I went on an Android app diet, and I've never felt better

I'm not sure how to tell you this, buddy, but you're starting to look a little bloated.

Android App Diet
Credit: JR Raphael

This New Year's, I decided it was time for a change. I set out to make a resolution and stick with it. And now, a month and a half later, I'm happy to report that I've lost a huge amount of weight -- and I'm feeling more focused and less bloated than ever.

I'm not talking about body blubber here, mind you (though if we're being fully honest, I probably could stand to cut back on the ol' candy). I'm talking about my mobile tech habits -- and specifically about the apps on my own personal Android phone.

I've had a bit of an app problem for a while now. As I pointed out in December, I've had around 1200 different apps installed on my Android devices at various times over the years. Sure, some of them have been things I've merely tried out for work, but still -- I mean, c'mon. That's a lot of apps (even if only a fraction of them is present at any given point).

Having lots of apps, as I've realized from paying attention to my own phone-based behavior as well as from observing other people's on-screen swiping habits, has the tendency to result in a few different things:

First, it makes it more cumbersome to find the apps you really need. Sure, you can set up your home screens in a sensible way -- but whether you place all your shortcuts there or dig around in your app drawer for certain items, having more clutter certainly can't help.

Second -- and perhaps most pressing for me, personally -- having more stuff on your phone makes you more prone to engage in something I like to call mindless phone-meandering. You know the drill: You find yourself with a moment of "dead air" in your day -- a few seconds or a matter of minutes without some form of active visual stimulation. Maybe your dinner companion got up to use the bathroom. Maybe you're standing in a checkout line and have an entire 60 seconds without anything to do. Or maybe you're on an exercise bike at the gym and find your mind and fingers unusually free.

You feel that familiar itch and -- probably without even realizing what you're doing -- find your hand reaching down to grasp your phone. With nothing in particular that you truly need to accomplish right that very second, you find yourself mindlessly swiping around on your screen in search of a distraction. Maybe you open Facebook. Maybe you scroll around in a news app or two. Maybe you just open up your inbox or even your app drawer and swipe around in there, desperately seeking something -- anything -- to fill the mental silence. (You'd be amazed at how many people I've seen do exactly that in a brief moment of non-stimulation.)

Hey, I'm not one to judge; I've definitely been there. More times than I'd like to admit. Over the past several months, though, I've found I prefer being less connected and remaining fully present in my physical environment -- or with whatever primary activity I'm devoting myself to at any particular moment.

That doesn't mean I'm no longer interested in mobile technology or in Android -- far from it. It simply means I want to use my devices deliberately and in a way that enhances my life rather than passively allowing them to distract me. I want to actively perform tasks when I choose, in other words -- but I don't want to do the mindless phone-meandering dance in an effort to avoid any time alone with my thoughts.

I'd been working on this on and off, with varying levels of success, since sometime last year. But no matter how hard I tried, I kept falling off the wagon and shuffling back into my old habits. So after my latest news-cycle-driven slip, I decided to go nuclear. Technology was controlling me instead of my controlling technology, and that's exactly the opposite of what I wanted. It was time to make a change.

I went through my app drawer and carefully considered every item inside. With each app, I asked myself two questions: One, was this something I had actually used within the last six months? If not, it was just creating clutter and serving no meaningful purpose. ("Maybe I'll need it one day (even though I haven't touched it in half in a year now)" doesn't count.) And two, was this something I actively and deliberately used in a way that enriched my life -- or something I passively and mindlessly opened in a way that took away from my life?

With that two-pronged test, I ended up uninstalling more than half the apps on my phone -- including every news and social media app on the list. I realized that obsessively "checking in" on the news or scrolling through this-or-that social network in the evening had started to feel more like an obligation than something I enjoyed. And so it was time to cut those cords.

I still follow the news and keep up with social media, but I do so in limited doses during the work day -- at my desktop computer -- and rarely outside of that. And man, do I feel better as a result. Lighter, more present, and more focused and able to think. When I use my phone, it's for something deliberate and at the center of my attention. Digital distractions are still a mere few taps away, of course, but not having them readily available right at my fingertips makes an enormous difference. It's a whole new world I'm finding myself inhabiting, both online and in the physical space around me.

Your situation and your preferences may vary, and I'm certainly not suggesting that everyone should go out and uninstall everything on their mobile devices. This is not a one-size-fits-all sort of remedy. But on a broad level, it is something that can help you refocus your life and your phone on what matters to you -- what you actually use and what you want to use -- and cut out the surrounding bloat. Think of it as an early spring cleaning: You can dust away unnecessary distractions and help yourself zone in on what's really important. And whether you eliminate a few apps or axe several dozen like I did, you'll almost certainly be better off for it.

(There's also the more obvious surface-level benefit of freeing up space on your phone and cutting out pointless background processing tasks -- which may or may not be significant for you but could definitely make a difference on some devices.)

Here's the best part: If you uninstall something and genuinely miss it, you can always go back and reinstall it. That'll take a whopping 30 seconds to do. But if you uninstall something and realize you either don't miss it or are happier without it, well, that's a good sign that your own personal Android app diet has been a success. It's an easy way to figure out what you really want and need and to clear out all the other crap that's just getting in the way.

For me, trimming the fat and dropping dead weight has been a revelation. My Android phone is now both more useful and less distracting. I put off my commitment as long as I could, but this new digital diet turned out to be just what the doctor ordered.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got some delicious frickin' candy in the other room with my name on it.

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