in: Advice, Character, Podcast

• Last updated: April 10, 2024

Podcast #979: How to Create a Distraction-Free Phone

Jake Knapp loves tech. He grew up using Apple II and then Mac computers, browsing bulletin boards, and making his own games. As an adult, he worked at Microsoft on the Encarta CD-ROM, before being hired by Google, where he worked on Gmail, co-founded Google Meet, and created Google Ventures’ Design Sprint process. Today, he’s a venture capitalist and consultant for start-ups, as well as a writer.

But, if Jake was an early adopter and booster of the upsides of technology, he was also early in sensing its not-so-positive side effects. Twelve years ago, unhappy with the pull his smartphone was exerting on him, he decided to curb its distractions. He continues to use this distraction-free phone today.

Today on the show, I talk to Jake about what motivated him to change his relationship with his phone over a decade ago and what steps he took to do so, including how and why he lives life without a web browser or email app on his phone. We get into what realizations about work and life Jake’s gotten from having a distraction-free phone, why he doesn’t think using tools like Screen Time or a dumbphone are always the best solutions to reducing the phone itch, and how he also cuts down on distractions on his desktop computer.

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. Jake Knapp loves tech. He grew up using Apple II and then Mac computers, browsing bulletin boards, and making his own games. As an adult, he worked at Microsoft on the Encarta CD-ROM before being hired by Google, where he worked on Gmail, co-founded Google Meet, and created Google Ventures’ Design Sprint process. Today, he’s a venture capitalist and consultant for startups, as well as a writer. Today on the show, I talk to Jake about what motivated him to change his relationship with his phone over a decade ago and what steps he took to do so, including how and why he lives life without a web browser or email app on his phone. We get into what realizations about work and life Jake has gotten from having a distraction-free phone, why he doesn’t think using tools like Screen Time or a dumb phone are always the best solutions to reducing the phone itch, and how he also cuts down on distractions on his desktop computer. After the show is over, check out our show notes at

All right. Jake Knapp, welcome to the show.

Jake Knapp: Hey, thanks for having me, Brett.

Brett McKay: So several years ago, we had your co-author of your book ‘Make Time’, on the podcast to discuss how we can make time for what really matters in our lives. And one aspect that you guys talk about in that book is spending less time on our smartphone. And you’re an expert in this because 12 years ago, you were an early adopter of trying to reduce screen time on your phone, you set out to make your phone, your iPhone, distraction-free. 12 years ago, that’s a long time in internet time, and things have changed a lot since then. There’s a lot more to be distracted by for sure. Back in 2012, what were the biggest distractors on your iPhone?

Jake Knapp: Well, in 2012, there was still a lot of the heavyweights of distraction, existed that early. I think there was Facebook, there was Instagram. And then for me, some of the real killers were email and just Safari. Just the web browser is a big distraction for me. So, all of those big ones existed even back then. There were games on the phone back then. Those distracted me. The news is a big one. So, a whole host of things.

Brett McKay: Okay. So, Facebook, Instagram, just surfing the web on Safari. So, it wasn’t the… Remember the beer app? I remember when the iPhone first came out, it had all those silly apps where you can like pour yourself a glass of beer.

Jake Knapp: [laughter] I don’t remember that one, but I do, I mean, I think there was a proliferation right at the beginning of just, people were trying to figure out like, what’s this thing for? What can we do with this? And so then I think a big thing that happened was that to me was starting off using the iPhone. I didn’t really think about what I wanted to use it for. I didn’t really think about what problem it was gonna solve. I was just like, “Oh man, that thing, looks really cool. Oh, it’s an iPod and it’s a phone. Great.” And then I got one and then I just started anything that came out. I was like, yeah, I wanna try that. Sure, I’ll try that. I’ll put that. Facebook is a new thing, I’ll try that, I’ll put that on there. All these things came out and I would just say yes by default. And so as time went by, we got to 2012, there was a lot on there. There was a lot of things that would catch my attention.

Brett McKay: Was there a moment you realized that your phone was causing problems in your life?

Jake Knapp: There was. There was a very specific moment. I was at home. And I’m a person who for a long time had been interested in being really efficient with my time and trying to get my work done at work if possible or just get through everything so that I could spend time with my kids. So, I have a 20-year-old now. So, if we rewind to 2012, he was, I guess eight or nine. And then we had a baby who was around one at that time. And I really wanted to spend quality time with them. So, I wanted to be really efficient when I was at work and get home before they went to bed, before dinner. And so I can remember being at home and having gotten done with the workday and being on the floor in the living room playing with wooden trains, like BRIO trains with the boys. And we’re playing trains and I hear this voice and I’m kind of like, what? And I realized it’s my son and he’s saying like, “Hey, hey dad, what’s on your phone?” And I was like, oh, I didn’t even realize I’d been holding my phone at the time. I’m just like, by reflex, like Frodo reaching in his pocket to pull out the ring. I had pulled out the phone and I was looking at something and I was like, oh, it’s work stuff.

I was defensive. And I realized that he wasn’t even criticizing me. He’s just like, oh, here we are playing wooden trains together. This is the most fun thing in the world. Why would you… If you’re doing something on your phone, it must be really great. It must be really interesting. Maybe I can see it too. And in that moment, it just kind of occurred to me that I had this memory from when I was a kid of what it was like doing things with my dad, and of course, back then, there were no smartphones. There was no internet. When my dad was home from work, he was just home. I grew up on a farm. We would be out on the farm mending a fence or something. That was like 100% what we were doing. And I had always wanted when I had kids to have moments and times with them. Like I remember having with my dad, it was really just the two of us and maybe we weren’t talking that much, but we were just there. We’re just present. We’re just there. And it just occurred to me in that moment how different the moment I was having with my kids was than what I had grown up with, and I thought, this is crazy.

And in frustration in that moment, I started deleting apps off of the phone. A wiser person might have looked inward and tried to change something about them, but I was just holding the phone, and I got angry at the phone, and I started deleting. And I just started deleting anything that… It just, everything clicked in there. Hey, there’s all these things that they’re pulling at me, even when I’m not actively using the phone. I don’t actively have an idea of something that I wanna do. They’re just kind of pulling me in. And so I went after anything that did that.

Brett McKay: Okay. So, the phone wasn’t allowing you to be present with your kids or with your family, with the things that really matter to you. Besides that, did you notice anything else about the phone and how it was affecting how you were thinking or how you approached life?

Jake Knapp: Yeah, I would describe it as a kind of a tug that the phone creates. And it’s this notion that my co-author, John Zeratsky, he describes this as infinity pools. It’s like anything that has a potentially infinite amount of new stuff in it, anything that at any time of day, there might be a new email at any time of day. Or if you use Facebook or Instagram or TikTok, whatever, there’s something new on there at any time of day. There’s a new news story. There’s like a breaking news at every time of day. Somewhere on the internet, there’s something new at any time of day. So, anything where there’s a bottomless pit of new stuff, there’s always gonna be something new. Those things, they create this tug on my attention. There’s some kind of pull at any time if the threshold of my interest on whatever’s going on in the real world dips below a certain level, then instead of dipping down and getting into like boredom mode, just like chill out mode or whatever, my brain is like, oh man, there’s probably something new on the phone. And I mean, this is not some novel insight. I think lots of people have talked about this.

Everyone probably knows about this, but that tug, I just started to recognize how that tug was affecting my attention at all times, whether I was with my kids or at work or whatever. Like I was just never getting down into that, that more calm, chill brain mode, the boredom, like boredom didn’t have to be an option anymore. There’s always the tug when boredom or quiet started to creep in. And once I had kind of noticed that and realized like, that’s actually an unpleasant feeling, it feels sort of pleasant. It’s sort of an excitement like, oh, maybe there’s this new thing, right? Maybe this new thing is gonna make me feel good. And because sometimes it does. Sometimes there’s an email that makes me feel good. Sometimes there’s some new thing on social media or some news story that’s interesting or whatever. And it makes me feel on top of things or it makes me feel flattered or it makes me feel engaged or important or whatever. But I also recognize that the flip side of that was that, the tug, that feeling was really unpleasant. And I know you had… Cal Newport was on the show a couple episodes ago. Yeah.

And he’s… I mean, I’m a big admirer of his work and he highlighted the work of this researcher from the University of Washington who she phrased this, I think, attention residue. And it’s like when something… You’re working on something or you’re doing something and then you go do another task, but the first thing kind of sticks in your head and distracts you a little bit. And so I realized like, man, if I’m gonna be doing my highest quality work or if I’m gonna be spending the highest quality with my family or my kids, that attention residue, that tug from the phone, it’s in direct opposition to that. It’s hurting my ability to be at my best and whatever definition of my best might be in other venues.

Brett McKay: So, you had that moment 12 years ago, you’re with your kids playing trains and you realized this thing in my pocket is preventing me from being present with them. So, you deleted all these apps. Which apps did you delete from your phone? And then which ones did you keep?

Jake Knapp: Yeah, okay. So I deleted… I started off the easy ones I think to delete. And I think the ones that people… Like most people when… ‘Cause people will talk to me about this and they’re like, what’s wrong with you? What’s your problem? You know, so, but most people will say, okay, like Facebook and Instagram, I get it, right? Like that’s… Lots of people have that feeling that sometimes it’s not a good feeling to use those. So, those were the first ones. And then I had some games on my phone at that time. I think one that I think was from that era, ’cause I’ll admit, since 2012, I’ll sometimes put a game on my phone. It’s not like I’m like I’ve just walked the complete straight and narrow since then. So, I think it was Golden Axe. Do you remember Golden Axe was like a game from the… The late ’80s or ’90s. It was on the Sega Genesis.

Brett McKay: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Jake Knapp: Yeah, yeah. Anyway, there was like an emulator game version of that on the iPhone. I think I had that. I think I probably had like, I don’t know, like CNN and ESPN or something like that. It’s a little hard for me to remember in 2012 what was an app versus what was like, you’d go to Safari to see. But ESPN has always been, I’m a football fan. That’s always been a big infinity pool for me. And then Twitter would be another one. But then also things like LinkedIn. That’s another one where, do I really need to access LinkedIn 24 hours a day right in my pocket? Probably not. So, it was things like that. But then the next wave I realized that was a little bit more insidious was like email, especially for me, having worked on the Gmail team for years. And I was like, man, it doesn’t actually do… I could go on for a long time talking about the email on the phone. It’s not a good experience, for me at least, because I will read the emails, I’ll see that there’s new stuff, and then there’s this momentary feeling of like, okay, good, I’m on top of things, I know what’s in the inbox. But the downside is I personally, I can’t really compose a good email on the phone.

Like I might be able to, there’s maybe some category of email that I can answer and I can do an all right job, but I just mentally, like I need a keyboard to write a decent email. And I try to do as little email as I can, but do what I do well. I try to do something that maybe, maybe Cal Newport would be proud of. I can’t do that on the phone. And so what happens is I’m just activating the stress of here’s this open loop and I can’t close it. So, email on the phone to me is a disaster. So, I deleted email. That was a little painful. And then I realized Safari, you can’t delete it. But I realized that it became a problem once I deleted everything else. I can just go to Safari. I can sign into my email there. I can look at the news there, whatever. But I realize you can go into settings and if you like dig through settings, you can disable Safari. So, yeah. And then, I mean, at that point, there was still, the thing is, you take all those away, there’s still some really good stuff on there.

Brett McKay: So, what did you leave on there?

Jake Knapp: Yeah. So, I mean, just like starting with the basics, like imagine you go back to 2007, Steve Jobs is introducing the iPhone. He said, today we’re introducing three devices. It’s a new iPod, a new phone, and a new like internet device. It’s three devices. And he was like, you see what’s going on here? It’s one thing. And the iPod part of that, if you’re old enough to remember, like when iPods existed and smartphones did not exist, iPods were amazing. They were so great. And it sounds very like, I don’t know. Maybe I just sound like an old man to say that now, but like, it was so cool to be able to play any music you wanted on your phone. And then now with like the streaming services to really literally be able to play anything that is magical. I just think that’s so cool. So, that alone is a huge deal. To have a phone that’s also an iPod, I still think that’s fantastic. So of course, music is a keeper. Podcasts is a keeper.

I mean, podcasts is great. And I do think there are times when I’ve noticed that even like listening to podcasts when I’m on a walk or on a run or whatever, there are times when I’m served better by not doing it, by not listening to music, by having quiet, because having that quiet and that time to just let the mind be off is quite valuable. But podcasts also many times like they just they bring great joy and like interesting ideas into my life, so podcast is a good one and not an infinity pool. It’s not a thing where I’m like gonna be playing with my kids or needing to do something important but hard to do at work and I’m gonna be like, oh I’m gonna browse through the podcast app that’s just at least for me that’s not that big of a pull. What else? Maps. Maps is amazing. Whether you use Google Maps, Apple Maps, whatever. Like the maps app is a very magical thing. And we’re starting to talk about like a series of things, the music whatever you use Spotify music whatever podcasts the maps the camera on the phone is amazing.

A category of things where I just think if I was a kid, if I rewind to being a kid in like the ’80s who was really into science fiction and you described this thing that you could hold in your… You just have it in your pocket and it’s got these… It can do these things. I would have been like, oh my God, that’s so futuristic. That’s so cool. I can’t wait to live in that future where that thing exists. And so all of those things meet the bar for like a cool future where this feels like this magical tool from the future.

Brett McKay: Well, you actually keep the apps that you’ve kept on your phone. The ones that seem like magical tools from the future, you keep them in a folder called the Future.

Jake Knapp: Yeah, I do. I do. Now it’s, I used to be really organized about having the new apps would go in the Future folder. And then at some point, I don’t know, two or three years ago, iOS changed and you could just remove an app from the home screen. It would disappear. And then if you want it, you could search for it. So now I still keep like a very small set of apps visible. But rather than filing them in the Future, I just… I’ve gotten a little bit lazy. And I just remove them from the home screen and then I search for them if I want them. I will say that that laziness has cost me something because there was a really nice moment when I would try out an app and then decide, ’cause I only allow myself to have apps on the top row of the phone. I’m sorry, this is like full-on nerdery. But if I open my phone, the home screen has no apps on it at all. It’s just a blank screen. Which is just kind of, I don’t know. It’s just like I take a breath when I see that. Do I really have something I want to do here?

It just sort of, I feel like a little bit less tension and stress than opening the phone and having like a million apps. And then as I swipe through the screens, there’s just like one row of apps on the top. And I have four on the first screen, three on the second, two on the third, and then one on the last one. So, it’s just like there’s fewer and fewer and fewer. And this is all just stuff that I just do to try to make it less stressful and less grabby for me to use the phone.

Brett McKay: Okay. So, the apps you do keep, you’ll keep them if they have a wow factor, it provides a lot of value to your life and it doesn’t have that tug. Like you don’t feel that need to necessarily just constantly check it.

Jake Knapp: Exactly. Yeah, yeah. I’ll keep it if there’s a utility to it that’s really powerful. Like 1Password is an app that I think is great and very useful. The Notes app, the Weather app, these are ones that make the cut to be still on the home screen. Like I want to be able to access them that easily. But a lot of things I wanna maybe have to dig for them to find them. But anyway, when I had this Future folder, this folder of things called the Future, there was this really nice moment where if I’ve added something new and I’m like, okay, does it make the cut to be in that top row? And there’s only, let’s see, four plus three is seven plus two plus one. So, there’s only 10 slots there. Does it make it into the top 10? Now, if not, does it make it into the Future? Am I saying like this is one of those kinds of apps that makes me feel like I’ve got this magical futuristic device in my pocket? And that was kind of a helpful little guideline for me for a while. I’d like to think that I’ve kind of internalized it. And so it’s okay for me to just remove it. The reality might be I just got lazy. But that’s my mental framework for what something should do for me on the phone.

Brett McKay: So, like you said getting rid of social media news apps, that’s like a no brainer. I think a lot of people who want to make their phone distraction free, they just don’t have that stuff on their phone. I want to dig more into the email and the web browser, which I think a lot of people might hear that it’s like, “How can you function without having your email or a web browser on your phone?” I am like you. I do not like writing emails on my phone. And I find that I very rarely respond to emails on my phone, but I will say that the email app is useful because it’s a resource of information. Particularly when I’m traveling, it’s extremely useful. So, like when I’m traveling, I can just pull up my airline reservation, the hotel, the car rental reservations and boom, I’m done. How do you handle that? How do you like handle that sort of thing when you’re traveling, for example, an email would be good to have, but you don’t have email on your phone.

Jake Knapp: Totally. I just got back from a trip, so I can speak from experience like yesterday. First of all, I should say if I haven’t made it clear already, like some of this stuff, it may be a Jake problem and not an everybody problem. I know that I have a harder time with getting distracted than some folks. So, for some people I’m certainly open to the idea that if you or a listener is thinking, “Oh, email doesn’t bother me. I really have thought about it. I’m okay with it.” You know that’s… I totally accept that that can be true. But for me, there’s this really unpleasant feeling that I recognized after having it on there for years, I recognize there’s this unpleasant feeling about it being on there.

And so if I’m on a trip, first of all, over time, more and more things you don’t need the email app for I found, which is handy, because basically what I’ll do is I’ll install email and then uninstall it. So, I’ll just like when I need it, I’ll just download it. And it doesn’t take too long. Our internet connections are pretty fast if you’re traveling in cities, like it’s pretty much a snap to download email. I sign in and then I check what I need to check. And sometimes I’ll even keep it on for a day, on my travel day or keep it on. I’ve sometimes put it on ’cause I’m like, I’m going to be on the plane. I have a bunch of email I need to process.

The best way for me to do that is to do it on my phone. I often tell myself that, usually it doesn’t work out that well. I think it’s going to be really efficient, effective way to process email. And then everything I just said earlier happens and I’m like, “Oh yeah, it’s just stressful for me to look at it in this way. I can’t really reply.” But things like the airplane reservations, usually nowadays the airline app is gonna be better than the email app for giving me the information about my flight. Or if I just bookmark where the hotel is on maps, that’s gonna be the best way for me to get there. In the early days of using a smartphone before there was Uber, before every airline had like a decent enough app. Yeah. Like I definitely needed the email thing.

And sometimes what I used to do was collect the relevant stuff and paste it into the notes app. But nowadays, I don’t think I have to be super religious about having things off the phone at all times. I just install it. And then at this point, I’m so familiar with the tone of the negative feeling that I get from having email on the phone that I want to delete it as soon as possible. And as soon as I delete it, there’s this feeling of like just a moment of relaxation. I can feel the release in my brain from that tug.

Brett McKay: So, I like that. So, only install it when you need it, delete it when you don’t need it. I think that’s a really a good idea. I might try that out myself actually. What about the web browser? I think a lot of people who will be listening is like, “Well, web browser can come in handy if you’re out and about and you want to find out if a restaurant is open or what’s a good restaurant to go eat at tonight.” Like how do you manage that without a web browser on your phone?

Jake Knapp: I found that most things that I really need to know that are time sensitive or location sensitive can be discovered with a purpose-built app that doesn’t come along with everything that might distract me. So the web browser itself, like you can do anything with the web browser. You could go anywhere. It’s a news app. It’s an email app. It’s everything. But like in maps, if you have disabled Safari on your phone and you open up Google Maps or Apple Maps and you say, “Hey, okay, I need to go. I’m curious about this restaurant. I’m going to search for restaurants near me or whatever,” whatever tool you use to find those Yelp or whatever. But if you want to go to the restaurant’s actual webpage, because Safari is like built into the OS, it’ll still open up the webpage within the maps app.

You can still see it. I just can’t open up like pure unlocked Safari. I can just get like that one view of the webpage. And that was a really big discovery for me. Like, “Oh man, I can still see things via maps.” because a lot of these things I’m like, I realized I was trying to talk myself into, I need this app. Like a lot of the ways that I buy a gadget or when I first adopted the iPhone, when I get a new iPhone, I’m trying to talk myself into doing it. ‘Cause like I want the new shiny thing. So I’m trying to talk myself into, no, I really need this. And the same thing happens with the app. It’s like I want to talk myself into, I need the web browser on now. I can handle it and it’s really helpful for these situations.

And then I realized like a lot of those arguments don’t hold up because the purpose-built app will solve it for me. It’s another one too though, where when there is a situation where, man, I really do need to know this thing, maybe I’m going to like some kind of a event at a theater, like a concert or whatever. And I got to get something from the venue and I can’t get it through Maps. Maps is, I mean, actually that one, Maps probably would work because it would probably lead me to theater, but let’s just say, well, I can, it’s the same thing as we were talking about with email. I can enable the browser, do the thing, and then disable the browser afterwards.

It’s not that big of a deal. It’s a little bit of a hassle to go through and do it, which is helpful most of the time ’cause it just creates this barrier. So, I’m not gonna do it on autopilot. I’m not gonna do it without thinking to look something up for just to distract myself. So, I don’t feel boredom. I’m going to do it only when I really motivated to do it. And you know, then it takes, maybe it takes 30 seconds to dig through settings and turn it on, do the thing. And then I just, I turn it off again. And the value always comes from turning it off. I’ve had a lot of people make fun of me about this. Some friends make fun of me about having my phone this way. And my wife for the longest time, she was like, “Oh my God.” Rolling her eyes.

And she authorized me to say that she came around, like I’ve had friends who came around and they’re eventually like, “Okay, you know what? Actually, something was going on and it kind of bugged me. I’m going to try it. I’m going to disable the apps. I’m going to disable the browser. I’m going to turn off email.” And then they feel the feeling. The feeling is so powerful when those things are off. It’s so good. It’s just like you’re reading and you can’t quite see and somebody turns the light on and everything gets a little brighter. And once you feel that feeling, you want to feel it again. And so then you want to turn the browser off after you’re done using it.

Brett McKay: We’re going to take a quick break for a word from our sponsors. And now back to the show, how has your life changed since creating your distraction free phone? Or has it brought you to any realizations?

Jake Knapp: Yeah. The spread of the smartphone and sort of the smartphone ramping up because it wasn’t all that distracting at first. It really kind of took a while for these really sticky apps to be developed. All that happened in the same period of time that I was thinking a lot about how I did my work and recognize that when I was working on Gmail, when I was working on this project that grew and became Google Meet that most of the time at work, essentially like nothing, all that important was happening. So, a lot of meetings, a lot of emails, a lot of chats, a lot of noise that felt like it was productive, but wasn’t really accomplishing anything.

And again, like if people want to listen to your interview with Cal Newport, like they’re going to hear a really more eloquent description of this state of affairs than I can give. But I was starting in my own work to recognize that problem. And my solution had been this design sprint process that I created around 2009, 2010, where it’s like, okay, for a week as a team, we’re gonna clear everything off of our calendars. We’re gonna stop using email. We’re gonna close our laptops. We’re just gonna focus on solving this problem. And when you did that, you got a team of people together, you put some structure around it and you shut off all the work distractions and you just said, we’re just doing one thing, it was amazing what we could accomplish.

We could prototype a new product and test it by the end of the week because we were all focused on the same thing and not changing contexts all the time and not trying to be responsive and not going to all these meetings. And so I had woken up to this idea that I’ve got to have big blocks of time, either as a team or be as an individual. I have to have these big uninterrupted blocks of time and I have to sort of allow myself to get behind on all of this, this sort of endless hamster wheel of email meetings, project requests, all these things. I have to let myself say no. And what that stuff stack up, let the email inbox not be empty let it, let it get full. And that’s just… There’s discomfort there. It’s an uncomfortable feeling, but I had to let that happen if the really good stuff was going to happen.

And so this had been going on in my work and in my thought process around the time then that I had this moment of insight with my kids, with the phone. And I recognized that the phone was just a really powerful incarnation of that hamster wheel that was always in my pocket, always with me. And in the… Cal was describing how part of our motivation for trying to respond to every email, trying to say yes to every request, trying to attend every meeting, part of that motivation is that we know on some level, like that’s how we’re being evaluated or judged in our work. And I think that’s true. I also think there’s just a very fundamental desire that we have to be helpful, helpful to our colleagues, helpful to other people.

And the most obvious way to be helpful is to say yes, it’s to say yes, let me respond to you as fast as I can. I want to be helpful. You want to invite me to that email? Yes, I want to be there for you. I want to, I want to help. I want to be a part of things. The most obvious ways to help are everywhere. The email is easy to do. The meetings are easy to go to. It’s easy to say yes to a project before you have to actually do it. And the harder path is clearing the time, digging into hard problems, thinking them through, that stuff it’s a harder way to go. And if there’s easier off ramps from that highway, if I can get off of that highway and go to the fast food restaurant of email, like I’m going to do that, that’s easier.

And so anyway, all of this sort of led to this notion that the phone is this constant off ramp from the things that I ought to be doing if I really want to do high value, high impact work. And that’s something I had realized in my career around the same time that smartphones got super sticky.

Brett McKay: All right. So, getting rid of the distractions in your phone allow you to do more of the important things with your work. How did it affect your personal life? ‘Cause in my experience, when I’ve had… I’ve gone through various… I’m a backslider. Like I’ll have these periods where I’m like, “Oh yeah, I’m going to not be distracted on my phone.” Then I fall off the wagon. But in those periods where I’m not on my phone all the time or constantly connected to social media or whatever, I just noticed in my personal life, I’m less stressed out. And I think it’s because I’m just not… There’s like less to think about. Like I’m not thinking about, “Oh, here’s this dumb tweet I read and I’m angry about it.” And even though I’m not doing anything about it, it’s just, it’s like an impotent anger. When I don’t have that on my bandwidth, I feel much more copacetic.

Jake Knapp: Totally. Totally. There’s just this… We who grew up before social media, before smartphones, I even grew up like it’s definitely a big part of my life that’s really before email. And I remember how much complexity was in my head about the world, about the social scene my friends that I’m really, I’m talking about when I’m in like elementary and middle school, it was like before email, but there was just a limit to how much your brain could really walk onto and be aware of and deal with. It’s just like, it had to be people who were there or like maybe I’d send letters to my grandma who lived in Mississippi, but there wasn’t room in my head for like everything all the time, everyone in the world all the time. And the challenge with email and phones and social media and constantly available news is that now the surface area for what I might potentially be able to keep up on and stay connected with, it’s just way more than my brain is wired for anyway.

I just can’t do a good job. And so that’s a constant stress. If I have this feeling that there’s an expectation that I’m going to be up to speed and really maintaining a good connection with all of these people, all of these topics, all of these things, well, I just can’t do it. It’s overload. And that’s constant stress. When I made this switch, I did it because I just, I felt I couldn’t handle it. This is just too much for me. It’s not serving me well. It’s hurting me at work. It’s definitely hurting my experience with the people I care most about in the world, like my kids, my wife. And so I said, “I’ve got to do it.” And then what happened was there were a bunch of like kind of painful maybe like renegotiations that I had to do. Like I had to say to people at work who had maybe come to expect that I would respond to emails at any time, I had to set my email signature to, “Hey, I’m only checking email twice a day.”

And that was really powerful because then all of a sudden I knew that they knew that I might be slower to reply. And I think this is a… Looking back on it, I’m like, “Yeah, that’s a… ” It was a really powerful thing because I think I actually had much higher expectations for myself about how fast I would reply than other people did. I think in general, I think it’s true that we’re more forgiving of other people than of ourselves, that we hold ourselves to a higher standard for how fast we’re going to reply, how much we’re going to stay up on everything. When somebody else isn’t on top of things all the time, I just think like, “Yeah, of course. I mean, they’ve got things going on, maybe there’s other important stuff going on in their life.” But that was a big one for me.

So, one of the renegotiations was just the email signature that said I’m only checking email twice a day. And then the ones that were a little bit harder to do was saying goodbye to Facebook and Instagram and this notion that I’m gonna keep up with all those people. And so a lot of those… There’s people in my life who like I care about. And if you’re on Facebook or maybe if you’re spending a greater portion of your time on email, maybe you can keep up with those people a bit more. But the quality… I found, the quality of those relationships, those relationships that are maintained via Facebook or those relationships that are maintained via I’m gonna squeeze in a few more emails and get those social emails off, they come at a cost and I was trading a very like low bandwidth connection with somebody for more time to spend on the higher bandwidth connections.

And sometimes you’ll see these findings where they interview people who are at the end of their lives about what do they regret? And I remember reading one that talked about someone who had a terminal cancer diagnosis and they had six months to live. And I think this guy said he made a plan for… He drew circles and like in the inner circle were his wife, his kids and the next circle out were close friends and then the farthest circle out were friends. But and he said, “Okay. Here’s how I’m going to divide up my time over the six months. I’m going to start with the outer circle and then kind of work my way in.” And he realized after a month or two, he was spending way too much time on the outer circle.

He just only wanted to spend as much time as possible on the inner circle. And the lesson I think from that was like, we can always gain so much value from investing more on the inner circle of our relationships. And I think that means the people who we see in person every day, and sometimes there’s a person who’s not in person, but they’re very high value. They’re in the inner circle. And the same, I think is true of our work. Certainly for me, the highest value came from doubling, tripling, quadrupling, quintupling down on the very few, like the one effort that’s at the center of that circle and allowing myself to not do well at the outer circles. And so that shift had to happen as part of not being connected to everything and breaking with the way society was going and everybody else was going. That was hard. There’s a pain to letting those things kind of drift away that are in the outer circles. I can’t tell you there wasn’t pain with that. But for me, the benefit of being able to put more into the inner circles has been worth it.

Brett McKay: Okay. So, if someone wants to make a distraction free phone, delete social media apps, the news apps, any app that has a tug and that might include email and disabling your web browser. And there’s different… So, you can do it on your iPhone. I think there’s a way you can do this on Android, correct? Just get rid of the browser.

Jake Knapp: I think so. I don’t have an Android phone and there certainly was a way to do this a couple of years ago. It’s if you look it up I think, and actually the web browser one is kind of tricky because like right now on my phone, it doesn’t work. And this is I think just evidence that it’s not a priority for Apple. Like they made a big push a few years back to talk about screen time and we’re going to do this stuff to help you pay attention. And now you go into screen time, you go into parental controls, you turn off the browser and on a lot of people’s phones, it won’t actually turn off. It won’t actually go away. And mine for whatever reason does that. I’ve looked this up, I’ve been on the you know, you’re in hell when you’re in those like tech support forums and you’re reading people’s things they’ve tried and they can’t…

Brett McKay: And it is the blind leading the blind. It’s just like yeah.

Jake Knapp: Exactly. Yeah. So, I’ve spent some time on there trying to figure out how to turn it off. I’m just hoping that one of these OS updates it’ll start to work again. So with the browser you might have to just tuck it away, just hide it on a far, far screen on your home screen. That might be the best that you can do, but you can try to turn it off for sure. And at minimum, even just signing out of services that you might be signed in on the browser, it goes a long way. So, if you’re signed into whatever it might be, Twitter, your email or whatever, just like logging out, you can always log back in. It’s just like, the main thing here is to try to create some friction. So, if it’s really important to do a task or a thing, you need to check in on something, on let’s say you’ve got a… For some people Instagram or Facebook is like part of their job, so maybe you’ve gotta do something on there.

Well install it, do the thing, and then uninstall it. And when you… Once you’ve done that a few times, you realize it’s not that big of a deal. You start to delete the app and it says, are you sure you’re gonna delete your data? All the data is on the cloud. It doesn’t cause any problems. So, you just delete it and when you need it again, you reinstall it and you delete it again, ’cause you’ll… I’ve found when I talk to people who do this, they feel that feeling of how good it feels when it’s off. And then you’ll want to, it’s not, you won’t do it ’cause you feel like you have to, you’ll just do it ’cause you want to.

Brett McKay: So, you mentioned Apple screen time and I know a few years ago too, Google with Android, they made this big push on helping people have better healthy relationship with their smart devices. Why not just use that stuff to manage your phone time instead of just deleting everything?

Jake Knapp: I would say, if it works for you, go for it. But keep in mind, this is one of those things where their interests are not aligned with us using our phones less. Apple doesn’t win if we use our phones less and we’re less excited about getting a new iPhone. Google doesn’t win if we’re less excited about using Android. So, even though there are intentions, their intentions may be totally good here. They may want to help but there is no way they are going to be putting their A game effort on solving that problem. They’re gonna wanna give you something that gives you kind of what we all want. If we don’t think too hard about it or work too hard on it, which is we kind of wanna have our cake and eat it too. We wanna have access to everything, ’cause it’s easy and it’s fun and it gives us that little dopamine hit. I just don’t believe they’re really serious about it. So, I don’t believe those tools are like really serious about giving you your attention back. I might be wrong, and you might find… People might find that it works great for them, but the simpler thing to do than configuring some settings on the phone is to just delete it, and install it back when you have to have it.

Brett McKay: No, it’s pretty easy to circumvent. It’s not very useful. So, I’ve tried using Screen Time on my iPhone where I set time limits for certain apps. It’s like, okay, Gmail, I only want 10 minutes a day. And then your time is up and I’m just like, ignore a limit for the rest of the day.

Jake Knapp: Yeah. Right. It’s gotta be a little bit more hardcore than that. Now there is a tool that is really powerful. It’s hard to configure, but it’ll like shut you down in a bigger way called Freedom. And there’s a version for the phone and you can use it on your laptop or your desktop computer as well. And Freedom actually kind of goes in and like shuts things down on the like internet connection level. And so that’s a more powerful tool. You gotta be serious if you want to use that one because it’s a little bit tricky to set up and configure and it’s really gonna shut it down. You can set hours and things like that for different websites or different apps, but that one is the… If you’re just like not messing around. And I use that sometimes on my laptop. I’ll do like a session, like a 90 minute, two hour session so I can write. But for me, even that one is like a little bit scary on the phone.

Brett McKay: Okay. Someone might be listening to this too and think, okay, why not just get a dumb phone if you’re not gonna be connected to the internet? Because why not get a dumb phone?

Jake Knapp: I’ve tried it actually, I got one of those Light Phones and they’re… If folks haven’t heard of this, I think it’s called like Light Phone. Maybe Light Phone II or something.

Brett McKay: Light Phone II.

Jake Knapp: Yeah. And cool device, like a similar E-ink screen like a Kindle would have. And I just found for me that if… I love all of the cool stuff, the cool futuristic stuff that I described on the smartphone, I think that stuff is great. It’s really cool and I feel like it adds to my life. And going back to the simpler time with the Light Phone and the Light Phone is like a really elegantly designed phone for sure. But it just, I missed that other stuff. I do know people who, they’ll use a Light Phone or something like that in specific times. They’ll say like I’m going on a date or I’m doing this certain kind of work, I’m gonna leave the smartphone at home and take the dumb phone with me. And I think that’s a really… It seems like a really smart strategy and it’s just… For me it’s just been like a little too much to figure out like, okay, am I… Is it really okay if I don’t have all this other… The maps and all the other stuff with the music, like the iPod with me, that’s really usually the killer for me is the very first feature they introduced on the iPhone. And like, I wanna have that, I wanna have the music with me. But I do think that, I think it’s a legit approach. It’s just, it hasn’t worked for me.

Brett McKay: So, a lot of new apps have come out since 2012. Do you try new ones out and how do you decide which ones to try out and which ones to keep?

Jake Knapp: I do try new ones out, but with some, there are things where I’m like, there’s no way that’s gonna be a good scene for me Knowing myself. Like TikTok, there’s no way I’m getting into TikTok ’cause I’d love it. That’s the thing with all this stuff, I love it. I love the like, oh man, funny little video clips. God that just sounds great. I would be on that. We wouldn’t have had this call Brett. I would be doing that right now. So TikTok, I’m like, I can’t go, I cannot do that. That’s definitely a bad scene for Jake. There’s some apps that I just started using this app that’s become one that I use several times a day maybe you’ve heard of it ‘How We Feel’. It’s this app, it’s just like an emotion tracker, which sounds like really like why would I wanna track my emotions?

But it’s beautifully designed and what’s cool about it, is you go in it’s really quite fun and fast and to almost like a playful interaction to choose from these four. If I check in, it’s like, are you feeling high energy unpleasant, high energy pleasant, low energy unpleasant, low energy pleasant. And then it gives you all these emotion options and you kind of tag like what was going on at the moment. And it’s just kind of beautiful and fun to go through. And then you start to see, it’s been this really helpful thing to see, oh man, when I’m stressed out or I’m feeling down about this writing project or whatever, you can kinda see how those emotions pass, like what the trends are and how long those things stick. Which I found to feel really good to sort of see the emotions in a different way.

Anyway, that’s a great app that made it onto the home screen. That’s in the top four now on that first screen, that’s a beauty. I use Peloton and I’ve got the Peloton app, it’s on my top 10 that’s one that I added. So, I’ll use it to record like an outdoor run or an outdoor walk ’cause I’m kind of hooked to having these streaks of days that I’ve worked out in a row, which is stupid, but I love that. So, there are things like that… And there are different… I’m a bit of a sneaker head, so I’ve got like the SNKRS app and StockX and those sometimes will veer on like being infinity pools and problems for me. But the nice thing is the stuff doesn’t come out that frequently. So, like the new shoes that I’m interested in. So, I’ve found that it doesn’t really create that tug in the same way. But yeah, I’m definitely open all the time to trying new apps. I just have this parameter of like, does it create… It’s just simple, does it create bad feelings when I use it or does it create bad feelings when I’m not using it? And some apps do both. Some apps create bad feelings just when you’re using it or not using it. But if it creates bad feelings, if it creates that tug or if it makes me feel stressed in the moment when I shouldn’t have it on the phone, I don’t need to carry that around with me. That’s bad. So, then I don’t use it.

Brett McKay: So, you mentioned your desktop browsing, do you do some stuff… It sounds like you do some stuff to avoid mindlessly surfing the web there.

Jake Knapp: Yeah. I’m just like so easily distracted that I have to have a whole bunch of tools to keep me on track. Especially because writing, which is a big part of what I do, is this thing where you like… I’ve gotta… With no social pressure from anyone else, usually I’ve got to like stop everything else and for at least like two hours just sit and do something. So, the tricks and techniques that I use include… I use this thing called a Time Timer. This is a physical timer. You can set the time that you want on it. It’s got a little red like dial almost just like turn this thing out and you see a pie chart of how much time is left and then the time ticks away. And so I can just at a glance see that sitting on my desk and see how long I’ve sort of agreed with myself I’m gonna focus on a thing, that’s a big help.

I use that Freedom software on my desktop if I need to have a session where I just like shut off internet access. I also have an office that I rent where I’ve actually like disconnected the internet from that office. So I leave home, go to that office, there’s no internet there. That’s a really, really helpful place to get writing or focused work done. So, I’ll do all kinds of things to try to create these spaces where it’s like when I think back to creating computer games when I was a kid before the internet existed and it was such a lovely feeling to just focus and just do something that was really an all consuming creative task. And for me now to recreate that, I have to create some walls.

Brett McKay: Well Jake, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about your work?

Jake Knapp: They can go to is where we talk about the design sprints and Or you could just look up my friend John and I wrote this book called Make Time, that’s about focus and attention and how we are trying to keep it working for us. And that book is available everywhere books are available.

Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well Jake Knapp, thanks for time. It’s been a pleasure.

Jake Knapp: Thanks Brett. Thanks for having me on.

Brett McKay: My guest here is Jake Knapp. He’s the author of several books including ‘Sprint’ and ‘Make Time’. They’re all available on and bookstores everywhere. You can find more information about his work at his website, Also check at our show notes at where you can find links to resources, we delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM podcast. Make sure to check at our website at, where you can find our podcast archives. And while you’re there, make sure to sign up for our newsletter. We’ve got a daily option and a weekly option. They’re both free. It’s the best way to stay on top of what’s going on at AOM. And if you haven’t done so already I’d appreciate if you’d take one minute to give us a review of our podcast on Spotify helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think will get something out of it. As always thank you for the continued support. Until next time it’s Brett McKay, reminding you all to listen to AOM podcast, but put what you have heard into action.

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