In praise of the dumbphone and leaving the smartphone behind forever

In praise of the dumbphone

Amanda from Counting Cathedrals, saw my recent article about how I locked my cell phone in a safe for 24 hours to escape the need for a constant dopamine hit.

Then she reached out with her own personal experience.

Amanda, who is on a quest to see a basketball game in all 350+ college arenas, has taken things several steps further than I would have ever attempted!

She hasn’t deleted social media apps off her phone. She hasn’t turned off all notifications. Nope, she has chosen to live her life with a dumbphone!

In her words, she gives us the rundown of why making this one choice one time, helps her to prevent having to make 80+ choices daily.


The conversation begins the same way. I see it coming before a word is spoken. Their eyes focus, widen slightly. Their eyebrows arch.

“Is that your phone?

Green dumbphone
Amanda’s real life dumbphone!

Yes, this little green cube is my dumbphone. From this beginning there are two usual endings: “I could never” and “I don’t want to, actually.”

“I could never” and “I don’t want to.” Hmm… Sound familiar, FI folks?

Engineering an environment for success

I have never owned a smartphone and never plan to. 

At the heart of my decision is not fear or obstinance (though I’ve plenty of those), but the creation of an environment that propels me toward who I want to be.

We’ve all tailored our environments for success. How about the standard nutrition advice we’ve all heard? Keep the cabinets stocked with healthy snacks. 

Instead of choosing every single time you’re feeling munchy whether to reach for an apple or a chocolate bar, you have made the choice once, back at the grocery store.

The choice made, the behavior to reach for a healthy snack (the only option available) is automatic (for more on developing great habits, check out Atomic Habits by James Clear).

My dad once asked me why I didn’t get a “real” phone. “You could use it for good, you know.”

He’s right, and this is what millions of people—AR included—strive admirably to do every day. 

But the fact remains that the average iPhone is unlocked 80 times a day. 

So what is the most efficient course of action? To decide 80 times a day whether to use my phone “for good,” or to decide once and never think about it again?

“I can’t” vs. “I don’t want to, actually”

These reactions manifest the discomfort of being faced with a countercultural choice.

We immediately internalize the decision, rationalize why we ourselves either can’t or don’t do the same. (Citation: every FI blogger documenting the baffled, then defensive responses of family, neighbors, and co-workers at the prospect of early retirement.)

These two reactions hinge on the two things we humans require proof of in order to make a change: need and ability. 

“I use [application] too much. I would never dream of doing without it.”

In other words, I’ve chosen this. This reaction indicates a lack of proof of need. 

To be clear, using a smartphone doesn’t make one a bad person!

The problem is that so many of us rely upon these tools fully and subconsciously, lacking agency in the relationship.

The smartphone is the messy roommate whose business sprawls forth from their room into every room of the house. Will we establish boundaries? Or will we acquiesce to the takeover in silence?

This is a highly personal choice for every person. For many, the usefulness of a smartphone is worth the effort of establishing those boundaries.

I have lots of feelings about the ubiquity of smartphones in everyday culture, along with the accompanying privacy concerns, but in this post I’ll avoid an anti-technology screed. After all, it was the screed-master communications theorist Neil Postman who wrote, “Every technology is both a burden and a blessing; not either-or, but this-and-that.”

“That must be nice. I couldn’t do it though.”

This second  commonplace reaction evidences a lack of proof of ability. The person sees the utility of the decision, but doesn’t believe they themselves could make the switch. 

So I’ll focus the remainder of this post on proving ability. And just maybe, you, too, could be the proud owner of a sexy slide phone. 

Maps/navigation

As a smartphone alternative, there are car-based devices that perform navigation tasks.

For longer trips, I prefer to write down directions by hand. I once moved 1,100 miles to Minnesota following directions written on a sheet of legal paper. It went swimmingly! 

Have I gotten lost? Now and then, absolutely.

My directions to Minnesota may have been spot-on… but they didn’t tell me where to find gas on a desolate stretch of highway in eastern Ohio. The sun was setting, the next town miles ahead yet, and I was running on fumes. 

I started to panic, imagining all that could go wrong to a solitary woman stranded on a highway at night. I called a friend—she directed me to U-turn to the last exit I’d passed, then to a gas station some five miles off the road. 

In my decade-plus of dumbphone life, this is one of the scariest things I have ever gotten into. And, it could have been avoided by not completely zoning out from Charleston to Columbus.

As for nearby destinations, I find that I learn new towns and back roads more quickly than family and friends relying on navigation tools to get around. Going this route definitely requires a curiosity about one’s surroundings and a willingness to wander.

Email

Productivity guru Cal Newport points out in Deep Work that few emails sent in the evenings can be better grappled with right then versus the following morning. If an email is truly time-sensitive, is it not worth a phone call?

Folks in certain ‘round-the-clock professions may not afford to part with their email every evening. Realtors, for instance, often require constant digital connection. There is always a personal calculus of want, need, and situation involved.

AR Note: As a former CEO, I too have struggled with email overuse. Even in early retirement I somehow ended up feeling oversubscribed and overwhelmed. So now, every few months, I try to ruthlessly audit my inbox to declutter it

Music/podcasts/entertainment

Since we sold my car with a CD-ROM drive, I have occasionally missed my music. “They never play all nine minutes of Freebird on the radio!” 

But I find a certain joy in the unpredictability of the radio. The pure ecstasy of hitting on Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me, Baby?” Divine. Playing it 50 times on repeat? Not so much.

Internet

This is the not-so-hidden culprit behind smartphone addiction. Folks aren’t driving aimlessly on the streets because they can’t stop listening to a robot woman (always a woman) tell them where to turn left. It’s the cornucopia of information and artificial connection available at our fingertips.

I am as prone to useless Internet skittering as anyone, so I won’t trivialize its allure.

Careful self-examination is essential. Why do you need Internet connection? So you can know which country has the 3rd-most miles of coastline in an instant? Cheat at trivia? Facebook-stalk the new intern? 

The Internet is undoubtedly handy. Again, one’s personal calculus of need and want must draw the boundaries that contain the messy-roommate Internet from spilling into all compartments of our lives. For me, the calculus is simple: one decision one time, not 80 a day.

The final, unforeseen benefit

The hidden benefit of having a dumphone is—humor! Seeing the horrified expression of anyone age 20 or younger upon sight of my phone is priceless. And they have plenty of fun, too—you sent off that telegram yet? 

My spouse and I regularly laugh about an elaborate vision of the future in which I present our fictional teenage child with a briefcase full of dumbphones. Motorola Razors, Blackberrys, Pantechs and more…

“All these, son… All these are for you.”

It’s not exactly the augmented-reality goggles Little Johnny had hoped for.

We all have choices

Gollum from Lord of the Rings stares lovingly at a cell phone locked away.
AR’s cell phone addiction, pictured in real life!

I cackled at this image from AR’s post about locking his phone away for 24 hours. I could be wrong, but I suspect that a dumbphone could not bring a picture like this into existence.

As with any decision, there are trade-offs. 

My little candy-colored Pantech makes some areas of my life more laborious.

But at the end of the day, I feel unencumbered by the rodent-on-a-wheel, head-swimming feeling we all experience from too much digital exposure and not enough living in the world.

Some might think of the dumbphone route as “going nuclear.” But for me, it is a decision not of severity, but of simplicity. The choice is for each of us to make.

Except for Little Johnny. He hates doing his homework on an abacus.


When Amanda and I first started chatting, we had some back and forth. My immediate reaction was that there was no way I would want to do this! 

But after reading the article and thinking about my own phone usage, (which by the way I average between 100-125 pickups a day), I have decided that this is something I would consider doing.

Based on the fact that there are plenty of articles about the best dumbphones around, I have to assume that there are A LOT of other people out there like Amanda.

What do you think? Would you consider a switch to a dumbphone too?

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12 comments

  1. While I can get most places without the Navigation my phone, the traffic updates are valuable for someone with a commute. I travel ~ 4 hours to see family for the holidays. The crash 3 hours in hadn’t happened when I left home. Having the ability to assess and adjust my route was helpful. All of this could be done with a navigation system. Having it within my phone is convenient and saves the navigation system data plan fees.
    I get the simplest phone I can, and only add a few apps. My favorite is the one for my grocery store because while it’s easy enough to do a paper list, this tells me what aisle the items are in. I’ve used to to help other shoppers find things!
    Cheers to everyone having the options of what level of smartphone and features works best for them.

    1. Yes, this is my primary reason I haven’t made this type of decision. I see the value in things like real-time navigation.

      For security, I use Authenticator for an additional level of 2fa over text messaging.

      And the biggest reason why I’m not sure I can ever ditch a smartphone is the photos. I can take higher quality photos than ever before. Many of them I have used on this site for featured photos. They are that good!

  2. I went for years without a cell phone at all – and managed to survive. Then eventually had to go to smartphone for work. Cannot wait till I retire and can go back to dumbphone – aside from work, I really only do phonecalls and texting. Even the smartphone I have is about 10 years old .

    And speaking of that- have you ever had the fun of seeing a saleperson freak out when they try to sell you a new computer and you refuse because your 10 year old computer still does everything you need – lol.

    And does anyone besides me despise the new “annual subscription” requirement now for software? I mean I only update software when my 10+ year old computer dies. Why should I have to pay for something every month forever – just let my buy a product and when it dies, I will upgrade.

    1. Haha. Yeah, I can attest that I am using a 7 year old computer and my wife uses a 10 year old one. The latter may be due for an upgrade soon, but only because the core functionality she uses it for is starting to cause abrupt crashes.

      And yes, annual subscriptions to software are great for business’ but a trap for customers. We see that with running a website. Years ago everyone made plugins and additional components for free. Now, everything is on a freemium model where the functionality you need is just beyond that paywall.

  3. I’m kind of a smartphone geek. I had smart phones long before Apple ever sold one back in the day of Palm Treo’s And Blackberry’s. And unless I’m very mistaken that Pantech is a smart phone with internet access. It’s got a full alpha numeric keyboard. It may be the worst smartphone you can buy but it still isn’t a dump phone.

    1. You’re not wrong. But I imagine having that type of phone doesn’t lend itself to wanting to actually use it for anything other than calls or texting. Certainly, nothing like the amount of push notifications and bombardments that I get in my daily life.

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