Phones are addictive. They’re designed to be addictive. They make us less present. They make us use our time unintentionally, in ways we wouldn’t have otherwise chosen to. I’d wager that most of us agree with those claims, even if we can’t articulate them as well as Tristan Harris can. I’d wager that most of us intuitively sense that we spend too much time on our phones in large part because of how our phones are designed. Still, even if we intuitively know these things, sometimes watching a short video can really bring it home:
I’d like to think I use my phone responsibly and intentionally. I don’t use social media on my phone. I don’t play games on it. I don’t have any news apps installed. Consequently, my phone is rarely overflowing with notifications. When I want to focus on something important, I’ll often consciously leave my phone on silent and/or place it in another room.
However, even just with messaging, email, a web browser, and Youtube, my phone can still be a larger time vortex than I’d like. As I was recently reflecting on how I might be less attached to my phone, I stumbled upon the above video. Since I was already following most of Tristan Harris’ tips, I figured I might as well try out the one suggestion of his that I hadn’t yet tried: grayscale your screen.
It turns out that grayscaling your screen doesn’t just make your phone boring and less interesting to look at. It also makes your phone’s user interface more confusing and harder to parse with a single glance.
After I grayscaled my screen, I found myself thinking about the graphic design principle of hierarchy. It’s the idea that important things should stick out in some way. For example, since titles are important for obvious reasons, good design will make titles distinct in terms of size (make it bigger), color (make it pop), spacing (make it easy to read), and/or placement (set it apart). When a document or website is designed with hierarchy in mind, with one glance you can likely identify what’s most important.
Grayscaling my screen taught me just how important color is in creating hierarchy. My design background is mostly in theatrical sound design, where—go figure—color isn’t a consideration. But when it comes to user interface design, without color, carefully designed hierarchies of importance collapse. It becomes much harder to tell with just one glance what’s important and what’s not. So grayscaling my screen not only makes my phone less shiny and less interesting to look at, it also makes using it more of a chore. I need to devote more mental energy to parsing what I’m seeing, to re-creating those hierarchies of importance. Which, thereby, makes me less inclined to spend time on my phone and more inclined to throw my phone across the room and go read or go outside.
This is compounded by the fact that I’ve set my phone’s user interface to Chinese, my second language. I did this so that I’d have more daily practice using my second language, and it’s been a great way to accomplish that. It also has another effect: my phone is less of a distraction because—again—it’s more of a chore to use. I often can’t figure something out with a single glance. When I use my phone, it demands a slightly higher level of focus.
And I love it. Because if I’m honest, my phone itself isn’t that important. What’s important to me is doing meaningful work or spending quality time with my people, with my hobbies, or just with myself. Within the hierarchy of my values, spending time on my phone is near the bottom. Having my phone in grayscale (and in Chinese) helps remind me of that. It adds a useful level of friction that encourages me—and sometimes frustrates me—into aligning my time with my deeper values.
I recognize that grayscaling your screen won’t make sense for everyone, but if you are looking for tactics to help you cut back on unintentional screen time, I’d recommend you consider giving it a shot. In my experience, it isn’t too much of a hassle to temporarily set my screen back to color or to change the user interface back to English.
Although now, when I occasionally switch my phone back to color, it almost gives me a headache. The colors are too much, too noisy, too chaotic. I’m not sure how I used to handle all those colors on a daily basis before. Did I adapt to the vibrancy, or did I just grow numb and cease to notice the toll of over-stimulation? I don’t know.
On iOS phones, you should be able to switch to grayscale through your phone’s accessibility settings. You should also be able to set up a shortcut to easily switch back and forth. If you’ve got an Android phone like me, you may need to enable the hidden “Developer Options” menu.
If you’re looking for other tips for how to use your phone more mindfully, the Center for Humane Technology, which Tristan Harris co-founded, has got some other useful suggestions.
Photo by Cameron N. Coulter
“I Grayscaled My Phone” by Cameron N. Coulter is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.