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How to Configure Your Cell Phone for Productivity and Focus

Coach Tony
Aug 24, 2017 · 8 min read

Your phone would be a lot more useful if it did less. You’d get more done. You’d have more focus. You’d have more time.

The root problem is that cell phones are designed as if multitasking is a virtue. Notifications, badges, banners, games, inboxes and social media all work to create an environment of interruption and task switching. However, all science says we are much more productive when we are single-tasking.

Linda Stone has the best phrase for the multitasking world we live in: continuous partial attention. For many people, the anxiety of having to pay attention to everything at once causes you to literally hold your breath. Linda’s term for this: screen apnea.

Last year, inspired by a screen shot from Tristan Harris’ iPhone, I completely rearranged my phone. Tristan had a colorless background with only a few boring apps on his home screen. He didn’t allow badges or alerts. He’d moved all the addictive apps either off his phone entirely or deep into folders on a second screen. He made a strong case for taking control of how you use your phone.

Tristan has gone on to give a TED talk on the dangers of distracting technology and now is lobbying technology makers to change their ways.

Don’t wait for Tristan to convince Apple, Google, Facebook and Twitter to decide that your productivity is more important than their own attention dependent revenue. Rather, you should take matters into our own hands.

It is possible to configure your phone to be a single-tasking device, free of notifications or addictive slot machines. You can configure your phone as a tool that you use on your own terms.

Once you’ve done that you will win back focus, productivity and time.

I continued to experiment over the last year. More recently, I’ve run my productivity coaching groups through exercises to arrange their lives for single-tasking. How they configured their phone was a big part of that.

What I can tell you is that most people will love the first two exercises below, and very few people will be willing to do the third. That third one is for extra credit.

(How do you feel when you read the word exercise? Yes, you’re going to have to do a few minutes of work up front. But afterward you’ll have save yourself from hours of mindless phone usage.)

#1. Set up your essential home screen

The gist of the first exercise is to think of your home page as a group of apps that you feel you are in charge of.

If the app triggers any mindless checking from you, move it to a different screen. We call those type of apps slot machines.

To get started, categorize all the apps on your phone as:

  1. Primary Tool: this helps you accomplish defined tasks that you rely on frequently: getting a ride, finding a location, adding an appointment. There should be no more than five or six.
  2. Slot Machines: these are the apps that you open and get lost in: email, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, etc.
  3. Aspirations: the things you want to spend time doing: meditation, yoga, exercise, reading books, or listening to podcasts.

Now, rearrange your phone’s home screen so that it includes only your Primary Tools and your Aspirations.

ALL OTHER APPS GO ONTO A DIFFERENT PAGE OF YOUR HOME SCREEN.

On an Android, the apps don’t need to live on any screen at all. Take advantage of that.

A note about the role of Aspirations — in behavior design we would call these replacement habits. It’s going to be hard to stop checking Facebook. So instead, you put a different, healthier app in reach as your replacement. For me, those are Kindle and Podcast apps. A lot of people who did this exercise with me also included a meditation app like Headspace or Calm.

The biggest difference between people was how they used text messaging. One group only got occasional urgent text messages from family. This group left the text messaging app on their home screen.

Other group got lots of text messages. They moved this app to a second screen.

Here are some examples of what people’s home screens looked like after this exercise (mine is the last one with the sleeping dog).

Step #2. Turn off (almost) all notifications

One of the golden rules of single-tasking is that you should check inboxes on your schedule. That goes triple for social media. Your new follower will still be there later in the day.

The purpose of notifications has nothing to do with your schedule — they exist to get you to check an app on somebody else’s schedule. Turn (almost) all of them off.

Thankfully, turning off notifications is painless to do in bulk.

On an iPhone, go to Settings then Notifications. For almost all apps, you’ll want to toggle Allow Notifications to off. For the few that you do leave on, you’ll still want to turn off the Badge Icon.

On Android, you’ll want to open your Settings then open the Apps section. From there you can open each app to toggle notifications.

Of course, there are always going to be a few apps that you feel the need to leave notifications on for. But just to be clear — you’re saying “this is an app that I want to interrupt me when I’m doing my most focused work.”

Here are my recommendations for what to leave on:

  • For all delivery apps, leave notifications on. These notifications are only supposed to come when you want them to (i.e., you’re standing on the corner trying to get a Lyft). Apps in this category: Uber, Lyft, Postmates, Grubhub, Caviar. Of those, Postmates is the biggest offender of spamming you with unwanted interruptive notifications. Consider deleting that app.
  • If you get very few text messages, turn off badging. Those are the red dots with numbers. You don’t need the badge because you’ll notice message banners as they come in. If you get lots of text messages, then turn off all notifications and treat text messages like an inbox that you only check at set intervals. If you are one of those people sending dozens of text messages throughout the day, then you are crazy and are throwing your life away.
  • Leave notifications on for your calendar app. Not missing appointments is basically the entire point of a cell phone.
  • Leave notifications on for Maps and Google Maps. These apps only notify you when you are actively getting directions.
  • Leave notifications on for phone calls. Although, consider turning them off and updating your voicemail to say that phone calls are a dead medium. My voicemail says: “You have reached my voicemail which means you tried to call me which means you are a dinosaur. Please upgrade your life and try me via text or email.” (It doesn’t really say this.)
  • For all the notifications that you left on, go back and make sure badges are turned off. Badges are the red dots with numbers in them that give you anxiety that there’s something important going on in that app. You’ll live longer if you never see another badge.

Step #3. Delete apps and disable your default web browser.

This is the hardcore move.

If you’re only checking Facebook, Twitter and Instagram on a set schedule, then maybe you don’t need them on your phone at all. Delete them.

Delete games and read your Kindle instead.

These are all easy decisions if you did the exercise above about having aspirational apps.

The much harder question is what to do about your web browser.

The first time I did these exercises I found that Safari on my iPhone was my cheat. I’d log into Facebook from the web, stay logged in there, and then constantly go back to check via Safari.

So, as an experiment, I turned on parental controls. Apple’s parental controls let you disable access to Safari. I’m pretty sure this was meant to keep young kids off the Internet. But I’m shameless about any trick that can save me from my own bad habits.

What I found without Safari was that I’d occasionally need to check something on the web. So I’d download Chrome, do my mindful web browsing, and then delete the Chrome app. The problem here is that this feels very clunky.

Thankfully, there’s now a great alternative browser for Android and iPhone that is set up perfectly for people who love single-tasking, Firefox Focus.

The Focus feature that most helps kill mindless web browsing is that it doesn’t keep history. It won’t remember what silly sites you tend to visit. It won’t remember passwords. It won’t keep you logged in.

This is a web browser that doesn’t encourage mindless addicted web browsing. Focus should be your only option for using the web from your phone.

To make this happy, you’ve got two steps.

First, remove or disable your default web browser.

  • On an iPhone, go to Settings > General > Restrictions. Then turn off access to Safari. Apple calls this setting Restrictions, but I think of it as Parental Controls. That mismatch means I never remember where the setting lives and never find myself turning the restriction off in a moment of weakness.
  • On an Android, Go to Settings > Apps > All > Chrome and press Disable.

Second, once you’ve removed the temptation of mindless web browsing, download Firefox Focus. It’s a nice, fast web browser that’s a lot safer to use.

If you have your phone set up differently, please let me know in the responses.

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.

Coach Tony

Written by

Evangelist for great coaches and excellent personal development advice. CEO/Founder of Coach.me. Publisher of Better Humans & Better Programming.

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.