Want to spend less time on your phone? Consider an old-fashioned analog watch

In a world where people turn to their smartphones for the time, the resurgence of the analog watch is dulling the stress of digital distractions for some.

For a younger generation, the simple device alleviates the stress of constant connection

In the digital age, analog watches are making a comeback, driven largely by young people who increasingly appreciate the simplicity of a device that only tells time. (Miquel Benitez/Getty Images)

Imagine being able to check the time without being flooded by a tsunami of calendar updates, text messages and email notifications.

It might seem like an absurd concern. But as more and more people trade their good old-fashioned analog watches for smartphones and smartwatches, it's become the new reality for some.

Yet the humble wristwatch hasn't completely gone away — and, in fact, among millennials there's evidence to suggest it's seeing a resurgence.

The comeback of the analog watch is part of a greater trend of people fighting against digital overload.- Jennifer Chong

What popular upstarts like MVMT, Linjer and Kapten & Son have in common is that the companies are founded by and geared toward millennials. They tend to market themselves heavily on social media, and some have even have financed their initial production runs of stylish-yet-inexpensive watch designs through million-dollar online crowdfunding campaigns.

Another upstart watchmaker, Daniel Wellington, was recently named by Inc. Magazine as the top growing company in Europe this year. It made over $200 million US in revenue in 2015.

And while it might be surprising that the same generation that embraced Snapchat and Slack would also be responsible for the resurgence of the analog watch, it would seem that the popularity of the old-fashioned watch is at least partly a reaction to all of that constant connection.

"The comeback of the analog watch is part of a greater trend of people fighting against digital overload," said Jennifer Chong, one of the founders of Linjer, which makes a line of simple $250 watches inspired by Chong's own feeling of smartphone-induced exhaustion and stress.

"They're happy to be able to check the time without having to pull out their phone and see all the emails and messages there demanding their attention," Chong said.

Yearning for simplicity

Ironic as it is, the appeal of the analog watch is its simple, one-feature functionality.

Our smartphones are magical devices that can do practically anything, anytime, anywhere. But the downside is that users don't want all of that information all of the time. Sometimes they just want to know what time it is without being overwhelmed by updates and notifications.

There's a lesson in that for other designers of wearable technology: less is more. It's all too easy to fall prey to feature creep, where more functionality is added into a design just because you can, not necessarily because you should.

Smartwatches, like the one made by Apple, can do many things, but users don't want all of that information all of the time. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Sure, you can add a camera to your watch or a digital assistant or a calendar. But if the experience is a negative one — as was the case with the "digital overload" Chong experienced every time she glanced at her phone to check the time — all of those supposed features could actually be a hindrance.

The CEO and co-founder of Kapten & Son, another trendy watch brand, agrees. "Many of us are feeling that we're not consuming technology anymore; technology is consuming us," Artjem Weissbeck wrote in an email.

All the smarts, none of the stress

Amanda Cosco, a fashion tech journalist and founder of the website Electric Runway, said that smartwatch makers are starting to realize the appeal of minimalism, too.

"Although there are plenty of high-tech options at our fingertips, many of these digital watches lack the design and aesthetic we covet in a classic timepiece," she said.

As wearable tech companies start to catch on, they're starting to design more wristwear that puts style first and makes the technology less overt, bridging the divide between smarts and simplicity. The Misfit Phase is one such hybrid watch that subtly adds smartwatch features to an otherwise analog watch with a classic design. And last year Hugo Boss launched the Smart Classic — literally a classic watch design with smart features.

Hugo Boss's Smart Classic looks like a classic watch but has some high-tech features built in, like call display, a calendar and a pedometer. (Hugo Boss)

That combination of analog appeal and digital functionality may just be the winning design, says Cosco — "a minimalist watch can be preferable for someone who wants all the activity-tracking features without a zillion notifications blinking at their wrist."

It isn't necessarily a desire to step back in time. When someone buys an analog watch, they're not opting out of the digital world, they're just choosing where and how to focus their attention instead of having the device dictate that for them.

As Chong puts it: "I don't think anybody wants unnecessary complication in their life."


Ramona Pringle

Technology Columnist

Ramona Pringle is an associate professor in Faculty of Communication and Design and director of the Creative Innovation Studio at Ryerson University. She is a CBC contributor who writes and reports on the relationship between people and technology.