Nathan W. Bingham
Connecting in a Hyper-Connected World

How a Week with Apple Watch Reduced My Screen Time

Instagram informs me that 9 months ago some friends joined us to watch a replay of that day’s Apple keynote. It was a big day for Apple. Not only did they announce the iPhone 6+ (see what I did there?) they also boldly positioned themselves in the wearable technology space with the introduction of Apple Watch. That evening ended with genuine excitement and curiosity surrounding Apple Watch, but I was still uncertain about the value proposition of what could be seen as an expensive watch that was basically an “impotent iPhone” strapped to my wrist.
Apple Watch
I certainly had not drunk the Kool-Aid. However, as the Apple Watch launch approached and I had spent time reading about the device, I was more convinced of their strategy. I had also seen how Apple’s entrance into wearables was already legitimizing the idea of “technology on the wrist.” So, in order to explore this space for myself and investigate if there were appropriate avenues for Christian ministry and outreach,1 an Apple Watch was ordered.

It has now been close to a week since I first put on Apple Watch. It’s too early to be thoroughly conclusive as to how it will fit into the rhythm of my daily life, but within minutes of wearing it, I knew this was more than an “impotent iPhone.” And within 24-hours, it had changed the way I related to the screens around me (my iPhone, iPad, MacBook Air, and TV). Here’s how:

iDistraction?

Everything beeps. Our microwaves. Our cars. And now our pockets. “You’ve got mail!” might have been cute in the early 90’s, but today, notifications are a plague that can kill productivity and genuine human-to-human connections. The smartphones in our pockets or purses continually lead us away from the world of people into the world of pixels. So why would anyone want to infect their wrist with this plague? Surely we need to take control of our devices, have less of them, and perhaps keep them further out of reach?

I received my first text message only minutes after putting on Apple Watch. It was a legitimate text, totally unplanned and unexpected. I had assumed notifications would feel like an iPhone (or an old Nokia) strapped to my wrist. They don’t. I can only describe the notification as intimate, subtle, yet unmistakable. That is, it’s kind of like someone tapping on your wrist in such a way as to grab your attention without jolting you, scaring you, or making you look down. That first text? It was from my wife. She’s glad I didn’t miss it.

If I were to grab you on the wrist, in most (all?) cultures I would have committed a serious breach of personal space. This location is intimate. You grab someone here to disarm them. And it’s because of the unique nature of this location that you cannot simply enable notifications as you would on your other devices. If you received such an Apple Watch alert with every email, text, tweet, like, share, news update, bank transaction, or FarmVille invite, it would be tantamount to assault. Therefore, it wasn’t long before I opened the Apple Watch app on my iPhone, clicked on Notifications, and switched off many of my apps. You should too.

Consider this: I’ll give my Twitter handle to almost anyone so they can reach out to me online. I’ll share my work email with a smaller group of people. Smaller again, others will receive my work phone number (or extension). But there are only a very small number of people on earth that have my cell number and can call or text me direct. I don’t lose sleep over this paradigm. It happens organically. It’s not complicated. This is how one must think about notifications on their Apple Watch. It’s like giving an app your cell number. And this is what makes the device powerful. I currently only receive call, text, banking, and fitness notifications. I don’t receive email notifications.2

Could Apple Watch be a distraction? Yes. But if it is, I suggest you’re not using it correctly. Given the unique nature of Apple Watch’s location, controlling your notifications is essential. It’s been designed with this in mind, and Apple couldn’t have made that task any easier.

Another Screen?

Forget the “zombie apocalypse,” screens are far more likely to be the end of the human race. Family mornings are still communal, but only because each family member shares the same table and WiFi connection. Parents then drive down the interstate with Starbucks in one hand and their smartphone in the other—just to make sure that while they’re traveling 70mph they don’t miss anything on Facebook. And as they walk from the car to the office, their heads are further buried in their smartphones, clipping the shoulders of others as they pass by and only just avoiding a head-on collision with a street light. So isn’t adding another screen to the mix a lonely, disconnected, death wish?

I very much advocate for being the master of your technology. We should impose limits on it, not have technology invade where it is not welcome. However, even with strict rules in place and carefully configured settings, the temptation to check your phone just in case you missed a notification is very real. Why? Because we miss calls and texts all the time. It’s almost impossible to reach my wife sometimes. Her iPhone is on silent in the bottom of her purse and I’m forced to FaceTime her in the hopes the iPad will ring and she’ll hear that. But this “just in case” reach for your smartphone inevitably leads to rabbit trails of opening several apps and a lot of time wasted. I preface the following remarks with this because I don’t want you to think that what I discovered about Apple Watch is unique to me. I need to battle technology just as much as you do.

As I described earlier, the notifications on Apple Watch are “intimate, subtle, yet unmistakable.” You don’t miss a text. You don’t miss a call.3 And without me realizing it, I had stopped reaching for my iPhone. There was no need. For the first time in 5+ years, I looked to my wrist (and not a phone) for the time, and I was confident the select few important notifications I had enabled had reached my wrist. There were now times the iPhone stayed on my desk as I walked around the building instead of sitting snuggly inside my suit jacket. After getting changed when I arrived home from work, the iPhone wasn’t in my pocket but next to my bed or on the kitchen counter. This resulted in being more present with my children in the evenings, and I didn’t reach for my iPhone once while watching a movie with my wife on Friday night.

One could argue that my iPhone should have always been on my desk, next to my bed, or away from my reach. However, there’s a reason we carry a phone with us. There are select people and occasions that require us to be contactable. Simply turning it on silent and leaving it in the kitchen drawer isn’t a practical solution for day-to-day life.4 If you’ve purchased a phone, you’ve already made the decision to be reachable and to be able to reach others.

Prior to Apple Watch, my workflow involved me periodically processing emails and various other tasks on the iPhone, but for serious work, I would sit down at my MacBook Air. This hierarchy has expanded. My mentality has changed. I now do “serious” and intentional work on the iPhone. I don’t pull it out “just in case” anymore. Or, I bypass my iPhone all together and sit down at my desk. No more rabbit trails. No more mindlessly clicking through apps. Even though it doesn’t have an app on Apple Watch, I check Facebook less. I now only open Facebook on my iPhone when I’ve made the premeditated decision. 

Yes, I added a screen. But strangely, my total screen time has been reduced. And the most deadly temptation, screen time while driving, has almost completely been done away with. When your hands are at “ten and two,” it’s only a quick hands-free “Hey, Siri” and I’ve messaged my wife that I’m leaving work or initiated a phone call.5

Given the unique nature of Apple Watch’s location, it instills a confidence that you won’t miss an important notification, and therefore it squashes the “just in case” urge to pick up your iPhone. This results in less, but more intentional, screen time.

Anything Cool?

Some of you reading this don’t really care about my musings on how this device has changed (for good or for bad) the rhythms of my life. You just want to know, “Does it do anything cool?” For you, here are several interesting ways I’ve used Apple Watch over the past week:

I’m Surprised

I have to admit that I’m surprised by my findings after one week. I really thought it would be just a new way to get notified and another screen to distract. As a geek and lover of technology, that still has some appeal to me. Who doesn’t like a new toy? But more than a toy, and far more than an “impotent iPhone” strapped to my wrist, Apple Watch added a new layer to my health awareness, while at the same time reinventing and improving the whole concept of notifications. Practically, I now have a tool to better discriminate the priority of notifications (which ones come to Apple Watch and which ones to my iPhone) and this has encouraged less, but more intentional, screen time across all the other screens in my life. 

Now I just need to get one for my wife. Not only will I be able to send her my heartbeat, she’ll no longer miss my calls or texts.

Note: This post consists of initial reflections and addresses the most prominent concerns I heard before trying Apple Watch. My thoughts on how Apple Watch intersects with Bible and Christian ministry apps may come as a future follow-up post. 

Footnotes

  1. Digital outreach and app development is expensive (especially when executed well). A good steward will be required to discriminate when it comes to platforms, devices, and timing.
  2. I’m currently testing Outlook for iOS which doesn’t have a VIP list feature. If it did, like Mail does, I’d probably enable emails from my VIPs only.
  3. I was trimming the shrubs at the front of our home this weekend, and Apple Watch let me know a friend was calling. I had no idea my iPhone was ringing due to the vibration and noise of my equipment.
  4. However, putting your devices away for a day or a period of time during the day is a great way to enhance time with family or your spouse.
  5. Please obey the laws regarding cell-phone calls where you live.
  6. I don’t wear it in the shower now. There’s no real need, my wrist needs to get a daily wash, and I’ll wait until Apple officially says the device can handle that kind of water exposure long-term.

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