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App-Ed: The Secret to a Saner Smartphone Relationship

If you can’t unplug completely, try Do Not Disturb

Five years ago, I crashed my car into a parked service vehicle because I was texting while driving. My car was totaled and my ego was equally damaged. “How the fuck did you hit a parked car?!” the tow truck driver yelled before hauling away my mangled Nissan hatchback. The service truck I struck had hardly a scratch on it.

The episode remains the single most embarrassing moment of my life, but a positive experience in that it forced me to re-evaluate my relationship with technology—specifically, my iPhone. Not to sound clichéd, but it was a costly lesson on the dangers of texting and driving. There’s ample research that suggests using your phone while driving is more dangerous than driving drunk. The problem is so pervasive that AT&T has mounted a public service campaign against it in recent years, accompanied by the hashtag #ItCanWait. (“It” being that text I was attempting to send.)

So when I relented and bought a car several weeks back, I vowed never to simultaneously operate it and a smartphone. Problem was, I needed my phone to navigate, so airplane mode wasn’t an option. The ideal solution would have been a driving mode that allowed me to control my phone purely by voice command, that shut off all apps except for Google Maps, Waze, Spotify and Podcasts. Instead, I activated my phone’s “Do Not Disturb” setting for the first time, and it’s changed my life for the better.

The Do Not Disturb function is as helpful as it is inconspicuous. It’s hidden in the iPhone’s Settings app — where many are likely to miss it, if they visit there at all. Savvy iPhone users access DND by swiping up from the bottom of their screens, opening Control Center and tapping the crescent moon icon.

Its utility cannot be overstated. When DND is activated, your phone remains to connected to Wi-Fi and/or cell service, but all of your notifications cease. You can receive emails, texts and other messages, but they appear on your phone silently, completely stamping out that Pavlovian signal to respond.

The best part about DND is that even it is customizable. You can engineer DND such that you receive no notifications at all, or that you only receive them when your phone isn’t locked (i.e., when your phone is open and you’re actively using it). You can completely silence phone calls. Or you can have a soft barrier, only allowing people from your Favorites list to call you.

The benefits for driving are obvious: I throw on DND, blocking everything but calls from my Favorites, which I can receive hands-free through my car’s Bluetooth system.

But I soon found DND was useful in other contexts, such as when I’m at a movie or want to read for an uninterrupted period of time. DND can help you be more present at dinner events and parties, and is vital when you’re trying to calm your mind before bed.

The only potential downside is leaving DND on when you’re actually open to random encounters. A friend texted me about a party the other weekend, and I didn’t see his message until two hours later. By then, he had already made other plans.

If you’re anything like me, years of carrying a smartphone in your pocket and the pressures of an always-on work culture have instilled the idea that you must read and respond to messages immediately. That buzz in your pocket is all-consuming. Notifications create a false sense of urgency; anxiety that you’ve fallen behind in the conversation, or that you are being rude to the people trying to reach you.

We’ve been so conditioned by those bells, dings and vibrations that often, we can’t help ourselves. Just as we’ve been trained to respond, turning on DND can help negate that response completely. It helps protect us from our worst impulses.

Throwing your phone in a drawer or putting in on airplane mode can leave you feeling disconnected from the world at large. DND offers a perfect medium — there’s no pressure to respond instantly, allowing you to check your messages at random, leisurely intervals.

Look, I’m still not a great driver. A female passenger recently accused me of “driving like a lit-up dad” because I change lanes too often and make every attempt to cut down on travel time. But thanks to DND, I don’t look at my phone anymore while driving, which means all the parked cars out there are safe.

John is a staff writer at MEL, where he recently interviewed author Chuck Klosterman about why no one will care about The Beatles in 100 years.

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