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Is this the anti-smartphone? Siempo's phone cuts out distracting notifications

There’s no question about it: Smartphones are a massive time sink. According to a study by psychologists at Nottingham Trent University, young adults use their phone roughly five hours every day, and it isn’t just young people. Researchers at Deloitte found that Americans of all ages check social media apps, email, and texts a collective 8 billion times each afternoon.

The reasons why each of us reach again and again for the buzzing handsets in our pockets differ, of course, but some psychologists believe it’s an urge rooted in instinctual curiosity. Others argue it’s a form of addiction, and that our phones scratch a habitual itch to know what our friends, family, and acquaintances are up to at any given moment. No matter the cause of our smartphone attachment syndrome, though, most agree it’s a problem — and one that Jorge Selva set out to solve with Siempo, a “new class” of phone that limits distractions.

A distraction-free smartphone

Inspiration struck Selva on a phone-free trip to Peru. “I remember I was sitting out one morning with coffee, reading my Kindle, and thinking to myself, ‘Why do I need my phone?'” he said. “It buzzes for my attention and sucks me into a rabbit hole. I thought I’d have this anxiety or stress, but I didn’t really miss anything,” he said. “I felt productive, present.”

The Siempo is a smartphone at its core. It has a 1GHz quad-core processor, a camera, 8GB of internal storage, a fast-charging 1,600mAh battery, a 4-inch high-resolution screen, and an Android-based operating system. However, it’s unmistakably nontraditional. Unlike flagship phones from the likes of Samsung, LG, Apple, and others, the Siempo doesn’t do a whole lot, and that’s sort of the point.

The design process was evolutionary, Selva said. “We started as a minimalist phone — a dumbphone,” he said. “Then we realized that by migrating to a smartphone design, it gave people more of the ‘nice to haves’ — email, for example. When you’re going after young people, that gives them what they need for a primary phone.”

The Siempo is organized around the idea of “intentions,” or the digital tasks and goals you want to accomplish you unlock your phone. It lacks a home screen and instead serves up what Selva called the Intention Field: A blank search box that uses intelligence to guess at what you want.

It’s as impressive — and clever — as it sounds. Enter a name in the Intention Field, and it’ll pull up the person’s details if they’re in your contact list (or let you add them if they aren’t). It recognizes notes, too, so typing “Buy the milk” will prompt you to save a reminder to Siempo’s memento app. You can even send texts directly from the Intention Field to the recipient number of your choice.

The Intention Field’s just the beginning of Siempo’s minimalist suite. The phone packs a simple email client, calendar app, web browser, and mapping service powered by Google Maps.

Just press pause

However, the undoubted highlight is the Siempo’s “Pause” button, a physical key on its side that temporarily disables incoming notifications.

Pause is a little like Android’s Priority mode. For a block of time, which you specify beforehand, the Siempo blocks text messages and other alerts that aren’t from contacts you’ve chosen to let through.

“It kind of prevents our lizard brain from taking over,” Selva said. “If you see a notification, you’re going to check it.”

“We’ve always had trouble living intentionally and exercising control,  it’s human nature”

Mindful Morning, another of the Siempo’s “focus features,” works in much the same way. When enabled, you won’t see any of the notifications you received overnight. Instead, you’ll get the alarms you set the night before and a list of preparatory, meditative, or wellness tasks to complete.

“We realized that our phones weren’t serving us — that they didn’t benefit us,” said Selva. “It’s the ‘Pomodoro Technique’ — taking chunks of time to accomplish specific activities.”

It isn’t a new problem, Selva said. “We’ve always had trouble living intentionally and exercising control,” he said. “It’s human nature.”

Selva said the decision to design a smartphone rather than release an app for devices on the market was motivated by logistics, in part. “We couldn’t quite deliver on [notifications],” he said. “we tried to hide things and bring them back up, but it didn’t work properly.”

The inefficacy of app-based solutions was the another sticking point — the team wanted to make sure Siempo delivered on its distraction-free promise. “We did extensive research into people who’ve set up phones and found that overwhelmingly, people start strong but fall back,” he said. “Most apps are too easy to circumvent.”

Are people rejecting smartphones?

Siempo seems to have tapped a nerve. One of the most buzzed-about phones this year is the Nokia 3310, a 2G dumbphone. So-called digital-detox camps like Camp Grounded, which charge as much as $600 for phone-free excursions in the Northern California wilderness, have exploded in popularity, too, and it’s no wonder. Studies show that putting down your smartphone for a few extra hours can reduce anxiety and depression.

The Siempo may fall short of a true cure to the problem — it’s a smartphone, after all — but Selva sees it as a half-step toward more mindful living. “People yearn for a better way to be,” he said. “We want to offload that mental stress however we can.

Siempo launches on Kickstarter for $350 this month, and you can sign up for updates here. The first prototypes will become available in May, and the launch target’s Christmas.

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