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The Tale of Two Phones
Notes on trying to break my smartphone addiction: by having a "Cocaine Phone" and a "Kale Phone".
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Today, we’re talking about why I started using two iPhones.
Also this week:
Twitter —> 𝕏 App
Thoughts on Oppenheimer
And them wild tweets (including Christmas music)
I don’t like giving advice.
This aversion is so strong that I co-host a podcast called Not Investment Advice (NIA), which really should be called Not Literally Any Type of Advice Ever (NLATAE).
But today, we are making an exception.
My friend George Mack — who writes a great newsletter that curates interesting ideas — recently shared a method to beat smartphone addiction. He calls it “The Cocaine - Kale Phone Protocol”, and I am sharing it below with his permission:
How I fixed my smartphone addiction
I have 2 phones - Cocaine Phone & Kale Phone
Here's how it works:
1. The Smartphone Paradox - Your phone is a gateway to the world's best knowledge — and the world's best distractions. It's like having the best teachers, strip clubs, and social clubs in your pocket 24-7.
2. Society's Solution - There are 2 paths people use to deal with the smartphone paradox:
Phone addict: Glued to phone constantly.
Phoneless Luddite: No access to the best technology of this century so far.
You either burn out or miss out. Instead, there's a 3rd door nobody in society is talking about: The Cocaine-Kale Phone protocol.
3. The Cocaine-Kale Protocol
I have 2 phones:
Kale Phone: Full stack serotonin. Only notes, Kindle, Uber, Maps, and emergency number for 2-3 people to call.
Cocaine Phone: Full stack dopamine. Twitter. Instagram. TikTok. WhatsApp. Anyone can contact.
4. How does the Kale Phone work? I can check this 24-7 - but it's so damn vanilla I don't feel the need to. If I want to procrastinate on it, I must read a book or generate ideas in my notes. (Win-Win) I get 90% of the upsides of having a phone -- with none of the addiction.
5. How does the Cocaine Phone work? I don't check it until ∼12pm on weekdays and ∼2pm on weekends. I still get the optionality that smartphones and social media produce. But I don't consume it 24-7 until my brain melts.
6. What are the impacts?
The Kale Phone resets your baseline.
Your Cocaine phone feels too intense after 60 minutes per day. You start to crave the Kale phone.
Two weeks ago, I implemented a version of this plan and it has worked wonders.
How do I know it worked wonders? Because I was able to sit down and finish a book in one day for the first time in ages.
Below is a photo of my personal “Cocaine - Kale Phone Protocol”:
On the left is the phone I have been using: an iPhone 11 Pro Max with every app installed (no strip club apps, though).
On the right is my second phone: an older unused iPhone 8 that I have been telling my wife I would put on Craigslist to sell for the past few years, but I never did (probably because I was wasting time on social apps).
I took the iPhone 8 and turned it into my Kale Phone. It does not have any social media or messaging apps, but it does have a bunch of reading apps (Kindle, Notes, Readwise and Instapaper).
Here is a quick self-Q&A to explain my experience with the “Cocaine - Kale Phone Protocol”:
Are you actually doing a self-Q&A?
Do you really have a smartphone addiction?
If it is not an addiction, it is certainly a problem. My iPhone’s Screen Time says I spend 7-8 hours a day on the device and pick it up over 100 times.
The constant picking-up is an issue because it sends me down random rabbit holes that consume 20-minute chunks here (scrolling Twitter / 𝕏) and 15-minute chunks there (watching random NBA highlights).
Why do you keep picking up your phone?
Because every smartphone owner is going up against the world’s top engineers, designers and behavioural psychologists, who are paid ridiculous sums of money by Big Tech firms to get people addicted to their apps.
The main way they hook us is by using variable rewards. Most of you readers are probably familiar with this concept, but here is a refresher. In the 1950s, psychologist B.F. Skinner conducted an experiment to see how he could influence the behaviour of pigeons (and later rats). Skinner put the pigeons in a box — called a Skinner Box — and got them to peck a button by giving out food as a reward. The key finding was that a pigeon pecked the button like crazy when the food reward came at seemingly random intervals (as opposed to a predictable schedule).
Why are variable rewards such powerful motivators? Because the anticipation of a reward motivates behaviour more than actually receiving the reward. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective as survival relies on constantly seeking out food, mates and information.
Variable rewards are also powerful motivators for humans. The reward centres in our brains receive dopamine in anticipation of a reward (food, sex, money, information, drugs).
Slot machines are the canonical example. If players knew the exact outcome for each play, the game would become boring really fast. It is the unpredictable payout that makes slot machines so addictive.
Slot machine design has been incorporated into video games and smartphones. Think of all the anticipation involved in standard app usage:
E-mail: Is there an update on the project I’m working on?
Messaging: Did my friend send me a dank meme?
News: Did any crazy geopolitical events happen overnight?
Dating: Did I match?
Trading: Did my YOLO bet pay off?
Social: Did my tweet/video/post go viral?
LinkedIn: Did anyone important look at my profile? (J/K, no one cares)
How many times have you picked up your phone and just scrolled through all your apps to see any new notifications, even though you just checked 8 minutes earlier?
The smartphone is a Skinner Box and we are rats.
Why don’t you just lock your phone away?
I don’t want to go full Luddite and need it to communicate with my family.
I did experiment with a Kitchen Safe lock box, though. Physically locking away my iPhone definitely reduced the urge to use it, but the lock box was too restrictive and I couldn’t contact my family.
Why don’t you put a time restriction on the apps?
Let's be honest: every person who has a time limit on an app eventually resets it by entering their password when the "you have reached your time limit" prompt appears.
Why not just delete apps?
I have had some form of digital distraction for decades: playing GTA, binge-watching HBO or losing money on Fantasy Sports.
I derive tons of benefits from social and messaging apps, but I need to be more reasonable on time spent.
How about buying a burner Nokia brick phone?
Nah. Like George says, the smartphone is the most powerful technology if used correctly.
My current workflow includes a ton of Instapaper/Kindle reading and Notes writing on the iPhone.
A potential middle ground is a Kindle reader. However, typing on that thing is a pain in the ass and the browser is too slow. I also want to minimize the number of devices I have to carry around.
Ok, so how has the Kale Phone worked?
In terms of distractions, the apps that get me the most are Twitter / X, Gmail, WhatsApp, YouTube and Telegram.
Whenever I have tried to do deep reading on my phone over the past few years, it has been a disaster.
It got to the point where I would read one page on Kindle, then check my Twitter. One page on Kindle, then check G-Mail. One page on Kindle, turn on a Spotify podcast and listen for 5 minutes while scrolling NBA highlights on YouTube (I believe Andrew Huberman calls this “dopamine stacking”).
Now, I just load up my Kale Phone with everything I need to read for the day. And I have access to Notes / Readwise to save ideas or knock out a few paragraphs if I’m in the mood.
The iPhone 8 browser is so small and slow as compared to my iPhone 11 Pro Max (aka Cocaine Phone), that dicking around in Safari is actually not that pleasant of an experience (but better than a Kindle device).
Also, my usage is a bit different than how George laid out, specifically on time. I do a quick social/messaging sweep on the Cocaine Phone in the morning. Then Kale Phone until the afternoon (and go only Kale after 8-9pm).
In sum: When I’m on the Kale Phone, I have the family communication element covered and access to all the world’s knowledge, with a good-enough text editor.
So, the Kale Phone has its own SIM card?
Yep. Got the cheapest talk and text plan I could find (~$100 a year). Basically no data, so I just use WiFi.
And I give the number to my family.
Any related studies you’ve found for the Cocaine-Kale Phone Protocol?
Not specifically for Cocaine vs. Kale Phones (although someone should do that).
But the Harvard Business Review did an interesting study in 2018. Researchers wanted to uncover the effect of smartphones on cognitive ability. They put two groups through cognitive tasks with one difference: the first group had their smartphones in another room, while the other group had the smartphone in their pocket.
The group with smartphones in their pockets performed worse on the cognitive tasks and the researchers offered up a potential explanation:
Research in cognitive psychology shows that humans learn to automatically pay attention to things that are habitually relevant to them, even when they are focused on a different task. For example, even if we are actively engaged in a conversation, we will turn our heads when someone says our name across the room. Similarly, parents automatically attend to the sight or sound of a baby’s cry.
Our research suggests that, in a way, the mere presence of our smartphones is like the sound of our names — they are constantly calling to us, exerting a gravitational pull on our attention. If you have ever felt a “phantom buzz” you inherently know this. Attempts to block or resist this pull takes a toll by impairing our cognitive abilities.
I think the concept of “gravitational pull” applies to the Cocaine Phone perfectly. All these social, news and messaging apps are tugging at our brains because they are “habitually relevant” (oh, also that sweet sweet dopamine).
For me, going full Luddite and throwing away everything doesn’t make sense. That is why the Kale Phone is so great: I get the benefits without having to deal with the “gravitational pull”.
Do you advise people to try the Cocaine-Kale Phone Protocol?
I already feel that the Kale Phone is resetting my baseline for what is enjoyable on the Cocaine Phone. And I am reading much more.
However, I do not give advice so I can’t answer the question either way.
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Links and Memes
Twitter rebrands to the 𝕏. Followers of Elon’s career will know that his second startup in the late 1990s was a payments firm called X, which later merged with another payments startup to form PayPal. The original plan for X was to create an all-in-one financial platform (banking, lending, trading etc). Since acquiring Twitter last fall, it became pretty clear that Elon would use the social networking platform as a jumping-off point to fulfill that original vision for X.
That vision has since grown to become an “everything app”, similar to China’s WeChat (which combines Twitter, Uber, PayPal, Amazon, YouTube, Substack, and WhatsApp into a single app). So, Twitter’s rebranding to 𝕏 last week really wasn’t that surprising.
The skeptical take is that the rise of WeChat in China over the past decade is due to factors that are now much different: 1) China banned competing Western apps (allowing home-grown ones to dominate); 2) China’s mobile internet was choppy when WeChat launched in 2011 (so, a single well-functioning app was preferable to multiple mediocre apps); and 3) the current app landscape — for anything that would be included in an “everything app” — is already saturated and hyper-competitive.
My initial reaction to the rebranding was “wow, that’s a lot of brand equity to throw away”. But in my sample size of N=1, I can say I’m still as addicted as ever (hence, the Kale Phone). I know others think the network effect is fraying, but it has already survived a ton of turmoil, including a direct hit from Zuck Daddy’s Threads App.
The more bullish take is that Twitter as a text-based social network clearly has a capped upside. When Elon acquired it for $44B last year — which he has said was a 2-3x overpay — Twitter had barely changed in value since its 2013 IPO date. Of course “Twitter” and “tweet” have massive cultural mindshare (a lot of people will just keep calling it that) but the narrative is maxed out. The re-branding to 𝕏 and layering on of financial services and other tools creates a new narrative to attract talent and raise capital.
The idea of Twitter going public in a few years is not particularly compelling. The idea of an “everything app” 𝕏 combined with Elon’s new AI firm (xAI) — one which will have the world’s best real-time text training data — is a narrative that would generate sizeable interest in an IPO. The move is obviously a big swing with many challenges ahead. However, it is possible because Twitter / 𝕏 isn’t the main event in Elon’s business universe (it ranks third behind Tesla and SpaceX). He can actually attempt to make it happen because why not?
Twitter co-founder and former CEO Jack Dorsey says the key for an 𝕏 rebrand is “utility” and not necessarily the name. I'm focussing on that and the network effects, which I get can unravel but — damn — has it proven resilient.
(PS. If you want a deep dive on Elon and the history of X, check out this piece by Gareth Edwards in Every)
Thoughts on Oppenheimer: When you become a parent, the ability to randomly leave the house for 5 hours at a time goes out the window. All social excursions need to be planned far in advance. As a result, I have only seen two movies in theatres over the past 6 years: Dunkirk (2017), and Oppenheimer (2023). Both are Christopher Nolan films about World War II, which means two things. Firstly, Nolan is the only director that will get me into a theatre to pay $30 for a large popcorn. Secondly, I am a living embodiment of this tweet:
My review of the film: “I sat down for over 3 hours and had zero urge to look at my smartphone”. That is the equivalent of 6 out of 5 stars. The film is fantastic. Cillian Murphy is incredible as Oppenheimer. Matt Damon is great as General Leslie Rhodes. Robert Downey Jr. nails it as Oppenheimer’s political foe Lewis Strauss. The pacing is perfect and the music keep you on the edge of your seat. You know the outcome — a successful atomic bomb explosion — but the tension doesn’t let up.
Anyway, since this is nominally a tech and business newsletter, let me leave you with a quote from Steve Jobs (via Walter Isaacson’s biography). The Apple founder used Oppenheimer’s leadership during the Manhattan Project as a template for building his team at Apple:
For most things in life, the range between best and average is 30% or so. The best airplane, the best meal, they may be 30% better than your average one. What I saw with Apple co-founder [Steve Wozniak] was somebody who was fifty times better than the average engineer. He could have meetings in his head. The Mac team was an attempt to build a whole team like that, A players.
People said they wouldn’t get along, they’d hate working with each other. But I realized that A players like to work with A players, they just didn’t like working with C players. At Pixar, it was a whole company of A players. When I got back to Apple that’s what I decided to do.
[…] My role model was J. Robert Oppenheimer. I read about the type of people he sought for the atom bomb project. I wasn’t nearly as good as he was, but that’s what I aspired to do.
Some other links for your content needs:
A good Oppenheimer read: “Einstein and Oppenheimer’s Real Relationship Was Cordial and Complicated” via Vanity Fair.
Dating in 2023: Fascinating deep dive from Rob Henderson on the current dating scene, including the psychological effects of dating apps:
Here's a sketch of what might be happening: Men high on the Dark Triad (psychopathy, narcissism, Machiavellianism) use dating apps. They might make up 10-20% of users. They go on a rampage, sleeping with lots of women, playing games with them, leading them on, ghosting them, lying to them, etc. Dark Triad men are excellent impostors; they are good at mimicking desirable romantic qualities, and are thus able to procure lots of sex partners. The women they sleep with become disillusioned. These women begin to behave in psychopathic and narcissistic ways to protect themselves from emotional vulnerability and pain, and perhaps as a way to even the score with “men” as a category. They learn to avoid Dark Triad men and exploit normal men. These men become confused and upset, and begin to treat other women the same way to “get even.” In short, Dark Triad men mistreat women, who then mistreat ordinary men, who then mistreat ordinary women. Bad behavior drives out the good.
Return on Hassle: Nick Maggiulli writes about the trade-offs involved for owning rental properties and compares it to other asset classes, specifically around how much hassle is involved (least hassle = T-bill, most hassle = starting your own business). I have zero interest in owning rental properties. Swapping winter tires on my car is like pulling teeth…I can’t imagine maintaining multiple properties.
…and them banger tweets (Xs):