I’ve Been Ignoring iPhone’s Best Feature

“I just don’t look at my phone enough.”

“Wow, that was way more important than what I was already doing.”

“I wonder what’s happening on Twitter right now; sigh, I guess I’ll never know.”

I’ve never once said these things, and I’m starting to think there’s a good reason for that.

I believe the best products solve real problems for real people. Problems that cause stress and make day-to-day life more difficult. Problems that keep creative potential locked away out of reach, and that stand in the way of happiness.

Several versions ago, Apple built one such feature into the iPhone, and like an idiot, I’ve been using it wrong. In fact, I haven’t been using it at all.

Enter, our hero, stage left: Do Not Disturb.

Homescreen art via Brolga_

It’s simple: at the flip of a virtual switch, the iPhone stops buzzing and lighting up to signal an incoming message, phone call, or notification.

Do Not Disturb renders the iPhone an on-demand service, and solves three things with which I’ve personally struggled in the mobile-digital age: interruption, disruption, and distraction.

I like to think of attention as a precious metal, and large quantities of it, over time, can be forged into focus. But the process can’t be reversed: I can’t distill attention from focus, and once focus is broken, it’s gone. Then I need to mine more attention, and hope it’s enough to craft focus again.

This alchemy is at play every time my phone buzzes in my pocket, interrupting my focus. Synapses that would otherwise have been devoted to my task at hand are now wondering, “Was that my phone? Is it a text? I wonder from whom?” Part of my brainpower is wasted running through the list of people who may want to reach me, or the services with information to share.

And thus is wasted that rare-earth material I could have forged into focus.

Worse yet, when my focus is still fragile and those synapses get noisy enough, I give in and reach for my phone. Now my focus is disrupted, as my attention flits superficially from one interrupter to the next. My inertia thwarted, my focus is back to zero.

Finally, in my darkest moments, I swipe on one of those notifications and deep-link into the app. Within seconds, I’m giving away enough attention to risk becoming focused on something of unarguably lesser importance. I am officially distracted, and my initial goal slips further and further from my reach.

But in a life “undisturbed,” there is less opportunity for interruption, disruption, and distraction. By controlling the flow of information to me, I create new opportunities for productivity and creativity within me. And for this reason, Do Not Disturb is now a vital part of my digital ecosystem.

This comes with a few other happy byproducts. For example, I no longer feel the “phantom buzz” in my pocket, as my brain’s re-trained to know my phone simply doesn’t buzz. Similarly, when the conference-room table farts with some other phone’s vibration, everyone goes reaching in but me: I’m proudly (and, sure, a little self-righteously) focused and present.

And when I am using my iPhone for focused productivity — like taking notes on my novel in Transom, or playing a game of chess — Do Not Disturb ensures that I don’t receive distracting banner notifications or messages.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly: I have developed a healthier cadence of looking at my phone. To borrow Charles Duhigg’s “Power of Habit” vernacular, I’ve removed a cue and modified my routine, and I’m rewarded with focus — as opposed to the superficial reward of mere “information.” Instead of looking at every message in the moment it comes through, I check my phone between more important tasks, choose what’s important among the messages that have since come in, and focus only on that until the task is done.

In a purely undisturbed life, I would read news over coffee in the morning, reply to WhatsApp messages in a single midday session, and carve out specific time each evening to concentrate on all my open chess games. I would consume boxing “news” once a week (after all, not much changes between the weekend fights), enter a bit of gratitude into Day One during my morning commute, and generally spend a lot less time tumbling down the social-media vortex.

Though I’ve not quite reached this level of compartmentalized focus, this post stands as evidence of some self improvement: I can happily justify the attention it took to focus on this, and feel accomplished for having created something. However insignificant to the cosmos, this is more meaningful to me than time wasted on random bits of information deemed important by marketers and app designers.

And now that I’m done, I can — with very little guilt — go find out what I’ve missed this week on Twitter.

Thanks for reading, and good luck to you.


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