Last week, I quoted a section of Four Quartets in which TS Eliot bemoans how easily human beings can be distracted (by ‘men and bits of paper’), away from our real business of connecting with the universe.
At least, that’s my reading of these (shamefully truncated) lines from Burnt Norton:
Here is a place of disaffection
[…] neither daylight
Investing form with lucid stillness
[…] Nor darkness to purify the soul
[…] Neither plenitude nor vacancy. Only a flicker
Over the strained time-ridden faces
Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
Tumid apathy with no concentration
Both daylight (plenitude) and darkness (vacancy) can reveal to us the wonders of the universe, but in a ‘place of disaffection’—later Eliot specifically refers to London—we are more likely to turn instead to the distraction of meaningless fripperies.
In 1936, the great enemy of concentration was ‘bits of paper’. Today I can think of a surely greater distraction that spends a lot of time in our pockets, but much more time in our hands, causing neck pain without respite.
Eliot’s antidote to the alienation from nature caused by modernity is ‘destitution of all property’ and ‘evacuation of the world of fancy’. Walking through day and night with provisions and accommodation on my back, while not as extreme as Eliot’s asceticism, was a timely reacquaintance with what’s most important.
For me, that means noticing: noticing the details in my existence. Like this moment, described by TS Eliot a hundred years ago, but which the universe brought to me only on Monday:
Now the light falls
Across the open field, leaving the deep lane
Shuttered with branches, dark in the afternoon,
Where you lean against a bank while a van passes
A moment of stillness, once noticed, that enriches the whole. Until my belly starts to rumble and I need a pee.
Actor, comedian, dear friend and work colleague Beth Granville woke up on Sunday morning with a start: her alarm wasn’t ringing.
She had a sitcom recording to get to.
She grappled with her phone, eyes swimming in an abyss of darkness. An unresponsive power button; rising panic.
Luckily, it appeared that Beth’s phone was the sole victim of a vicious electromagnetic pulse attack, localised in the Wanstead area.
The rest of the capital’s telecommunications network and transport infrastructure was, thankfully, still working and Beth got to the recording studio just in time.
The only embarrassment, apart from losing the phone numbers of every comedy producer she’d met since 2018, came when Beth had to ask someone on the tube what the time was. Lucky not to be arrested, frankly.
But the black screen of death was the harbinger of an unexpected light.
Phoneless Beth picked up a book and finished it in two days.
If you enforce reading, you are likely to enforce time for reflection because it’s hard to read without reflecting … Busyness does not make our lives meaningful; it is the interior life that makes the greatest difference to us in the end.
Reading is restorative and relaxing in a way that computers or phones will never be.
At the end of my 45 minutes’ reading, I feel enriched in the equal and opposite way that I am exhausted by 45 minutes of browsing the same amount of material on the internet.
A couple of times this week I’ve even taken my book out to the pine woods near where I’m staying in Bournemouth, set up my hammock and gently swung through the pages for an hour or so. (Tuesday was interesting: sunshine and hail.)
This isn’t a lone response from someone who grew up reading.
Note: Fiction seems to offer more to our brains here than non-fiction.
Side note: Science fiction in particular might offer our brains something particularly valuable at the moment — the sense that the future is malleable and open to change.
Books also offer a counterpoint to the pell and mell of news, which I’ve written about and insulted before. As Marcel Proust said, long ago:
The fault I find with our journalism is that it forces us to take an interest in some fresh triviality or other every day whereas only three or four books in a lifetime give us anything that is of real importance.
One of my reading mentors, Ryan Holiday, deliberately weights his reading choices towards ‘timeless’ books.
‘I don’t want to read things that are very quickly proven irrelevant or incorrect,’ he says in an interview with Tim Ferriss (~1h51). He continues:
You’d be better off sitting down and reading Shakespeare’s plays because they have not only had 500 years of cultural impact, but will probably have 500 more years of cultural impact.
Think of what Ryan Holiday calls ‘the halflife of information’. The news that fires itself, cannon-like, out of your radio has a halflife of perhaps a day or two: tomorrow the triviality will be forgotten.
But a book has already proven itself durable: even a book published this year has probably been a couple of years in the making. If a reputable publisher was involved, the ideas and concepts are, if not timeless, then at least enduring.
Too many people write reading off as unproductive and it’s true that sitting down with your head in a book can look an awful lot like doing nothing.
Inside your skull, however, your brain is doing imaginative weight-lifting.
Reading strengthens language processing areas of the brain, as you might expect, but it is also a tremendously embodied experience: we truly live the novels we read.
Explaining the results of a study that showed long-term changes in brain connectivity among 21 people forced to read a Robert Harris novel, a team of neuroscientists from Emory University wrote:
It is plausible that the act of reading a novel places the reader in the body of the protagonist, which may alter somatosensory and motor cortex connectivity. … Reading stories … affect the individual through embodied semantics in sensorimotor regions.
Humans are wonderful fabulists: reading is the next best thing to being there.
Reading itself is a creative act. Of course, good books are full of good ideas and I can’t count the number of passages that have changed the way I write, permanently.
We get sold on a particular feature – like the ability to make social phone calls to friends and family – but find ourselves quickly overwhelmed by myriad extraneous features that distract us from our intentions.
This is where the Punkt MP02 feature phone intervenes: adding a step between my sociable intentions and the pernicious distractions of my ‘smart’ devices.
Note: Punkt sent me this MP02 gratis. Of course, it’s lovely to receive such a kind gift, and you would be forgiven for being suspicious about this the honesty of this review. But please suspend your doubt – as you will see, I’m far too reliant on connectivity to tolerate a device that doesn’t work properly!
The Punkt MP02 as a minimum viable technology
I’ve written before about using the minimum viable technology for a task, and the Punkt MP02 fits perfectly into my buffet of devices.
The MP02 does only two things really well:
It does a few other things, like messaging and note-taking, but it doesn’t do them very well. These features are more for emergencies than day-to-day use.
Using the Punkt MP02 in combination with my laptop and my smartphone, I can still take part in extraneous ‘connected’ activities, without turning them into reflex habits.
But, best of all, the Punkt and I now prioritise phone calls.
Has the Punkt changed my behaviour?
Of course, the proof is in the pudding, or, as the saying goes, in the device use statistics.
With the Punkt in my digital arsenal, I’ve averaged only 15 minutes a day on my smartphone. For comparison, my average smartphone use – excluding phone calls – in the week immediately pre-Punkt was around 60 minutes per day.
Looking back over the longer term, my average smartphone use – excluding phone calls – in the last two months has been about 45 minutes a day – and that’s with a conscious effort to reduce my smartphone usage after reading Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism.
It seems that, with the Punkt, I could be saving 30-45 minutes a day, a remarkable return for the device thus far.
I have also made more phone calls to friends and family with the Punkt than I used to with the smartphone. In my first week with the Punkt, I made 5 ‘social’ phone calls for a total duration of 110 minutes, averaging about 22 minutes each.
In comparison, over the preceding six weeks, I made 9 similarly social calls on my smartphone, lasting a total of 180 minutes. On average, that makes only 2 calls every week.
These smartphone calls were still around 20 minutes each, which reassures me that I’m comparing apples with apples, but with the Punkt, it seems as if I’m more than twice as likely to pick up the phone and call friends and family. Brilliant.
This might, of course, be down to novelty. It’ll be interesting to see whether I continue to spend significantly less time on my smartphone, as the unnecessary habit degrades, or whether instead I begin to crave the convenience of the ‘smart’ features I do use.
Which brings me on to…
Do I still need a smartphone?
There are several features for which I know I will still use my smartphone.
Maps. Connectivity is not necessary: I have downloaded maps for offline use.
Camera. Wifi will be needed to transfer these from phone to computer.
Whatsapp messaging. I prefer to use my computer for the actual sending of messages, but this is only possible with a ‘smart’ connection as well.
Strava tracking for bike rides.
Banking apps. Not strictly necessary, but I can’t be the only person who finds the mobile apps easier to use than the web equivalents.
As you can tell, none of these activities are urgent. I could survive without any of them. Does that mean I will get rid of my smartphone? No.
My smartphone is still, for better or worse, the minimum viable technology for that grab bag of low-priority, but still useful features.
I’m not going to buy a dedicated camera because I hardly ever take photos. Photography isn’t a priority for me. Likewise, I’m unlikely to buy a Garmin GPS for my bike: they’re expensive and I’m not massively into following pre-planned routes.
It remains to be seen whether the Punkt MP02 has turned the smartphone into one useful tool among many, rather than one dominant tool to rule them all (and me) – but that is the hope.
Pros, Not bothereds, Cons and a Wishlist
With the psychological and practical aspects of the review dealt with, let’s look at the phone in more detail. What works, what I don’t care about, what doesn’t work, and what could work.
Pros (for me)
The phone works as a phone – hallelujah! This is huge.
Tethering works as well as with my old smartphone (after help from the excellent customer support team). This is also huge.
Excellent customer support, fortunately, because the phone needs it. It can’t be easy designing and launching an entirely new genus of phone, and early adopters need support.
Beautifully designed and feels good in my hand. I’ve dropped it a couple of times already and it seems robust.
BlackBerry security. Hopefully this means that my phone can’t be hacked. To be honest, I’m not exactly sure what this means in practice: presumably the protection doesn’t extend to tethered devices. I’ve written before about the leaky nature of mobile phones, and how this data is big business. It feels good to own a device that, for once, puts my privacy first.
Not bothereds (for me)
For a simple phone, there’s quite a going on. I can connect to other devices using Bluetooth, WiFi and a USB connection. I genuinely have no idea why the phone has GPS.
There are a panoply of other unobtrusive features, including messaging, calculator, calendar, alarm, world clock, stopwatch, timer, and notes with timed reminders (including recurring reminders). They all seem to work well, but I doubt I’ll use any of them much.
The messaging system can display emoticons and QR codes. Wowzas.
Cons (for me)
UPDATE: Punkt are currently manufacturing an update to the MP02 which will be available in July 2019. Hopefully many of the bugs listed below will be fixed – and they have kindly offered me an exchange. As I said earlier, the customer service is excellent.
This is quite a long list, so I’ve bolded the cons that have a significant negative impact on my day-to-day use.
Limited battery life. The Punkt’s battery life is currently only about a day of light to moderate use. A couple of phone calls, a couple of hours’ hotspotting, and it’s dead. Even on standby, the battery drains remarkably quickly. Overnight, on aeroplane mode, I lost 15%. Frankly, compared to other feature phones, it’s feeble – and very nearly a deal breaker. Luckily, Punkt’s engineers are working on a solution and hope to release another firmware update in June. Watch this space…
I can’t have an audible ring tone without also turning on all the other annoying system noises (key-pad tones, lock and unlock tones, etc.). For a phone that sells itself on discretion, this seems very odd. The excellent customer service people don’t appear to have a solution either. What this means is that, for the sake of my sanity, I have to have the phone on silent all the time. It does vibrate, however, so I usually hear something buzz when someone calls.
The ringtones might be ‘the work of respected Norwegian sound artist Kjetil Røst Nilsen’, but in my humble opinion, they are all a bit weird. It’s not possible to upload my own, although they do say this might be a feature for a future update.
Likewise, I can’t change the alarm noise, which is unfortunate because it sounds like I’m under attack from quite a raucous seagull. Not the most relaxing way to wake up.
The earphones aren’t very good quality and only come with one earpiece. They are USB-C, though, so I could buy a new set, I guess.
You can programme shortcuts, which is handy. This would be a pro, but isn’t very well done so becomes a con, I’m afraid. The options are fairly limited and the execution isn’t always as clear as it could be. I set a shortcut to turn on tethering, but there is no notification that the shortcut has executed successfully, and I can’t set a shortcut to turn tethering off.
The power source is USB-C, so I can’t share chargers with most of the rest of the world yet, and heaven help me if I lose this one cable before I get a chance to buy a backup. A bit harsh to make this a con, but there we go.
I’ve also run into quite a few glitches:
I’ve experienced a few (5) dropped calls. It’s hard to say whether these were down to the Punkt or the caller’s phone. I’ll keep an eye/ear on it.
I had to restart after the home screen stopped working.
The notifications don’t always behave as they should.
The home screen clock takes a few seconds to update. (This bug seems to come and go.)
USB tethering only worked once and never again. Shame, because it could be a useful feature to keep the phone charged while using the battery-intensive hotspot.
Wishlist (for me)
I would love a voice note feature so that I could record notes to myself, rather than type them out, tortuously, on the predictive keypad.
A torch would be handy.
The Bottom Line
For me, at the moment, the Punkt MP02 just about crosses the line. After a week’s testing, I will definitely keep the Punkt in my pocket.
The annoying ring tones, the various glitches, and the more significant issue with the battery life, are still not enough to outweigh the importance of untethering myself from my smartphone.
I need a phone that keeps me in contact with friends and family, without distracting me from the way I want to spend my time. The miraculous little Punkt MP02 helps me do that.
If I were grading the phone as a whole, however, I couldn’t give it more than a B-Minus. Everything about the Punkt screams Premium – but I’d be a bit gutted if I’d shelled out the £300 asking price for a dumbphone that scarcely lasts a day, and does some pretty annoying things.
If they can sort out the myriad glitches, and significantly improve the battery life with the next firmware update, then we’ll be talking about a phone that delivers not only on the promise of digital minimalism, but also on the premium price point.
But the real test for me will be whether I decide to take the Punkt MP02 when I go travelling this summer.
When I’m out of the country, my reliance on the web increases. I’m much more likely to want to connect to look up places to go. I’m much more likely to stay in communication with friends and family over email and Whatsapp, and I’m much more likely to be away from my computer and a fixed WiFi connection.
Finally, space and weight are a consideration and, although the Punkt is small and light, every inch and every gramme counts when I’m travelling. The fact that I have no other devices that charge from a USB-C is another slight point against the Punkt.
So the Punkt has 3 months to prove itself indispensable!
Thanks a mill to Punkt for sending me this MP02, and thanks to their customer service team for helping me get it up and running. Thanks also to @documentally for putting me in touch with Punkt in the first place.
‘The power of a general-purpose computer is in the total number of things it enables the user to do, not the total number of things it enables the user to do simultaneously.’
I found Cal’s most effective recommendation was using an app called Freedom to set boundaries on the multi-tasking powers of my technology.
With Freedom I can set an automated schedule of when I’m able to check email and Whatsapp, the two major distractions from focused time in my life.
Rather than slavishly checking for superficial social interactions every five or twenty minutes, I can corral those messages into fenced-off playgrounds of digital distraction. But the playground is only open for an hour in the afternoon.
The app works across devices as well. Using Freedom I can turn my smartphone in to a single-use dumb phone at the touch of a button. I can even have the smartphone capabilities turned off by default.
The feeling is indeed one of liberation; no wonder the app is called Freedom.
If you have any sense that your devices are distracting you from the deep work that you value, I urge you to give Freedom a whirl. It is free to try, but a year’s subscription is only £13 if you use the code FOCUS40.
5 Ideas from Digital Minimalism
1. Swap phones.
When you’re with a friend, swap phones so neither of you can be lured away to the dreaded ‘third place’. Your phones are still there in an emergency, but the embarrassment of asking for your device just so that you can crush some candy will be too much.
2. Spend time alone.
Solitude is vital to our emotional balance and too little time alone leaves us feeling anxious. Finding solitude doesn’t mean ship-wrecking yourself on a desert island; you can find solitude in a busy coffee shop. Solitude is simply time spent without input from other minds. Leave your phone at home. Take a long walk. Write.
3. Use digital to facilitate real world comms.
Social media, email and messaging is not an adequate replacement for social interaction, but our brains can be fooled into thinking it is. Set up a meeting on the phone or in person.
4. Hold conversation office hours.
Tell your friends and family that you’re always free to speak on the phone at X o’clock – and be available at that time. When someone ‘pings’ you a text message or email, invite them to call you at X o’clock any day of the week. Alternatively, set up a regular time for taking coffee or a walk and invite anyone and everyone to drop by.
5. Prioritise strenuous leisure activities over passive consumption.
Activity gives you more energy, not less. When you’re tired, simply switch task. Use skills to produce valuable things in the physical world. Become ‘handy’. Join or set up a club, community group or meeting.