How to Turn Your Smartphone Into a Conduit for Productivity

A realistic guide to a functional setup for enhancing your work

Trevor Mahoney
Feb 13 · 11 min read

For all the good that smartphones do, their impact on our minds hasn’t been all positive.

As a member of Generation Z, growing up with these devices makes me guiltier than anyone else. If I even leave my phone at home for a day, I’ll often catch myself reaching for where it usually is in my pocket.

Now in my college years, this technological addiction wasn’t beneficial for me when it came to studying and classes — high-focus activities. Therefore, I began experimenting with different ways I could use my phone to improve my productivity.

After months of trial and error, the perfect combination of phone design and certain applications has allowed me to retake control of my focus and productivity.

Below, I’ll outline how to turn your phone into a productivity machine, starting with design and then going more specific with certain applications.

The design section of this article will mainly be pulled from extensive personal experience, but the application section will be a mix of in-depth research as well as personal experience from that research.

Before we begin, there’s one fact you must acknowledge prior to completely reorganizing your smartphone for the sake of productivity: You’ll need to rewire how you think.

Changing the layout of your device and downloading a bunch of productivity apps will only take you so far. It’s up to you to dedicate yourself to becoming a more efficient and focused worker in whatever you do.

It’s extremely likely you’ll want to slip back into your comfort zone, but as research shows, habits don’t form quickly. Stick with the applications and methods I show below, and you can slowly work to build a more productive lifestyle. However, it starts with your mindset. Acknowledge you want to be more productive and that you’ll stick with it as the first step.


Create a Minimalist Design

The chaotic mess that’s your home screen may work for you personally because you’re accustomed to it, but a flurry of notifications and scattered applications will only work against you in the long term.

When I say minimalist, I use this definition from WebdesignerDepot:

“Minimalist design has been described as design at its most basic, stripped of superfluous elements, colors, shapes, and textures. Its purpose is to make the content stand out and be the focal point. From a visual standpoint, minimalist design is meant to be calming and to bring the mind down to the basics.”

I find it helpful to change the layout of your smartphone using a three-tier system.

The goal of a minimalist layout is to calm the mind and make content stand out. I personally use an iPhone and was a fan of the colorful backgrounds provided on the phone for years, but after a while, they became too distracting.

That’s not to say your phone background isn’t allowed to have any color, but it should be something that doesn’t hold your eye for too long.

My method for breaking it down is my lock screen is the place for colorful pictures with my friends or loved ones. It doesn’t matter if my lock screen distracts me because it serves no real purpose.

However, my home screen is where I get down to business.

I personally am a huge fan of this website when it comes to sources for minimalist backgrounds. Truthfully, I think I’d go crazy without a little color on my phone, so this site provides great options that satisfy my need without taking away my productivity.

Below are two of my personal favorite designs, with the left being my current phone background. Remember, whichever option you choose is meant to be simple.

I have played around with so many app layouts that I’d go as far as to call myself an expert on what design yields the best productivity results.

Simply having a more focused background didn’t help my focus in any way, so my research took me a step further.

I’ve tried formal strategies for deleting unused apps and decluttering phones, but all my research has yielded one strategy that actually had a noticeable positive effect on my productivity:

From left to right: My homepage, second page, and widgets page. (All screenshots by the author.)

To make this easier to explain, I’ll break the layout down photo by photo and tell you how to imitate it.

First page (home): This is where you have to do a personal reflection of the apps you have. Identify all the apps you use daily, and separate them from the rest of your applications.

Identify your four most used social media apps, and put them on the top of the screen. Next, identify four apps you’d define as productivity apps, and put them on the bottom row.

So why is Twitter on the bottom row of my home screen as a productivity app? That’s because I use it for work purposes primarily. In my case, its function isn’t for socializing.

Second page: Throw all your remaining apps into one folder. Don’t worry about the order or anything else. Ideally, you’ll never open this folder again unless it’s to delete an app.

Widgets page: If there’s one piece of advice that you accept from this article, it should be to use the widgets page. Set up all the widgets using the + button at the bottom of the page, and you can see which of your apps are eligible for the screen.

My secret is only the eight applications from the first page have the honor of making the widgets screen. Since they’re my most used, I can have all my needed information condensed and available at a glance.

Additionally, I’d highly recommend you use the search function to find any application that’s not in your daily use. This process is far faster than hunting through the hundreds of apps you may have and has allowed me to organize my device in a more efficient manner.

About those social media apps …

I understand having social media-based apps on the homepage of your device runs counter to the usual advice, but there’s an honest reality behind it. And in my experience, this is what works.

A year ago, I was assigned a project in one of my university classes. It was a social-media fast, which meant no texting, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, and all the other apps you could think of.

So what was the hardest part? It wasn’t quitting — but rather the fact that everyone I knew kept reaching out solely on social media to contact me, and I was forced to respond for academic reasons.

Therein lies the reason for my recommendation to keep certain social-media apps on your homepage. We live in a day and age where social media dominates the landscape, and there’s no way around it. Friends and family use it to contact one another, and disconnecting can actually distance you from your relationships.

That being said, I must once again stress the importance that only the necessary social media apps are placed on your homepage. This includes email, texting, and maybe a few other strictly social-style apps. You should curate this strongly based on what you actually use for communication and maintaining relationships.

There are also stipulations with this recommendation that have to do with notifications, which I’ll outline below.

I have one more strategy you should use for organizing your apps: adjusting your notifications. I currently have found success using two methods when it comes to my notifications. Pick one:

Method 1: Only turn on notifications for your top four apps, and remove notifications for every application in your folder on the second page — as well as the bottom row.

That being said, turn sound off.

I say this because the red circle is distracting enough on the homepage. The ding you hear when you get a notification, however, is actually unhealthy. Researchers speculate the ding of a phone can cause your brain to release small amounts of dopamine. This inevitably builds the addiction to your phone. Additionally, if you’re responding to emails on your device and you get a ding from social media, you’re more likely to drop what you’re doing and get off-task.

Method 2: I use this strategy if it’s a midterm or finals week at my university. In short, turn all notifications and sound off. Your home and lock screen should always be completely blank.

I have some friends who keep their devices this way 24/7 and spend far less time consumed by social media and other distractions. Personally, I don’t usually need to go this far to stay focused on my phone, but it’s certainly the peak option for improving your productivity.


Specific Functions and Apps

Now that the design of your smartphone has been adjusted to improve your productivity and focus through minimalism, I’m going to walk you through the applications I use every day to stay on task.

Each section below focuses on the functionality and my own personal pick for a specific app. I’ve also included some additional highly rated options I discovered during my research.

All the applications below are free to use, but some may have paid features you can choose to purchase if you like.


Mail

As I’ve gotten older, I noticed the number of email inboxes I have has steadily increased. I have my university email, a personal email, and now a work email.

Unfortunately for me, these were all on different email platforms and resulted in a confusing number of notifications and jumping between different apps. So I searched for an app that could combine all my inboxes.

4.5/5 Stars

I’ve been using this email service for around six months, and it’s posed no problems whatsoever. After downloading the app, you can log in on all your email accounts and have your inboxes in one place.

Some commonly supported platforms are Gmail, Yahoo, Xfinity, Outlook, and more. Additionally, the app provides nice touch functionality optimized for smartphones.

Simply swiping certain directions can archive, delete, or save your messages for later. Focused inboxes also allow for your most important mail to go to one set place.

Furthermore, if you’re confused about which inbox an email was meant for, you can easily switch between inboxes in the app.

4/5 Stars

Though I don’t currently use Gmail as my primary inbox system, the features are very much on par with Edison, and it’s a viable choice for separating your inboxes.

This application also has swipe functionality that adds to the simplicity of the service, and the only reason I don’t use it is one if my email platforms isn’t supported.


Notes

As a college student in the 21st century, pen and paper have gone out of style. Some professors still fight the movement and don’t allow computers in class, but the majority of classrooms are filled with laptops.

That being said, it’s hard to find a note app that can carry over between computer and phone. As a student who is always on the go, I struggled to find a good option until about a month ago.

4/5 Stars

This app is still relatively new but has great communication between computer and phone. I love the app so much because it can be used for a myriad of activities; however, I use it as a note-taking service during my classes.

I then go back later on my phone and edit the notes. Notion provides far more customization than any other app because of the wide variety of uses it has. Truthfully, if you’re looking for the best all-in-one productivity app, then this is the one for you.

The note-taking system is extremely efficient, and there are free-to-use templates for a variety of uses; I personally am a fan of the class-note templates.

4.5/5 Stars

If we’re being completely honest, should note-taking be the extent of your goals with this type of app, then Evernote is the one for you instead of Notion.

I say this because the interface on Evernote is far easier to use on a smartphone, and, since they are solely dedicated to note-taking, a lot of their app updates improve it significantly.

My reasoning for using Notion is I’m slowly trying to combine all the productivity apps I’ve listed here into one. Similar to Notion, Evernote provides up-to-date syncing abilities across your laptops and phones.


Calendar

4.5/5 Stars

I have used Google Calendar since the beginning of my college career, and it’s never failed me in three years. Besides having an easy-to-use interface, it works with the widget screen I talked about previously.

Having all your events planned and written down is taken for granted in today’s day and age, and simply remembering my day-to-day meetings wasn't cutting it.

Another fact that makes this the reigning champion is the ability to view calendars in multiple formats, which allows for a fair amount of personal preference.

5/5 stars

I personally don’t have experience with this app, but my research showed that this was loved just as much, if not more, than Google Calendar. This calendar app is more for those who are color-inclined and enjoy using themes.

Additionally, the app places a heavy emphasis on the use of emojis, so it’d hold more weight for visual people.


The Payoff

I used to have an extremely cluttered phone and apps strewn about the screen. However, it’s equally as important to note I didn’t care about this disorganization itself.

When I made the mental choice to make my phone work for me, though, my mind felt far clearer than ever before. As I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, you need to make the mental choice to fix your productivity and stick with it.

Begin by creating a minimalist design on your phone that can help your brain to focus on individual tasks and not stray. Then, focus on downloading apps that enhance your productivity, rather than games or other time-suck applications.

I started this change slowly three years ago when I began college and have never looked back since. Overall, becoming more organized and productive starts with a mindset.

It starts with choosing to make your phone work for you instead of the other way around. Constantly look for new ways to become more efficient, and you’ll be able to conquer any distraction.

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 Terrie Schweitzer

Trevor Mahoney

Written by

Studying Finance and Management Information Systems • Technology and Space Buff • California Born

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.

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