The smartphone app audit

I recently upgraded from a Google Pixel 7 to Pixel 8 phone. Nothing earth shattering about this upgrade. Incremental. “Performance smartphones,” as the DOJ recently called iPhones and high end Androids, have leveled off in core functionality.

The Pixel 8 is slightly smaller than the Pixel 7, which makes me happy, as I treat my phone as a utility device, not a content or gaming device. It has small upgrades in battery life, screen, and connectivity. The most interesting upgrade is a USB-C desktop display mode for external monitors, which I’m excited to try out for Google Photos, for reviewing hi-res photos on a bigger screen.

When I am working at a laptop-docked ergonomic desktop computer setup during the day, I like the idea of my phone being like a second desktop (with an actual monitor, keyboard, and mouse!) rather than this buzzing distraction in my pocket. This is all a part of my long desire to resurrect the read-write creative abilities on what were, for many years, read-only passive consumption devices.

The biggest change for me during this smartphone upgrade, though, was that I decided to do a smartphone app audit at the same time.

That is, I wanted to figure out, what apps do I have installed, and why?

And, in particular, can I remove the apps from my life that are time wasters and pure distractions?

To do this audit, I used a few tools. First, I took screenshots of my app launcher. Android supports “capture more” screenshots, aka scrolling screenshots, which means I can capture all my app icons in the launcher with just 2 extra-long vertical screenshots.

Then, I used some great open source software, ocrmypdf, to convert these images into text. This is a Python project with a simple CLI, and despite the name it works just as well on image files as on PDFs. Take a look at the --sidecar option to do plain text exports from images.

Then, I used ChatGPT4 to clean up that text and remove optical character recognition (OCR) artifacts from that text. I also asked ChatGPT4 to categorize the apps in 3 two-letter category codes: utilities (UU); private group chat or direct messaging (DM); and, social media, time wasting, or distraction (XX).

I then manually annotated this spreadsheet selecting the rows I wanted to uninstall (all the XX apps, for starters), and marking other rows as either “episodic” or “unused.”

By “episodic,” I meant that it was an app I could just install, just-in-time, when I need it for some episodic task. For example, I don’t need Airbnb installed all the time, as I only use Airbnb once every couple years. Same for, Delta, and other travel apps. Also “episodic”: some apps related to healthcare, events, finance, education.

I also marked some apps as “essential,” where I use them everyday and need them to work. Examples here are my password manager, authenticator, Gmail, Noom (for food tracking), Fitbit (for exercise tracking), and Loop Habits (a daily habit tracker).

From here, I could be really intentional about the rest of my apps. Especially by viewing the full list of 200 (yes, 200) installed apps in a big spreadsheet.

Based on some quick Googling, it seems the major App Stores from Apple and Google have over 2 million apps in them, each, and the average American has over 80 apps installed on their phone, 30 of which they use every month. The other 50 are installed but mostly unused.

It’s clear I have more apps installed than most, but still not as many as could be conceivably be installed. As a long-time techie, startup guy, and programmer, it doesn’t surprise me that I’m outside the norm here.

Yes, I need the various texting apps to bridge various private texting networks (Signal, WhatsApp, Telegram, Element, Slack). I decided against Discord because though it can be a direct messenger, it’s mostly a distraction. With a heavy heart, I killed Twitter/X, Mastodon, Reddit. I would relegate those to desktop only. With a much less heavy heart, perhaps some glee, I killed Facebook and Instagram. I don’t use TikTok, Snapchat, or BeReal, and I never plan to start, for various reasons.

I thought it would be too hard to remove YouTube, so I kept it, but put it under the watchful eye of the one sec app, to restrict my usage to only the truly intentional. I am meticulous about cleaning up my YouTube watch history so that the recommendations stay focused on deep technical programming topics and a mix of philosophy lectures and film reviews.

As usual, I keep almost all app notifications turned off, and even give myself some extra notification suppression abilities via the Nap app.

Altogether, I killed 18 social media, time waster, and distraction apps. If you want to see the full list, here it is.1

I also killed 40 more apps that were episodic or rarely used. This left only the handful of DM apps, the handful of essential apps, and then (still!) about 80 utility apps. In the non-essential, non-DM category you have apps like Uber, Venmo, Notion, Simplenote, ChatGPT, and the like.

Overall, that’s 30% fewer apps, and 100% fewer time wasting apps.

So far, my phone feels a lot lighter. I’m loving it.

I also have that weird experience of being out on a walk or bored waiting on a line somewhere, then grabbing my phone to try to open a time waster app, and then realizing it’s uninstalled. So then I just (discreetly) put my phone back in my pocket.

My mind is starting to wander again during these lulls in daily life, which is a great feeling.

I’m debating whether to abandon podcasts next. They are the only daily content habit I’m unsure about. I feel I get a lot of value out of them, but they also chew up a lot of mind-wandering time.

In any case, I highly encourage you do your own smartphone app audit. It doesn’t take too long. Uninstalling dozens of apps is weirdly satisfying.

  1. The full list of killed “social media, time wasting, and distraction” apps: Bluesky; Discord; Facebook; Instagram; LinkedIn; Mastodon; Netflix; NYTimes; Google News; Readwise Reader; Prime Video; Reddit; Steam; Substack; Threads; Washington Post; X (Twitter); YouTube Music. 

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