How to take back your attention by using the apps you love more mindfully

Bryan Ye
Bryan Ye
Aug 12 · 13 min read

We live in a time where phones dominate a significant part of our lives. There’s a good chance that you, as a fellow human of the 21st century, have a smartphone. And if you have a smartphone, you’re probably at least somewhat unhappy with your phone usage.

Unless you have the willpower of a god, you’re probably a victim of the addictiveness in smartphones. After all, tech companies deliberately create apps to capture your attention for as long as possible. Those are the only apps that survive.

Over the years, I’ve seen many different methods to handle this addictiveness. Many suggest cutting out social media, which doesn’t work for me. As a millennial who grew up with social media, removing it is like social suicide.

It’s a little shameful to admit it: I love social media. I love tagging my friends in memes on Facebook. I love sending photos of my food on Snapchat. I love reading my friends’ rants on Twitter.

So I had a difficult problem:

How do I manage my phone usage without deleting social media?

I’ve read a lot of guides on how to set up your phone for productivity and I’ve definitely taken ideas from them. But after trying so many different things, I’ve finally set up my phone to work for me.

I use an iPhone, and it looks like this:

Screen shots by the author.

Of course, this is just how my phone looks. I’ve also set it up to work in a minimalistic way as well.

This guide will not only teach you how to set up an iPhone like mine, but will also show you how to use it.

I use an iPhone, but the principles in this guide will work for other smartphones as well. At the very least, you'll learn the philosophy behind a minimalistic phone, and will be able to integrate what you wish in your life.


🚮 Use the KonMari Method on Your Apps

Marie Kondo is a tidying expert who started her consultant business when she was 19. She has helped people around the world clean their homes. The KonMari Method is a system designed by her to declutter.

Before I learned about this system, I used to throw things out if I hadn’t used them in a while — which ultimately didn’t work.

The KonMari method takes a different approach and advises that you throw things out if it doesn’t spark joy. Kondo recommends that you tackle these categories: clothes, books, papers, miscellaneous items, and sentimental items.

With enough evidence that this method has helped many others, and myself, I took this a step further and applied it to the apps on my phone.

The purpose of tidying up your apps is to remove everything you don’t need. If there’s an app that doesn’t spark joy for you, you probably don’t need it. This aligns with the minimalist philosophy that you should only have what you need — everything else is a distraction.

To KonMari your apps:

  1. Unlock your phone.
  2. Start going through your apps.
  3. For each app, ask yourself: “Does this spark joy?”.
  4. If it doesn’t, delete the app and sincerely thank it for serving its purpose.

For some apps, this will be easy. For others, it’ll be hard. If you’re in doubt, I recommend deleting the app — you can always download it again. You’ll at least be able to see what your life is like without it.

Before doing this, I adopted the maximalist philosophy where I collected as many apps as I could, just in case I needed them. Deleting them has not only cleared my phone storage but has also helped me focus on the right things.

Take ownership of what apps are allowed to be on your phone.


💬 Choose Your Notifications for Every Single App

If you accept the default settings for your apps, you probably turned on notifications for them when your apps told you to. After all, the first thing every app tells you to do is turn on notifications.

As time passes, notifications pop up incessantly — and it’s extremely distracting. A lot of advice that I see is to turn off all notifications. But that doesn’t work for me. That just makes me check my phone more because I might be missing something.

My solution: choose what notifications you get for every single app on your phone. This might seem like a daunting task, but it’s very rewarding. Similar to deleting apps that you don’t need of your phone, choosing notifications helps you take charge of what’s allowed to take your attention.

If you decide you want notifications for an app, these are the three main types on an iPhone:

  • Alerts are banners on your lock screen, notifications, and what pops up from the top of your screen. I turn on alerts if I know I need to take action on an alert. For example, I turn on alerts for Slack because I may need to respond to work-related messages.
  • Sound is what audibly notifies you. I turn off all sounds, except for the Phone app to receive calls.
  • Badges are the little bubble signifying the number of notifications you have. I turn on badges for any apps that I need to know the number of notifications for. Currently, this is only set to my email app.

To configure your notifications:

  1. Unlock your phone.
  2. Go to Settings > Notifications.
  3. Select each app, and turn off all notifications. This helps you start from a clean slate, and helps you decide if you really want notifications for a certain app.
  4. Go through each app again, and choose what notifications you want.

🌳 Open Your Apps With Purpose

I’ve moved all my apps into one folder. This might sound crazy at first. Moving all your apps into one folder will certainly slow you down, especially if you’re now going to take more time to find the app you want to open.

Luckily, there’s a solution to this. Instead of looking for the apps by swiping around your phone, swipe down and type to search for an app:

There’s a small challenge in getting used to this. But I’ve built up this habit to a point where it’s more natural for me to search for an app than to look for it. I even find it weird when I see someone else swiping around their phone to find an app.

When you have to type to find an app, you’ll open it with an intention in mind.

One folder for all apps

Once you’ve accepted that you’re going to swipe down and type to search for an app, you can start putting all of your apps into one folder.

The main value that I get from this is that it stops me from swiping around my phone. I used to swipe around my phone to find an app that would entertain me. I would also sometimes look for an app, and then get sidetracked and go to another one just because I saw its colorful, shiny logo.

If this is too extreme for you, you can keep your docked apps and put your 4 needed apps there.

Personally, I’ve moved everything into one folder — in random order.

A separate screen for your apps

After moving all your apps into one folder, move your app folder onto another screen. You can do this by holding down on the folder, and then dragging it to the right to create a new screen.

Remember the three screens I showed you:

Moving your app folder to another page makes sure that you don’t see it when you open up your phone.

When I unlock my phone, I want to stare into the void so that I’m not receiving any stimuli for opening any app without intention.

One grayscale app at the front

When I first moved all my apps into one folder, my screen with my apps looked extremely colorful.

I believed in my willpower. I thought that I could put all my favorite apps at the front of the folder, and it would be fine. I thought I would still be able to use the search function.

I was wrong. Since the rest of my phone was almost grayscale, the color that I saw from these apps were too enticing. I ended up typing to search for apps less and continuously clicking into my app folder.

I’ve decided to put the Settings app at the front of the folder while moving all other apps elsewhere. The reason for this is because Settings is a non-addictive app, and it has a grayscale icon.

This makes it much less likely to click into the folder because it just looks like some boring app — which is true since configuring settings is not meant to be entertaining.


🧱 Use a Minimalistic Wallpaper

Unlike the other steps, this one isn’t going to increase your productivity. But changing your wallpaper does fit into the philosophy of minimalism — don’t get anything you don’t need.

Just like how I love to keep my desk clean, I like to keep my phone clean as well. As you’ve probably seen from the screenshots so far, I use a plain white wallpaper.

I do this because smartphones provide so many stimuli, I want my lock and home screen to be the one place where there’s just nothing.

Although this might seem simple, there are a few caveats to making this work.

You can’t hide your dock on the iPhone

As you all know, iPhones don’t come with as much customizability as other smartphones because it’s part of Apple’s design to make phones as simple to use — by restricting the freedom of users in certain users.

When I was configuring my phone, I realized that I wasn’t able to hide my dock, and I was stuck with this unpleasant dock:

I don’t know about you, but having this persistent bar that wouldn’t go away is really annoying to me. So I looked deep into the internet to find a way to get rid of it.

Luckily, I found a way: use a special wallpaper. There’s no standard way to get rid of your dock, and I don’t know how long this particular solution is going to last, but it works.

There are mysterious wallpapers that you can use to hide your dock. I’m not completely sure how it works, but it does. If you want to remove your dock, I suggest you try using one of these wallpapers.

To hide your dock with a wallpaper:

  1. Go to heyeased to find the collection of wallpapers to hide your dock.
  2. Find and select a wallpaper that fits your style, iOS version, and iPhone. I’m currently using Whole White Walls.
  3. Follow the steps to use the wallpaper. This may involve changing your settings.

The amazing thing about this method is that all you’re using is an image. There’s no requirement to jailbreak your iPhone or to download a third-party app.

Use a wallpaper you want to see every day

If you don’t want to take this extreme minimalist option, I advise that you take your time to think about a wallpaper that you want to see every day. It’s likely going to be something you look at often.

If you want a reminder of your family, put them there. If there’s someone who motivates you, keep them close. If there’s a quote that you want to be reminded of, find a wallpaper with it.

I’ve chosen to take the extreme route and use a wallpaper that can only be described as plain nothingness. The best part of it is that when I lend people my phone, I’m often faced with the following:

What happened to your phone?


🏃‍♀️ Keep Your Phone Away When You Can

If you’re interested in making your phone minimalistic, it’s likely that you believe your phone to be a distraction.

Put your phone in your bag

One of the things that changed the way I use my phone is that I put it in my bag when I commute.

This isn’t always possible. It’s especially not possible when you don’t have a bag. But the idea still remains: I try to use my phone as little as possible.

Although this seems simple, it’s actually a difficult habit to keep up. It’s so easy to take a deep dive into FOMO (fear of missing out) and wanting to check your phone every minute of your life.

This idea came from the fact that I’m probably going to continue using my phone. It’s just too inconvenient to not have a phone, especially if you’re meeting up with someone.

I take my bag to work every day, and I’ve come up with a middle-ground solution — to put my phone in my bag. I leave it in my bag so I can hear my phone ring if someone calls me.

I’ve since improved on my original iteration, and I now use wireless earphones to listen to an audiobook. Since I don’t consider audiobooks to be a fast-hitting, dopamine inducing low-hanging fruit, I don’t feel guilty using them.

To put your phone in your bag:

  1. Check everything. Check your messages, email, social media, and everything else that will reduce your FOMO.
  2. Turn your phone off silent. You’ll want to hear your phone ring.
  3. Optionally, connect your wireless earphones/headphones and play the audiobook you want to read. Alternatively, you can carry a book.
  4. Put your phone in your bag. I put it in part of my bag that’s hardest to reach, that still allows me to hear it if it rings.
  5. Start commuting!

Sleep with your phone in another room

There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that using your phone in bed will worsen your sleep. Whether it’s the light, the stimulation, or something else, sleeping without your phone has improved my relationship with my phone. And by improve, I mean that it’s led me to be less dependent on it.

What really plagued me before I did this was the constant temptation to check my phone. If I wasn’t able to sleep, I’d be messaging my friends, incessantly checking every social media app I had, and watching YouTube videos before I slept.

This not only worsened my sleep, but it caused me to be more dependent on my phone. I tried other options, such as keeping my phone on a shelf next to my bed, but to my disappointment, I discovered that I have no self-control at all.

I realized that as long as my phone was within reach, I would be reaching for it. And once I reached for it, I wouldn’t be able to put it down.

The only thing left for me to try then (aside from getting rid of my phone altogether) was to sleep without my phone.

To sleep without your phone:

  1. Get an alarm that’ll work for you. I personally use a light alarm. It’s important to find an alarm that works for you because it’ll be replacing your phone alarm.
  2. Find a place in another room to charge your phone. This could be the living room, kitchen, or in my case, a study room.
  3. Go to sleep!

This will take some getting used to. I was extremely anxious when I first started doing this, and it took me a month or two to properly adjust. Eventually, you’ll get used to it. Anecdotally, I can say that it’s been a pleasant change and I’m afraid to go back to my old habits.

I’m grateful I started doing this because I now sleep comfortably without my phone.


Photo by Timothy Eberly on Unsplash

I sometimes wonder if I would need to go through all of this if I had the willpower. But then I realize that if everyone else is struggling with this as well, then perhaps my willpower isn’t so bad.

Maybe there’s a limit to how much willpower we can have. Just like how it’s so difficult for smokers, alcoholics, and drug addicts to stop their habits, it’s hard for the everyday person to stop using their smartphone.

There’s a reason support groups and rehabilitation services exist — because sometimes our willpower isn’t strong enough. And when we don’t have the willpower, all we can do is change our environment.

I decided that I wasn’t going to be able to stop using my phone completely. So I set up my environment so that my phone doesn’t use me (to the best that I can).

I hope this works for you, too. If there are any tips and tricks that have worked for you, I would love to hear about them.

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.

Bryan Ye

Written by

Bryan Ye

Words @Atlassian. I think a lot; here are some of my less crazy thoughts.

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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