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Beautility, My Ultimate iPhone Setup

A guide to balancing beauty and utility on your iPhone

Jason Stirman
Oct 19, 2017 · 7 min read

While I understand and appreciate the value of disconnecting from the digital world, so much of my life happens through the 5.5" screen on my iPhone that I’ve become addicted to it. Even as a tech nerd, I hate the constant buzzing and the incessant need to check my phone every 5 minutes, so I decided to change things up a bit and modify my phone to serve me, not the other way around.

To start, this is my home screen.

This is what I see every time I unlock my phone. There’s an abstract landscape in the background, but most of my home screen is, well… nothing, by design.

Gone are the pages of app icons littered with little red badges beckoning me to pay attention or take an action.

The two hard-to-see dots above the bottom app tray are the bare minimum because there’s a default page to the left containing useful widgets, more on that later, but I intentionally resized the wallpaper graphic to conceal the dots as best I could.

My home screen makes me calm. It feels like a blank canvas which, for a creative person, is inspirational. I played with a variety of solid-colored wallpapers, but something about this simple landscape hit the target for me.

You might have trouble in making the dots less obtrusive with this background in a scenario where iOS changes the dots from black to white. Fortunately, there is the work around. This happens due to some Apple magic that only gets triggered when the background behind the dots is pitch black. If you rearrange the background so that the background is merely very dark grey, then you’ll work around this feature.

Step 1: One folder to rule them all

Put all of your apps, except three, in one folder named “Apps.”

The single folder shown above containing all ~130 of my apps, alphabetized, was the most drastic change with this setup. 135 is the maximum amount of apps you can put in a single folder, 15 pages with 9 apps on each page. Coincidentally I had about 130 apps on my phone after I deleted around 10 or 15 while moving them into this folder. I have no idea if that’s more or less than average.

I organized them using iTunes, which I assumed would be faster, but I’m not sure it was as the UI was buggy and slow. Also, alphabetizing the apps was unnecessary because now I use search to do pretty much everything.

I hardly ever used search on my phone before this change, but now I use it for finding and launching apps, pulling up a contact to call or text, searching the web, etc. Swipe down, start typing, and tap the result you need. Searching for everything felt laborious at first, but after a few days I felt like I had a new superpower and I’m still surprised how quickly I can get to exactly what I need. (Note: If you use the Slack app and search on your phone doesn’t work well, or at all, try this fix which worked for me. cc: April Underwood!)

The other three apps on my home screen represent the 3 things I will choose to do on my phone if I’m not responding to a push notification: Chat with friends or family (Messages), see what’s going on in the world (Twitter), or work via email (early private beta of Superhuman, my new favorite email client).

You might choose different apps than I chose. There’s definitely a school of thought that Twitter and texting are interruptive time-sucks. If you feel that way, maybe you should choose the Podcast and Kindle apps.

Step 2: No-no-notifications

After I put everything into one folder, notification badges plagued me because they would appear on apps several pages deep in my folder and I couldn’t tell where they were without swiping through the folder.

Turning all notifications off isn’t an option for me, but this setup made me realize how many notifications I received each day that did not require my immediate attention. Spoiler alert: most of them. So for the next few days when a notification arrived I did one of three things…

  1. If the notification was important and time-sensitive (Slack mentions, voicemails, etc.) I kept notifications enabled for that app and moved the app to the first page in the folder.
  2. If the notification was important, but not time-sensitive and wouldn’t appear often (Settings, Testflight, etc.), I left the app where it was and kept notifications enabled.
  3. If the notification was not important or time-sensitive (IG faves, Medium claps, etc.) I kept the app where it was and took 30 seconds to disable all notifications for that app in Settings.

After a few days, I had my most important apps on the first page in my app folder and most other notifications disabled. I added a few of my most-used apps on that page also like Phone, Google Maps, etc. though I still search to launch those apps as well.

This is the first page of my Apps folder.

Alternatively, if you are ready to give up all notifications in one big push, you can go straight to your Settings, find the Notification section, and then go app by app.

Here is what the before and after after disabling notifications for a single app.

Step 3: Widgets

Prior to this setup, I never used widgets. The word “widget” brought back too many Web 2.0 memories, but I’ve grown to love them again. The widget screen is always one swipe away and provides easy access to things I might need to check or use throughout the day. In order, the widgets I use are:

  • Google Calendar, to see upcoming meetings I’ll cancel
  • Stocks, to see how much money I lost that day
  • Dark Sky, to see what kind of weather will ruin my weekend
  • Tesla, so I can start my car with a widget like a true Silicon Valley d-bag
  • Phone Favorites, to call/text my friends and family
  • Find Friends, to see where my friends and family are ignoring me from. (Joking aside, everyone in my family shares our location with everyone else so we can always see where everyone is. This has been incredibly useful not only to locate each other, but more often than not to locate a misplaced phone!)

The best thing about the widget page is that you can get to it without unlocking your phone. Yes, this means someone else could see my upcoming calendar events or start my car, but maybe they’ll locate and take my car to the meeting I didn’t want to go to anyway, so everyone wins!

The Results

The way I use my phone has changed a lot. I still have easy access to things I want or need to do, but I’m no longer beholden to never-ending pings of apps trying to get my attention. I used to swipe through pages of apps looking for a specific one, but would end up getting distracted and wasting time in another app.

I hardly waste any time on my phone anymore, unless I want to!

I’ve been surprised by how many apps I forgot about after a couple weeks, like Reddit, ESPN, the App Store, and many others, because I very rarely swipe through the 15 pages in my app folder. Out of sight, out of mind…and for most of my apps that’s a good thing. I would even argue that’s a healthy thing.

I’ve also realized how good the iOS software has become over the years. My old habits started with the first iPhone and hadn’t changed much. They prevented me from exploring new features like search, widgets, and Siri. Turns out the nerds down in Cupertino have been improving iOS, I was just too set in my ways to appreciate it. Old dog, new tricks.

I love my iPhone setup. I feel like I gained a lot without losing anything. That said, I’m open to other ideas, tips, and tricks. What am I missing? What could I do better? How could I improve this setup?

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Thanks to Coach Tony.

Jason Stirman

Written by

Product R&D at Facebook. Previously CEO of Lucid (http://getlucid.com). Ex Twitter and Medium.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.