iPod Classic in 2019 — What I learned from using it for a month
Listening to music has become a bit of a frustrating affair for me ever since the fall of Rdio in 2015. The few years we had with Rdio I remember as blissful — that app had a perfect balance of social, discovery and management features and it worked. After that came chaos with my collection distributed across iTunes, Spotify, Youtube and various new services.
But.. it’s now been four years maybe it’s time to move on?
Fast forward to January 2019, someone mentioned an iPod Classic in a group conversation at work. We all instantly got teary-eyed and talked about how it was our favourite piece of tech and how the times were simpler back then.
So, not at all driven by impulse or nostalgia, I acquired a used iPod Classic shortly after, for around $120 on eBay. Despite the last generation being 12 years old now, they still sell used for around 50% of retail value. New/unopened often exceed the original retail price of $249.
How’s it like to use an iPod Classic in 2019?
Well.. it doesn’t start easy. You either download all your music purchases into one place or dig out a long-forgotten hard drive with your collection of completely legally ripped MP3’s. Once all your music is in iTunes, you plug in your 30-pin cable 😭 and the iPod starts filling up with music. It took about an hour. Then you go dig around your place to find some wired headphones.
All the while you’re getting started, the magical sound of the click wheel, the skeuomorphic gradients and the bittersweet bouts of nostalgia when playing Vortex make you feel fuzzy and comfortably warm inside, distracting you from the downsides pretty effectively.
Now, the good stuff. The hardware and software are incredible for being 12 years old. Older than the first iPhone, the device is light, pretty, fast and small. The impressive amount of detail and thought put into the experience makes using it still simply fun. There’s an always-on clock on the display when it sleeps. Voice Memos app pops up when you plug in a headset with a microphone. The battery lasts for weeks. Coverflow shines as the first sign of an exciting era in music we never experienced. Things are good.
It would be easy to get all nostalgic now and start telling you about simpler times, about how we’re all overwhelmed with information, how streaming is ruining ‘real music’.
I definitely had those thoughts, and many more, over my month-long experiment with the iPod Classic. More importantly, I enjoyed my time with it, and it taught me a lot about how I work, listen to music and how exactly I get distracted. So let’s talk about that instead.
How iPod helped me bring sanity back to my phone
I listen to music when I work. It helps me focus for extended periods of time. This has become increasingly at odds with how distracted I get when I use my phone. Intending to just fire up an album on Spotify, I end up looking at lyrics, bios, youtube videos, eventually I catch myself landing in different apps, checking messages or chatting with friends. Just remembering this gives me a strong physical sensation, of exploding and imploding at the same time. The feeling of losing energy on meaningless stuff.
The iPod Classic is free of all of that. The initial week felt like a withdrawal period — rather than navigate to something distracting, I became aware of the self-destructive impulse and had to simply let it go. This is because there is nothing to do on the iPod apart from music. This leads to my biggest learning from using the iPod:
Having a device dedicated to just music in 2019 is bliss. After the initial week it became freeing, almost exhilarating. Where there was distraction and context-switching before, now was just more focus. And beyond that first week it became effortless and natural.
Spending over a month with just the iPod by my side reinforced this important lesson over and over. This is one of the reasons I’m writing this post — I really want it to stick.
With the experiment now over, there are three main takeaways that I stick to every day. They help me maintain the state of focus while enjoying music and my phone at the same time.
1. Use just one device for all music.
Previously, I often listened to music on my laptop when working, and on the phone when away. Limiting myself to one device means I have less variables to control. For example, using Youtube on my laptop brings an entirely different set of challenges than when I listen to music on my phone. (This is why, I think, Rdio worked so well for me. It was so self-contained, I rarely drifted outside of the app).
I’ve been applying this outside of music too. What I do on my laptop, I don’t do on my phone and vice-versa. Laptop has my emails and all work stuff. Phone has my music, calendar, articles, friends. The only points of convergence remaining are my tasks in OmniFocus and notes in Evernote. And I rarely reach for those outside of work so they might be gone soon, too.
Trading convenience of a unified experience for ability to focus is exactly that — a trade off. At the same time, it’s one of the key changes that allowed me clean up my harmful patterns and heavy emotions not just around music, but around technology in general.
2. When you want to focus, listen to music in Airplane Mode.
In other words, when I want focus, I treat my phone as if it was the iPod. While it requires some preparation, it really works. Purposefully staying offline sends a strong message to our brains. That we are intentional about what we’re doing right now and our brain does not have permission to wander around. Give it a try for even a few hours and see how it impacts your ability to focus or simply enjoy music.
To make this possible here are several things you could try:
- Save focus music for offline use — all streaming apps have this option
- Try a dedicated music player app — for example Cesium on iPhone works even with your Apple Music subscription
- Use your own library of files and sync it to your phone
3. Limit distractions on your phone.
Technology is cool if it works for us. My relationship with smartphones quickly got a lot more complicated than this. Many smart people write about this, so rather than repeat their words worse, here are two great places to start.
Institute of Humane Technology site has a wonderful list of expertly curated tips to try. Here are some of my favourites:
- Disable all notifications, except from apps where real people want your attention. I disable all notifications apart from my calendar.
- Only keep tools on your home screen. Move other apps off of the first page, especially ones that provide access to dynamic content.
- Launch other apps by typing . The key to mastering technology is being intentional about how we’re using it.
You can find even more great ideas to try in Jake Knapp’s write up of his experiences with a distraction-free phone.
And that’s all. After a month of connecting the iPod with a cable to speakers around the house and managing an extra device I decided to sell it (it sold for more than I bought it for)! What I got from this time with the iPod was a super helpful and insightful lesson.
Armed with the learnings above, I cleaned up and simplified my tech, applying my learnings and approach back onto the device that has become as scary, as it used to be exciting — my phone.