Smartphones and Distraction: Sheathing the Double-Edged Sword

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Can you live without your smartphone? I think I could, in theory… maybe. I mean, if I really tried, definitely. I think. The truth is that for many of us our phones have begun to own us. Smartphone distraction often outweighs any actual benefit we get from the devices. But since we do still benefit from them, it can be hard to decide to live without them at all.

Obviously I could literally live without my phone, but in terms of convenience, information accessibility, and productivity, the smartphone has proven to be an absolute technological game-changer for my productivity. With an answer to every question right there at my fingertips, apps for every situation imaginable, and the continual addition of new features and services, it’s hard to remember what life was like before my iPhone.

With the smartphone, the potential for productivity we daily carry in our pockets truly is remarkable.

But our phones are also dangerously distracting, especially for Christians.

The Danger

Be honest, how many mornings have you woken up, intent on spending time in the Word, and found yourself instead frittering away the time on Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, or some other time-waster?

Has the time in the evenings which you used to spend reading been eclipsed by mindless scrolling through feeds or tapping addictive phone games?

The smartphone is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it grants us the ability to use apps which can make us more organized, more accessible, and more informed. But on the other hand, it can be a spiraling pit of distraction, actually making us less productive. And all this doesn’t even begin to unpack the potential for sin that palm-sized hell-portal carries in its tiny circuits.

What are we supposed to do?

Do we revert to dumbphones and forego the myriad blessings the smartphone bestows on us? Or is there a way we can actually harness the good parts of our smartphones while not being sucked in by the distracting parts?

I believe I have found a way to maximize the usefulness of my phone while minimizing its potential for distraction.

The Analysis

Two questions led me to two rules for my phone usage.

First, I asked myself, “when is my phone most useful to me, such that I’m legitimately averse to giving it up?” The answer came quite easily: In the car and at work. I use my phone in the car for audiobooks, podcasts, music, and GPS. Those are things I find legitimately beneficial and which I don’t want to give up. Also, because of the nature of my work, I am often away from my desk and need to be reachable by slack or email.

The second question focussed on the negative aspects of my smartphone. I asked, “when is my phone most distracting to me?” Answer: When I am at home. This was the real breakthrough—I realized that just about everything that I find distracting about my phone happens when I am at home.

My phone is what I would rather turn to in the morning than my Bible. Weeknights and weekends were consumed by news articles and videos (it would be games too, but I committed to not having games on my phone a long time ago. More on video games and Christian productivity in a future post, perhaps). I hungered for the novel, for new information, and my phone willingly delivered. I justified this behavior by telling myself I was just relaxing after a hard day of work.

The funny thing about using my phone to “relax” like this was that I actually ended up feeling busier and overwhelmed. Because when I wasn’t reading, writing, or doing projects around the house, I sensed the task list piling up. And I ended up feeling more stressed out by the things I watched and read on my phone.

But when I applied the following two rules, suddenly I felt far more relaxed and I realized that I had more time on my hands than I ever dreamed. In fact, far from feeling overly busy, I was downright bored! And boredom drove me to do projects I had put off for months, and pursue lines of inquiry in the Word which I had long desired to pursue, but felt too busy to undertake. If I say this was life-changing, I am not being dramatic!

So, here are the two rules to dull the distracting blade of the two-edged sword which is the smartphone, all without doing away with the productive blade.

The Rules

Rule 1: Never Use Your Smartphone at Home

I have a phone cupboard in my kitchen which I’ve rigged with a charging cable (and no a phone cupboard isn’t a thing. I made it up. It’s just a cupboard in which I put my phone. Okay?).

Here’s how it works, when I walk in the door, I turn my phone off of silent, plug it into the phone cupboard, and close the door. I turn it off of silent so I can hear if I get a phone call or a text. If you get a lot of phone calls or texts in your off hours you may need to come up with a different solution, but I don’t actually get that many (it’s my off-putting personality, I suspect). I then leave my phone shut away for the whole night.

Figure 1: This diagram represents the standard phone cupboard which all normal people have in their homes.

When morning comes, habit tells me to check my phone, but the phone cupboard puts enough friction between me and the phone that I am reminded to repress that reflex (this is why I don’t use it as an alarm, by the way). With this solution, I have also begun setting my Bible out and open to the passage I plan to read for morning devotions the night before. In this way, the skids of discipline are greased, while the phone cupboard adds an encumbrance to my telephonic distractibility.

I have enlisted my wife to keep me accountable on this rule because I legitimately forget some nights (or rage against my own draconian rules!). I gave her full permission to scold and mock me if I’m using my phone at home, she has taken up that charge nobly.

This first rule has given me such a renewed peace of mind. I can’t tell you how much less cluttered my brain feels. I honestly do not miss it.

Then, the second rule helps for the times when I have chosen to have my phone with me.

Rule 2: No Time-Wasting Apps

When I realized that my phone really was useful when I was away from home, and especially at work, I had to figure out how I would handle the phone when it wasn’t tucked away in the phone cupboard. The phone could still be a pitfall when I was out of the house, so how do I mitigate those distractions endemic to it? Because even when I’m out and about I can stop to check something on my phone and lose half an hour with it only feeling like 5 minutes—like some kind of stupid reverse Narnia.

So, I’ve vowed to stay out of the wardrobe by not having any wasteful apps on my phone at all. I got rid of all games, video apps, the Facebook app, and the Twitter app. Now, it’s true, if I really want, I can get to these services through the browser, but again, it’s friction to the distraction—it is harder than using the app. So, I don’t do it unless I really need or want to.


These rules have helped to ensure that what I get from my smartphone really is of the most benefit to me. Of course, I still do find ways to waste time on there, but I get bored way faster because I’ve essentially crippled my phone. I’ve broken its spirit and now my phone serves me and not the other way around.

This all might seem pathetic to some people. “Just exercise some self-control.” Well to that I simply say, sometimes self-control takes a little planning.

If you struggle with the double-edged sword of your smartphone, I hope these rules sparked some ideas for you. The trick is to sheathe the weapon when it has the most potential to be harmful so that you can keep it at the ready for those situations which make smartphones so beneficial.

Join the discussion

  • If you have an Android phone, give Siempo a try. It’s a homescreen app that changes how you interact with your phone. Siempo eliminates color icons, limits what apps are on your homescreen, and batches notifications only on certain times of the day. You still have a smartphone, dumbed down enough to keep it from being distracting.

    • Great tip, Michael. Thanks for sharing it. That’s one of the big advantages of Android in general—a lot more control. It reminds me of this article which I should have shared in the post. This guy dumbed down his iPhone even more than I’m suggesting, but take a look at how cumbersome it was for him to do it on iOS.

  • Really great suggestions. I am going to utilize some but the ironic thing is I am reading this article only because I am at home browsing on my smart phone.

  • You could also use an app like Netsanity to restrict your access at certain times of day or to entirely block certain apps (if your willpower needs a little help – this could be more necessary in the early stages).

    Though I’ve not tried it, setting your phone to grayscale is said to really help as well.

  • I absolutely love this article! Same issues for me. I have become more disciplined, but can also use more work. Just greatful to know that I am not alone.

    • To tell you the truth, I’ve been having a bit of trouble following my own rules this week. It’s good to know others have the same struggle.

  • What worked for me was enabling iPhone’s restrictions feature, disabling a slew of things I didn’t want, and then deliberately forgetting the code I used.

    With that, my smartphone was rendered dumber than an old Nokia.

  • I don’t even know how I ended up here, but I thought this post was great. I do not know who you are but definitely you are going to a famous blogger if you are not already ;) Cheers!

  • When I needed to replace my phone a couple of years ago, I was seriously considering joining the growing little cult of “flip phoners.” In careful evaluation of my work demands and also how much some uses of the smartphone actually did simplify my life and work, I decided to stay with a smartphone.

    I integrated my needs on both fronts by buying an iPhone SE, possessing the smallest display and storage of all the iPhones. It has zero “entertainment/time waster” apps on it, and it’s smallness makes it less conducive or pleasant to watch or read much anyway. Having the smallest phone helps put the buffer and mitigate impulse-use, as the rabbit holes I used to go down are easier on an iPad or laptop. By the time I get to a bigger screen and better sound, the impulses are weakened or even gone. I hope I can always find a small phone as a limited tool and assist, rather than a strong devourer and enemy.

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