that it doesn’t support VoiceOver.
I filed the device with puzzle game music, contemplative game music, ambient music, jazz, trip-hop, electronic music… anything goes as long as it’s lyrics-free and calm to help me focus. The first two are great as they are designed specifically with focus in mind.
I ended up liking the iPod a lot. Having only purposefully chosen songs on it, coupled with its shuffle feature and it’s great design and build quality make it the perfect tool to help me focus. The music is always adapted to the situation and never distracts me, I don’t have to bother selecting a song, which means I don’t have to touch the device, a device so light and tiny I tend to forget it’s there at all! I like it so much and they are so cheap nowadays (well, if you know where to search) that I actually ordered a second one I’ll fill with energetic music that helps me focus.
Distractions, as long as they are chosen, are not only welcome but necessary to relieve stress and produce dopamine, which help remaining focused.
I used my smartphone a lot to fidget. It may sound ridiculous, but very regularly I spun my smartphone in my hands, and I juggled with it. It turns out playing with something with my hands helps me stay focused, it’s a need I was fulfilling with my smartphone only because it always was at hand. Now that I understand that, I can accept it’s a need and get myself some fidgets before I break a nearly 400€ device. Ideally, I need something small, silent, that can easily be carried around in a pocket, and that can be used with one hand only. I don’t know much about what exists, but it’s pretty easy to find affordable ones on the second hand market.
I used my smartphone to get the news and to study various topics. I could easily fulfill these use cases with newspapers and books when I’m out, and still get news from my usual online sources when I’m home or when bringing my phone with me is fine.
Looking for highly portable ways to be distracted made me remind of my old Game Boy Micro, and I decided to pick it up ad play with it. I forgot how incredibly tiny that device is, and yet it’s still very comfortable to use! Another advantage of Game Boy Advance games is that they are honnest. They don’t show ads, they don’t use psychological strategies to make you pay… they are are self-contained gaming experiences. And because they are designed for a portable system, they allow short play sessions. On top of that, flash cartridges are fairly affordable and allow to bring a few games along in a single cartridge. I don’t play games on smartphones, I don’t play video games at all actually, but I think I will really enjoy taking a habit of taking my Game Boy Micro with me. 😄
Thanks to the iPod and the watch, I’ve been able to go out a few times without bringing my smartphone with me, yet without feeling like I was missing something important. I still need my smartphone for communication, for navigation, for its camera, for its torchlight, and much more, but while having it at all with me is a risk, it’s still a lower risk than having it in my pocket. I can still carry the smartphone around in my backpack when I know I’ll need it for something or when I don’t mind risking to be distracted. So don’t think I need to replace it further, and if in the end this isn’t enough and I still get disturbed by my phone, I can just add other tools to replace some of its use cases.
Is this new organization method in search for fewer external distractions a fad, or will it stick? Only time will tell, but so far it’s pretty promising. On a more lighthearted note, now every time I need to leave, instead of having to look for a single tool that’s not too far away because I definitely used it recently, I need to look for several tools scattered all around my apartment, including the smartphone itself. 🙃 Replace “standards” with “tools” and this classic xkcd comic will perfectly describe the situation I’m in.