How to make your smartphone less dangerous (and become a little more human again)

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How to make your smartphone less dangerous (and become a little more human again)

Do you suffer from the following smartphone ailments?

  • The “rouse and browse.” What I call mindless morning surfing. After a handful of snoozes, you groggily fire up your phone. Social media, news, email, whatever notifications happened to come in – who knows what and who knows for how long.
  • The mindless internet wormhole. Sometimes these are kind of gratifying, like digging into the history of water infrastructure (I have strange taste). Sometimes these are not gratifying, like trying to piece together what exactly happened to Akon (I have strange taste). You never know which bullet is in the chamber.
  • “One more clip.” It’s near your bedtime and you don’t have 90 minutes to watch a feature-length on Netflix. You’re important and have a big day tomorrow. A 5-minute YouTube clip? Sure, just one. Sure – “just one.” See you in bed in 90 minutes, pal.

To minimize temptation for “tech rewards” in the mornings and evenings, I use a less powerful iPhone.

I call it my nerf phone. Because its sharpest edges have been blunted. It basically can’t hurt me. Kind of like a nerf gun.

So, I have two iPhones:

  • My “danger” phone. A late-series iPhone with a data plan. Aka, the most common personal accessory in America.
  • My “nerfed” phone. An iPhone 4S without a SIM card. And without access to “dangerous” features, like web browsers or social media apps.

The nerfed iPhone is one of the most rewarding life hacks I’ve discovered.

Sometimes, like in the mornings and evenings, I want access to helpful apps, like Sleep Cycle or Headspace or Weather. But I also have apps I don’t want access to, like YouTube or Safari.

The nerf phone gives me this.

Here’s the thing: Smartphones are hyper-powerful tools. They enjoyed widespread distribution ahead of cultural norms on how to safely handle them.

That’s just how it works. We had to overeat on convenience foods after WWII for a few decades before realizing the extent of the deal we had signed up for.

The scientific community is going to take a little while before making any sweeping declarations on what all this tech is doing to us. But a brief study of nutrition history should assure you – you don’t want to hold your breath, kid.

Luckily, I think the public is catching on to this phenomenon a bit faster than we caught on to the costs of food convenience or tobacco inhalation.

You know when you know. Long before sugar became the villain that it is, you could probably tell that an ice cream sundae (extra syrup!!!) wasn’t the best way to start your day.

Reading an analysis of President Trump’s latest pronouncements on Twitter probably isn’t either.

I estimate this will take you about 20-30 minutes to setup. You’ll receive a return on the investment within about 24 hours. All it takes is one thwarted YouTube binge before bed or an impeded “news” splurge first thing in the morning.

What’s on my nerf phone?

A nerfed phone is one that has less potential for harm.

My nerf phone:

  • Does not have a web browser
  • Does not have email
  • Does not have any social media apps

My nerf phone does have:

  • Spotify / music apps
  • iMessage
  • My to-do list app
  • Maps, Calendar, Translate
  • Meditation apps

The idea of the nerf phone is to give me access to the apps that are most helpful and useful in my day-to-day. And not give me access to apps that are counter-productive.

Using a nerf phone is like tossing out the chocolate chip cookies (or, for me, PEANUT BUTTER) stashed away in your cabinet. Out of sight, out of mind.

When and how to use a nerf phone

I use my nerf phone primarily in the mornings and evenings. These are the two times that I found I was most often seduced by my smartphone.

So, at night, sometime after dinner, I put my danger phone into this box:

An imperfect Faraday cage

A little over the top? I don’t think so.

This box serves as a potent reminder that this thing – as a fine posse of poets once said – ain’t nuthin’ to eff with.

So it goes in the cage upstairs, far away from my bed. And the goal is to keep it there through the evening and into the morning – until I feel “fit and ready” to handle it again.

What happens when you switch to a nerfed phone

The first few days, you’ll get “the itch” all the time. If you want someone to relate to, find your nearest smoker. Your brain is looking for a hit. It’s looking for its “tech reward.”

Push through this. I’m here if you need a support system.

You might do some funny things. My first few days, I woke up and like browsed the crap out of Google Maps. My brain wanted something and so it turned to this.

You’ll probably flip through all the apps that are available to you. Maybe even with a bit of desperation. And then a sense of disappointment will prevail. Nothing there to satisfy your craving.

This is OK. This is normal. I have to imagine this is like chewing a piece of low-nicotine gum.

But here’s the cool part.

You are going to smash all these bad habits basically immediately. You’ve setup your environment in such a way that you can’t hurt yourself.

Turkey is best served cold.

Trust me, the itch goes away in just a few days.

This will be a strange experience at first. You might not even know what to do with all this extra time.

During your morning coffee, you might just kind of sit there. Awkwardly. Not sure what to do with your hands. Or your eyes. Or your mind.

Know that this is normal. That weird sensation emerging in your body? It’s probably calm. Just look out the window. There you go. Freedom.

Congratulations, you just traded a little bit of hyper-connected android for a little bit of human.

And here’s the coolest part. Once you break these bad habits, they stay broken.

My danger phone is no longer as dangerous for me. I now feel trained to handle it.

I’ve traveled extensively without my nerf phone and not had any relapses.

I find at sensitive hours, I’m more or less trained to use my danger phone just like my nerf phone.


How to make a nerf phone

The process, briefly

These instructions are for an iPhone. I have to imagine there are similar steps to take on Android. It might even be easier to pull off.

You’re going to leverage the Parental Controls feature of iPhone to nerf your phone. Yes, your forward-thinking rational self will be treating your groggy-before-that-first-cup self like a child.

Here’s the gist:

  1. You’ll setup a new, clean phone.
  2. You’ll brainstorm what apps you’d like to still have access to on your nerfed phone. I’ve created a handy checklist. You’ll then install all these white-listed apps on your phone.
  3. You’ll setup Parental Control on this device, with a passcode. You’ll have Parental Control disable Safari. Importantly, you’ll also disable installing new apps, so even in your most desperate moments you can’t hurt yourself.

If you have an old iPhone ready to go, this process should take less than 30 minutes. And, again, you’ll see a return on that investment in less than 24 hours.

The process, in detail

If you want more hand-holding / details, follow this little guide.

1. Setup a new, clean phone

If you live in America, there are old iPhones tucked into drawers across the expanse of your neighborhood. If you don’t live in America, yes, it’s true, the streets are paved with Jony Ive’s brushed, space-gray aluminum alloy.

If your drawers turn up empty, make a couple phone calls to neighbors or send a few Slacks or emails to your coworkers. It will be like shaking a lemon tree in the springtime. Watch your head.

It’s probably easiest to just follow the steps to completely wipe this phone. If you’re getting the phone from friend/family, have them follow these steps. That way no nefarious apps sneak by our filter.

Note that if you reset/restore an iPhone, you’ll likely need a SIM card to activate it. This is just for activation and not required after activation. You can pop out and use your current active SIM card to do so.

2. Install your white-listed apps

Now you need to decide which apps will be deemed “safe” for your nerf phone. Here are some categories to get your brain jogging:

  • Food or exercise trackers (like MyFitnessPal)
  • Music (like Spotify)
  • To-do list apps (like OmniFocus or 2Do)
  • Meditation (like Headspace)
  • Password managers (like 1Password and Authy)
  • Alarm clock apps (like Sleep Cycle)
  • Habit or habit trackers (like Way of Life)
  • Messaging apps (like FB Messenger – thank god they split this from the main app!)
  • Journaling apps (like Day One)
  • Weather apps (like NOAA)
  • Maps (like Google Maps)
  • Calendar (like Google Calendar)
  • Live in a foreign country? You’ll want language apps (like Google Translate or language dictionaries)

I’m probably missing some big categories. Flip through your current phone, see what you have installed, and ask yourself: Is this an app that has the potential to be a time sink? Do I often regret the amount of time I spend in this app? Does using this app generally help or hurt me?

Our lists will probably be different. For instance, I have no issues with going deep browsing Spotify or Soundcloud. But maybe you often lose a lot of time here. You might need to consider this.

For me, one difficult call I had to make: My podcasting app. I ultimately decided that I was OK with audiobooks on my nerf phone. But that podcasts were just a bit more dangerous. I find they can send me down wormholes that derail my focus.

But that’s me and may not be you.

If you use a password manager, having this on your nerf phone is key. You’ll need it to sign in to all of your other apps.

Now that you have your list, install!

3. Setup parental controls

Your phone should now be in a pristine, nerfed state. You have the safe apps that you want available to you. And aside from Safari, you don’t have anything dangerous. (We’ll get to Safari in a moment)

Time to freeze your phone in this neutered state.

Parental controls allows you to enable certain restrictions, like disabling web browsing. You’ll lock in these restrictions with a passcode.

For the passcode, you have three options:

  1. Generate a random passcode, trying not to memorize it 1It’s funny how much easier it is to remember a string of numbers when you’re trying not to remember a string of numbers. Write it down and stash it somewhere relatively inaccessible.
  2. Turn the passcode over to a loved and trusted one.
  3. Hammer in a bunch of numbers without really looking, fully turning your phone over to the ownership of no man.

If you are considering #3, 👏. But keep one thing in mind. You may decide in the future – in a sober, alert state – that you’d like to let another app past the gate. Without the passcode, you will have to do a complete wipe and restore and follow all these steps from square one.

This might not be a bad thing. It adds a lot of friction, and we want friction here.

Here are the steps:

  1. On the phone you’re nerfing, open “Settings.”
  2. Go to “General > Restrictions”
  4. At a minimum, disable “Safari” and “Installing Apps”

Your phone is ready. You got rid of the last dangerous app. And the ability to add other dangerous apps in the future.

Now what?


Maybe just sit there for a little while.

Have a physical location where your danger phone hibernates

I strongly recommend you have a specific, physical location where your danger phone resides when you don’t want to use it. This makes the ceremonial habit of stowing it away even easier to stick.

Remember: Don’t sweat if you break down. Don’t worry if you forget to make the swap. The fact that you now have the option to use a nerf phone – if even irregularly – is a huge life upgrade.

Looking forward to hearing how it went. Just remember – messages composed on your nerf phone won’t make it very far.