Mattias Geniar, Saturday, September 1, 2012

It feels like I'm suffering from the same "problem" that most tech-savvy people experience: the constant need to be online and respond. Whether it's a new e-mail that came in, a Facebook or Twitter notification, a new text message, ... there's always something that draws my attention away from what's happening around me and back to my smartphone or laptop.

That 960×640 pixel iPhone display is dominating me. It needs to stop. Now.

I'm already spending an unhealthy amount of time in front of a laptop, tablet or smartphone so that every time I'm away from them -- I should really be away, you know? No distractions. Nothing to pull me back in. Enjoy the non-digital life.

The last few weeks I've been able to do this better, with the help of a few little tweaks to how I work.

Disable notification sounds

Among the first things I had to disable were the notification sounds that every application on the iPhone makes by default. It's a silly thing, and I'm sure some can resist this urge, but whenever I hear that notification sound I have to check what it is.

Even if it's something meaningless as a Retweet on Twitter or a tag on Facebook, I was distracted and stopped whatever I was doing to check it. Disabling these sounds made my life, quite literally, calmer.

A cleaner homescreen

As most iPhone users, my default home-screen on the device consisted of the Twitter/Facebook app, the Mail, Phone and Messages app, the Camera and the Music player (Spotify in my case). This default layout resulted in me seeing the amount of new e-mails I had every time I would take a picture or change a song on my phone.

With every relaxing action I would normally do, such as look at pictures, use the Camera app to take new ones, change a song, browse the net, ... I would see that big Mail icon with the even bigger 'Unread Mail' counter on it. That also meant that I would open my Mail app nearly every time I unlocked the phone to see what was new.

I'm jealous of people that can leave their work on a Friday evening and never look at it again until Monday. I know I'll never be able to do that, but by simply moving those distractions away to another screen on the phone I'm able to relax more and not think of work all the time.

The left screen was my normal configuration. I would always see how many mails were awaiting me, I couldn't resist opening the Facebook or Twitter app on every notification, ... I was addicted.

The right screen is the new way to go: Mail is no longer present on the main screen, the Facebook & Twitter app have been moved back as well, notifications from work (Prowl) moved to another screen, ... Less big red numbers flashing in my eyes and distracting me.

Whenever I open my Mail app now, it's deliberate with the purpose of actually reading and replying to emails.

More structure in e-mails: Kukoo

Simply moving a few icons around helped, but only on the smartphone. I would still get all my mails on the laptop. And since I managed my appointments and contacts in the same application that also receives my mail (Outlook), it meant that whenever I opened it, I'd received all my new mails and feel at work once again.

To get a calmer mailbox with less distractions, I've been using Kukoo for around 2 months now and it's helped me tremendously. With Kukoo, I decide when mail will be delivered into my mailbox. Even if I open my Outlook to check an old e-mail or my calendar, I won't get any new mails because that's how I configured it. The mails will only be delivered when I want it.

And since I'll be reading my e-mails less, I need to alert my correspondents that would normally received a reply back within 30 minutes that it'll take a bit longer this time. For that, I have a public page that displays when I'll read my next mails: kukoo.com/mattias. It's present in my mail signature so the people I mail with know about it. For new mails that I receive, I can send an autoreply with the exact time that I'll be reading my mail again.

In the meantime? I can focus on my work or on relaxing properly once again.

1 + 1 = relax

Those 2 changes mentioned above, modifying the smartphone to be less present and using Kukoo for a more structured mailbox, have helped me a lot. I'm able to get away from my digital life more often and enjoy the real life around me.

I'm sure for some this seems like overkill or perhaps blown out of proportion, but for me these changes were a necessity. Life is busy enough as it is, you need to make time to calm down and enjoy the non-work life from time to time. :-)

Hi! My name is Mattias Geniar. I'm a Support Manager at Nucleus Hosting in Belgium, a general web geek, public speaker and podcaster. Currently working on DNS Spy. Follow me on Twitter as @mattiasgeniar.

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Paul Cobbaut Saturday, September 1, 2012 at 16:23

Is there anything useful on Twitter or Facebook ? Just disable those accounts.


    Mattias Geniar Saturday, September 1, 2012 at 19:04

    I know, I shouldn’t bother with those. But the fact remains I like both social networks, I just need to spend less time on them and choose for myself when to open them, instead of getting impulses thrown at me with notifications.


Philip Paeps Saturday, September 1, 2012 at 17:38

I strongly object to this “kukoo” thing. It reinforces the mistaken belief that email is a real-time medium. It isn’t. Why do people have their mail client open all the time? Or their web browser, for that matter?

As Paul said: there’s no value to facebook and twitter. Just dump those.


    Mattias Geniar Saturday, September 1, 2012 at 19:01

    I think it’s the other way around: Kukoo doesn’t inforce the mistaken belief that email justifies an instant response, in fact it points people to the fact email responses may take a few hours (or days, if you prefer).

    I know I’ve replied to mails in the past in under 30 minutes, and people have really grown accustomed to that. This is my way of taking a step back, and it’s working for me. :)


      Philip Paeps Sunday, September 2, 2012 at 19:07

      By instantaneously pointing people at a webpage stating that you might not reply to email immediately, you imply that instant response is the norm. That’s wrong.

      The best way to (re-)accustom people to the fact that email is a non-instantaneous service, is to not provide _any_ kind of immediate feedback.


Nikhil Sunday, September 2, 2012 at 07:00

You know, how about you just disable data on the phone?


    Philip Paeps Sunday, September 2, 2012 at 19:04

    That’s probably throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

    There is nothing intrinsically wrong with data on the phone. There is something wrong with the phone continuously checking email/nonsense for your and bothering you with it.


Matthias Sunday, September 2, 2012 at 12:48

I know the feeling! I don’t have Mail, FB,… or any of those either on the home screen of my Nexus. Same goes for notifications: I turned them off.

Last year, I kept away from FB for 45 days as an experiment. Partly because I was on consciously trying to improve my life at that time. I was amazed by how much time I got to do stuff. I felt more creative and happier just by not knowing what other people are up to all the time or getting confirmation through the number of “likes” on my status.

To me, being connected 80% of the time is more then just a “nuissance”, it’s really morale undermining at worst.


    Mattias Geniar Sunday, September 2, 2012 at 19:52

    At first, I thought being connected was a good thing – it’s only after a few years that I’ve been experiencing this as a nuissance as well. Strange, because I didn’t see this coming.

    Glad to read I’m not alone in this. :)


Gary Wilson (@earthgecko) Monday, October 22, 2012 at 17:59

Your problem is the iPhone.

it is not just a phone, it is a connected computer.

I have 2 phones a 20 Euro Bic phone and a Nokia N900.

The N900 I only use when I am travelling and need ssh (although laptop and 3G USB suffice).

My phone is a phone – it gets calls and texts. Implement good monitoring and only get texts when they are required.

In terms of “personal” life and devops, a phone should be a phone. 24 hours yes, but just a phone, calls and SMS only.

Then you are sure that you will only be distracted by your phone if there is something that needs to be addressed in your personal time.

A hard pill to swallow, perhaps.


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