You Only Need 3 Apps on Your Phone If You Want to Function in Society (Digital Minimalism)

Phone screen displaying apps.
They aren't what you think.

I almost made the ultimate sacrifice the other day.

I was going to whip my smartphone against a wall, then go out and buy a flip phone with no apps on it. I realized that I don’t want my phone to be smart. I want it to be a dumbass.

I can’t force you to change your phone habits. I can only speak for my experience and tell you that my smartphone makes me miserable. And I know I’m not alone.

So let’s explore the apps you need, and the apps you probably don’t. Let’s strive for freedom while keeping utility.

The Only 3 Apps You Need

1. Phone

Remember talking? It’s a beautiful thing. You need a phone app to communicate with people when they aren’t around. If they don’t pick up, you leave them a message. Essential.

2. Text

My parents used to wonder what the point of texting was when you could just call someone. The intention of texting is to send messages quickly and discreetly. It’s easy, convenient, and it’s become a staple of our communication. If you were a purist, you would get rid of this too, but texting is fine with me.

3. Camera

People are wild nowadays. A camera is most useful, not for selfies, but for documentation. Photographic evidence is hard to argue with in court, so it makes sense that people take out their cameras when something weird starts happening. Capturing moments is important too.

That’s about it, honestly. Now let’s explore the apps that you probably don’t need, and why you don’t need them. The goal is to make your phone crisp and distraction-free, even if it hurts.

Apps You Probably Don’t Need

1. Email

This is a tough one, but few people need 24/7 email access. Without having email on your phone, you’re forced to use your laptop or PC. Tim Ferris pioneered two techniques for getting around this problem. One is batching, and the other is using autoresponders.

  • Batching: Batching is performing like tasks at set times while letting the tasks accumulate in between. You carve out a block of time, say 8 AM to 9:30 AM, where you respond to all your emails. You don’t check your email until the next batch. This can be done with most online activities.
  • Autoresponders: You set up an autoresponder to control your time. You create a generic message saying that you’re only checking email once per week, and if it’s urgent, please call. This gets sent to anyone trying to email you.

2. Telegram, WhatsApp, Messengers

These apps can be accessed on a PC. Otherwise, you can use more comprehensive communication platforms like Discord. Discord has all the same features as a messenger app plus you can communicate with a mic.

You can create your own server with people you chat with, share things with them, and check in periodically. It’s an online home base that you don’t have to carry with you.

3. Notetaking and “Productivity” Apps

Get yourself a good ol’ journal if you want to make notes or to-do lists. Writing things down on paper makes them official. Plus, it’s more satisfying to cross off a to-do list than to check a box on an app.

4. Calculator

Mental math keeps your brain healthy.

5. Spotify*

This one I have the most trouble letting go of, so I’ll put a star on it. It’s safe to say that music is a divine miracle from God, and even though you don’t need it on your phone, you could need it for your mental health. Podcasts too. I hate to say it, but Spotify might be essential.

6. GPS

Humans have been figuring out the way for thousands of years, and I’ve heard that planning your journeys can be a fun experience (I haven’t done that in a long time). Unless you’re passing through a rough neighborhood, you probably don’t need a GPS on your phone.

7. Amazon Shopping

Do it at home. You can look forward to coming home and seeing the status of the package you ordered.

8. Social Media

You don’t need it. You never did. If you’re using it for marketing, then batch your marketing time at home. Companies profit off your constant attention. They don’t care if you’re a miserable addict. Get rid of it, or use it as little as possible.

9. Dating Apps

Again, you can batch this. Or you could work on overcoming social anxiety in your daily life so you can meet a potential partner in the real world. People don’t do that much anymore, but face-to-face communication is as powerful as ever.

10. Venmo

Extremely convieneient. It would make for some awkward dinner exchanges to see this one go. But if you’re committed to eliminating the fluff, then you don’t need cash apps either.

11. Netflix, Youtube

Remember how we used to call people who watch TV all day couch potatoes? Well now, you can be an everywhere potato. You have a TV in your pocket. You can watch youtube when you get up.

When you eat lunch. When you get home from work. When you feel sad. When you feel happy. And before you go to bed. After a while, it makes everything feel numb. You don’t need this shit.

12. News Apps

If something big happens in the world, you’re going to hear about it. There’s no use getting lost in the constant dread. You could check the news once a week and be caught up in five minutes.

If you want to be a good, informed citizen, then read books, treat people well, and be an example. But for the sake of your own health, don’t use news apps.

12. Chrome, Internet Apps

Yup, you don’t need the internet. You don’t need to be constantly looking things up. I can feel that my brain has been conditioned to Googling, and I always indulge it. But whenever I do, I fall into rabbit holes, get distracted, and end up worse off. Breathe, and look at the world around you.

Being in Control of Your Life

Need is a strong word. All apps are useful in some situations. But do you need them? What price are you paying for convenience, quick pleasure, and accessibility? For most of us, it’s a chunk of our well-being.

In the book Essentialism, Greg McKeown stresses that freedom comes from accepting the reality of trade-offs. You decide what is most essential from a pool of good options. Once you know what’s most important, you sacrifice good for the best.

A Nonessentialist approaches every trade-off by asking, “How can I do both?” Essentialists ask the tougher but ultimately more liberating question, “Which problem do I want?”

I’d rather have the problem of inconvenience. I’d rather be in control of my life, and that means cutting out as much phone time as possible.

To be honest with you, I just want to feel like my life isn’t part of a grid. I want it to be distinct from the noise. I don’t have my memories tainted with distraction and digital depression. If you feel the same way, then I hope you can make the right sacrifices, and find your peace.