The Distraction-Free Android

Why my Google Pixel is better without Gmail, Chrome, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram… or even Google

by John Zeratsky

Back in 2014, after a few hundred thousand other people read about Jake’s Distraction-Free iPhone, I decided to try it for myself.

Unlike Jake, I can’t say I had a problem with my iPhone. It wasn’t burning a hole in my pocket, tempting me with the promise of infinity at every moment. It wasn’t distracting me from my kids, because I don’t have any. It was distracting me from my wife and my friends, but I didn’t see the problem, because it was normal.

That’s right. In those days, before I went distraction-free, my relationship to my iPhone was totally normal.

But just because something is normal, that doesn’t mean it’s good, or okay, or healthy. For generations, it was normal to smoke cigarettes, and nobody thought much about it. And then… well, then smoking became the greatest public health issue of the 20th Century.

Today, being addicted to your smartphone is more normal than ever. That’s a problem.

But it also creates an opportunity. Starting in 2014, I saw the benefits of Jake’s abnormal choice: he was more present, he did great work, and he still had plenty of time for his family and his side projects.

I wondered: “If the world is becoming more distracted and more addicted to their smartphones, what would happen if I did the opposite?”

So I gave it a try. I removed the Infinity Pools from my phone and turned off most of the notifications. It was an unscientific study with an N of 1, but the results were clear: I was a better person with a Distraction-Free iPhone.

Three years passed. A Distraction-Free iPhone became my new normal. Then in January 2017, I bought a Google Pixel and switched from iPhone to Android.

This gave me a new opportunity: To start from scratch, think about the relationship I wanted to have with my phone, then set up Android to support that relationship.

And it also gave me an excuse to write this post!

So here it is, my guide to The Distraction-Free Android.

First, the bad news. To set up a new Android phone, you have to sign in to a Google Account. And Gmail is installed by default, which means you have email automatically from the first moment you use your phone.

The good news is that Android (at least the version on my Pixel, v7.1.1) lets you disable any system app from the settings. That means you can easily turn off email, and when you need it again, turn it back on and your Google Account is still there. It’s pretty slick.

Of course, I didn’t install Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram. And I’m still not on Snapchat.

I disabled YouTube in the system settings. Yes, I used to work at YouTube, but it’s becoming a more irresistible Infinity Pool all the time. (Check out this Wall Street Journal article to see how scary-good YouTube’s recommendations have become.)

I disabled Chrome in the settings. I also logged out of Twitter and Facebook, so even when I re-enable Chrome as a “pressure-release valve,” it takes an extra step (signing in) before I can check those particular Infinity Pools.

The only infinite-ish apps I installed are Feedly, Pocket, and Kindle. All three are technically infinite but effectively finite — it’s obvious when you reach “the end,” and finding more to read takes some effort beyond just pull-to-refreshing. (Plus, I love to read.)

I was excited about my Pixel. My new phone was powerful and awesome, with a really great camera. And without Infinity Pools, it was calm and distraction-free too.

And then I remembered the Google app. This is the ultimate Infinity Pool. (I know I said that a web browser was the ultimate Infinity Pool, but I was wrong. That was BPE, or Before the Pixel Era.) On Android, there’s a Google search box built in to the home screen. It’s just sitting there, ready to answer any question at any time.

I struggled with my decision to remove the Google app. And not because of the search box — no, I knew for sure that I’d waste at least an hour a day looking up random facts and following a Wikipedia wormhole until my brain was scrambled — but because of the Google Assistant.

Google Assistant (Google’s voice interface) is built into the Google app on Android. And it’s very nice. I never had much success with Siri, but within a day of getting my Pixel, I was talking to Google Assistant constantly. And that was the problem.

I know that voice recognition is The Future, but I’m not so sure I want it to be my future. Maybe I’ll write more about that another time 🤓

There were two more pieces to my Distraction-Free Android puzzle.

The first was what to do about notes. As part of my “no fancy tools” philosophy, I used Apple Notes all the time on my iPhone. But no iPhone means no Apple Notes. With some hesitation, I installed Google Keep on my phone and started using it for writing, making lists, and jotting down notes. I was hesitant because Google Keep is still fancier than I’d like. But I decided to use it for anti-fragility reasons: It’s very reliable (like all other Google products) and if Google shuts it down, I know they’ll provide plenty of warning and an easy way to export my notes.

Next up: Send-only email. On my iPhone, I used the distraction-free Compose app from my friends at Cluster Labs. I didn’t think I could convince them to make an Android version, so I came up with another solution: First, I created a Yahoo Mail account that I only use for sending email. Then, I installed the Yahoo Mail app on my phone and added the “New Message” widget to my homescreen. Now, when I want to send an email from my phone, I just tap the widget! No inbox and no distractions. (This works for me because I don’t use Yahoo for email or anything else. But if you do, you could adapt this tactic for a different email service.)

Finally — and this has nothing to do with staying distraction-free — I really like the Live Data Wallpaper that came with my Pixel. It uses the weather and time of day to generate a color gradient that matches what’s going on outside. It’s gray on an overcast day. It’s blue during the mid-day sun. And as the day winds down, the wallpaper becomes red, orange, and then purple at night.

Our smartphones — glowing, magical portals to other worlds — pull us away from the present reality of the actual world. Sometimes that’s a good thing. But I appreciate how the Pixel’s adaptive wallpaper, in a small way, tries to keep me connected to the rhythm of the day that’s unfolding around me.