How turning your phone into grey scale can do wonders for your attention
As someone who finds giving anything my continuous attention difficult, I’m always on the look-out for tips and tricks that can improve my concentration and render my digital life marginally less scatterbrained than normal.
So when the Lifehacker website offered a seemingly perfect One Weird Trick For Saving My Concentration, I just had to try it. The site cites Tristan Harris, a former Google project manager, who has reinvented himself as an anti-distraction campaigner. Harris’s own phone is a paean to tranquility, with colourful icons hidden in folders, the folders hidden on a second page, and then apps launched through search rather than icons to boot.
But Lifehacker’s idea was simpler: rather than trying to hide the “colourful” icons, why not use your phone’s own accessibility features to drain the colour from everything at once? Both iOS and Android offer the option to set your phone to greyscale, something that can help those who are colourblind as well as let developers more easily work with an awareness of what their visually impaired users are seeing.
For people with full colour vision, though, it just makes your phone drab. Perfect! But does it work to hinder tech companies’ attempts to capture your attention? I spent a week with my phone in greyscale mode, to give it a go, and I can report that the answer is: sort of.
Some effects are immediately notable. The bright red notification badges on iOS become much less shouty when they’re a mute grey. It’s the best of both worlds: they’re still easily legible, performing their function as notifications, but because they’re not screamingly bright, the desire to go through your apps consistently clearing the notifications is diminished. Score one for greyscale.
In other ways, however, there’s almost no effect. Once you’re actually in a social network, the slot machine effect continues to work just as well as it always has: pull to refresh, see if you’ve got more likes, look at the new posts that appear, rinse and repeat.
I still found myself spending long periods aimlessly trawling Twitter, or sending garbage Snapchats to my friends. But the whole thing was just suffused with an air of bleakness: images literally had the colour sucked out of them, I could never quite be sure what my own pictures would look like on others’ phones, and occasionally I’d have to switch the greyscale off altogether to interpret some badly-coloured chart or graph. (Yes, my social media accounts are full of graphs. Aren’t yours?). The whole thing served not to make me use social media less, but to ensure that I only ever put my phone down feeling worse than I had before.
Perhaps the biggest single change was that I simply stopped playing games on my phone. Some, like the otherwise fantastic Typeshift, were broadly unplayable (though that game does have the option to shift to colourblind-safe colour schemes); others, like the fun adventure game Love Me To Bits, lost so much of their charm that I didn’t want their impact to be lessened.
Eventually, I decided that losing those things weren’t worth the small boost to my attention that I gained. But switching my phone back to colour has, so far, had a different effect to what I was expecting. Everything seems incredibly garish; I find myself wishing that app designers would use a few more pastel shades, and a lot fewer striking reds and greens, in their icons. I’ve made changes to my phone to try and get some of the simplicity back: turning off badges on apps that don’t need them, setting my backgrounds to greyscale pictures, and even taking more photos in black and white.
I’m still a compulsive smartphone checker, though. Some people just can’t be saved.