The Black & White Phone Experiment

Published by Thriving Erin on


I remember life before cell phones, I even remember life before internet. My generation is the last to have grown up without this technology. My family got internet (such an archaic statement) when I was a teenager. I got my first cellphone when I was in university and there was definitely nothing ‘smart’ about it. It was an LG flip-phone with a tiny screen, no ability to connect to the internet and no camera.


Now, twelve years later, I’m spending an average of two hours a day on my phone and let’s be honest, that’s significantly lower than average. Especially the average of those under 30. There are a multitude of reports online studying daily smartphone use and they all have slightly different numbers, but it looks like the average is probably somewhere between 3.5 to 5 hours of smartphone use per day.


Maybe it’s my age — the fact that I can remember a time before I had an iPhone — but I hate being so attached to my phone. But here’s the reality, I don’t want to become a dinosaur. I don’t want to get so out of date with technology that I can’t take advantage of the great things it has to offer. With how much I travel, I love being able to take quality photos with my phone, I love that I can download almost an entire city to my offline google maps so I don’t get lost, I love how cheap and easy it is to connect with family back home using Skype or FaceTime, and I love that I can cheer for my favourite sports teams while watching games from anywhere in the world. However, how can we do all this without getting sucked down the rabbit hole? I’m not saying we shouldn’t have smartphones, but how can we make them work for us rather than letting them control us? How can we optimize our phone usage so that they support us in our drive to thrive intentionally?


Last week I read an interesting article on how to minimize the time we waste on our phones. It entailed changing a phone’s settings to black and white, and immediately after finishing the article, I decided to do a one-week experiment. It took me about 10 seconds to go into my iPhone’s settings and make the necessary changes. I’m not going to lie, it was quite startling at first. Everything looked dull and boring. There was nothing that stood out anymore. It intrigued me how differently my brain was processing what it was seeing. Despite the fact that the content was exactly the same, I just wasn’t that interested, there was nothing drawing me in. Even my emails and WhatsApp messages seemed duller. I always assumed these apps were just text, I never realized how much colour there was across every app in my phone.



One of the reasons for doing this is that it’s supposed to reduce the stimulation our brain is getting from the bright colours. Our brains instinctively relate bright colours to importance and designers use this to create products that draw us in. One of the biggest things I noticed this past week was that I barely noticed when an ad popped up. Banners across the top of websites didn’t even register in my brain. I was able to focus more clearly on the content I was actually looking for.


I don’t have anything against using smartphones, if I did, I wouldn’t have one. But it’s the rabbit hole of connecting stories and links and ads that causes many of us to get drawn in for longer than we intend. I don’t like how easy it is to waste my time, to look up after reading through five linked articles and realizing I just wasted 20 minutes that I was planning to spend on something else. During this week of black and white, my screen time went down by about 25 minutes a day. Will that change my life? Probably not. But it’s a nice feeling to be more aware of where my time is going.


I restored the standard colour settings on my phone a few minutes ago and I was shocked at how overwhelming it felt after a week of black and white. I actually had to squint to look at the home screen and all the brightly coloured apps seem obnoxious. The red alert circles even more so. My phone is now demanding a response from me, I almost feel like it’s yelling at me to follow up on each cue.


In black and white it was easier to intentionally go in to respond to one specific alert or search for one specific thing. Now, the untapped stimulation of checking all those different alerts is making me anxious just thinking about it. This doesn’t make sense. I’m not the kind of person who is addicted to my phone. Why am I having this type of visceral reaction?


Right now, all I can think of is the relief I will get from changing the settings back to black and white. Though there’s a part of me that’s curious how quickly I will settle back into the colour. Will it take me a week?

A day?

Perhaps only an hour?

In fact, I may already be starting to get used to it again . . .




Dane Sanders · January 30, 2019 at 3:07 pm

So clever. I like the idea of lasso’ing the beast in novel ways like this. I’ve been playing with the limits function with good success too. More of this! The idea of making the servant the servant and not the master seems entirely right and good.

Tyler Lowe · January 30, 2019 at 3:30 am

Hi Erin – wow what an interesting post. I’ve been getting screen time notification posts on my phone which tell me how much time I’m spending….seems like an inordinate amount of time to me (though apparently, I’m well under the average for millennials) and I appreciate your attempt to take a more intentional approach to how you use your phone. Switching to black and white seems a bit analogous to cutting back on sugar …..would you agree? And what was the biggest thing you learned by ‘cutting back’ from this experience … did you feel healthier? more productive? better able to prioritize your time?

Kristin · January 30, 2019 at 3:17 am

I had not heard of this switch but am so glad you shared this! I too remember being in grad school with a dumb phone and saying to my husband, “I don’t need to check my email all the time, why would I get a smartphone?”. Your description of the rabbit hole is really compelling. I actually wrote about a similar topic recently — our reflexive reaching for cell phones without really thinking through exactly what it is we want this technology to do for us.

Now that you’ve made this shift, what’s the next step? Are you going to look for other ways to manage consumption?

In the first paragraph, I wonder what metaphor you might use for what you’re describing.

Do you think that the transition to a dumb phone would really turn you into a dinosaur? Your reasons for having a smartphone (bless the offline maps!) are compelling on their own.

I also wonder if you might be more precise in this sentence, as the piece sort of centers on some of the issues inherent in smart phones. What is this sentence really trying to communicate? “I don’t have anything against using smartphones, if I did, I wouldn’t have one.”

Thanks again for sharing this tip. I’d be eager to hear how your relationship with your phone continues to evolve.

Helen Lim · January 29, 2019 at 5:40 am

Erin, this is fascinating! As a nerd who loves learning how the brain works, I can’t help but see this as a hack for productivity and more efficient use of attention. For instance, if you’re aware your phone is a distraction, quickly change it to b+w and notice how you look to distract yourself in other ways. This could be a fun experiment to know your habits better. Another point is how color competes for attention with everything else in the real world. Or what about the colors on your work computer versus what is on your phone? That could help with focus. Or maybe if you know you want to give people you’re attention, how about going b+w on your phone while with people?

Thanks for opening my eyes to this! In what context do you think b+w can help you focus your attention where you actually want to?

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