Distracted in 2016? Reboot Your Phone with Mindfulness

Estimated reading time: 11 minutes, 28 seconds

I spent the last three years as Product Philosopher at Google, where I studied how technology affects people’s attention, wellbeing, and behavior. I left recently to work on a social movement for technology called “Time Well Spent” — for a new class of tech that’s about minimizing distractions, supporting mindful choices and helping people live the lives they want to live — not maximizing screen time. It’s similar to the way the organic food movement created a new market for healthy and sustainable food.

People like the concept but often ask me, “but what are the things I can do to have a more mindful relationship with my phone right now?

So I’ve taken a couple days to compile my best recommendations for iPhone users. The tips below are meant to:

  • Minimize Compulsive Checking & Phantom Buzzes
  • Minimize Fear of Missing Something Important
  • Minimize Unconscious Use
  • Minimize “Leaky” Interactions (“leaking out” into something unintended)
  • Minimize Unnecessary Psychological Concerns generated by the screen.

Note: These recommendations are for people who live by their smartphone (not casual users), and they’re based on findings from psychology and behavioral science.

Tip #1: Create Your “Essential” Home Screen

We check our phone 150 times a day, and each time we unlock to see that grid of apps and red badges signaling everything we’ve missed, it immediately triggers a whole set of thoughts, feelings and concerns in our mind.

Our goal here isn’t to be defensive and resist our phones but to ask the question, “how can we make our home screen a livable place?” A place we can return to frequently, knowing it will respect our intentions and support our conscious use. And a place that makes room for the thoughts and concerns we want to have, and not the ones we don’t.

Let’s begin.

Of all the apps on your Home Screen…

  • Which are your Tools? Specifically, which apps help you with specific end-to-end tasks (and never “leak out” into unintended distractions)? And of these, which do you rely on frequently? Good examples are apps like Camera, Notes, Calendar, Maps or Uber— but not Email. These are apps that you drive, but they don’t drive you.
  • Which are Bottomless Bowls or Slot Machines? Specifically, I mean apps with either bottomless lists to go through (Email messages, Facebook stories) or bottomless excuses to check (Email or social media notifications). This includes just about anything addictive. For me, I even include my step-counter app because I’m always “playing it” like a slot machine to see “how many steps did I get today!?”
  • Which are Aspirations? The ones that represent things that you realistically want to spend more time on in your life (for me, listening to certain Podcasts, and an app to book classes at my local yoga studio). But not unrealistic aspirations. For example, I like to meditate but meditation apps don’t tend to work for me, so I don’t include them.

Now, create a home screen consisting of only:

  • Your indispensable Tool apps above (once again — only the ones you rely on frequently, no more than five or six)
  • Your realistic Aspiration apps

Move everything else– the Bottomless Bowls, Slot Machines and all other apps — off the first page of apps. I’ll explain in a second. The fewer the number of icons our eyes have to scan when we unlock our phone, the less work our mind has to do.

Tip #2: Use your iPhone’s Consciousness Filter (Typing)

Did you know your iPhone comes with a built-in Consciousness Filter that only accepts conscious uses and filters out unconscious uses?

Yup, it’s called typing. While you can use muscle-memory to unconsciously move your thumb to open an app without thinking, it’s actually impossible to type on a keyboard unconsciously.

From now on, open all other apps by swiping down and typing the first few letters of the app you want.

While it might seem odd at first, I guarantee it will reduce much of your unconscious use, because it’s just enough time to ask “do I really want to do this?”

Ironically, it’s often faster to launch apps by typing than finding and tapping the icon. Because your iPhone learns how you type, you’ll only need to type “F” or “F-a” to get to Facebook, instead of typing the whole name, “F-a-c-e-b-o-o-k.”

Try sticking with it for a few days and see if you can make it work for you.

Tip #3: Plug the Leaks (Make Control Center Your Friend)

Do you ever unlock your phone to do something specific — like take a photo, or set an alarm — and then somehow get sucked into an hour of unrelated distractions? This is especially challenging at bed time, when “quickly” setting my alarm somehow turns into an unexpected binge on Facebook or YouTube.

Let’s call these leaky interactions : we come in to do something specific, but inadvertently leak out into something we didn’t mean to do.

We can solve this problem: instead of unlocking your phone to access Camera, Clock or the Calculator, learn to launch these apps without unlocking your phone by swiping up the Control Center.


Why? Several reasons:

  1. Opening these apps this way makes your phone automatically kick you back to the lock screen when you’re done (so you don’t accidentally get sucked in).
  2. It saves you three extra spots on your “minimalist” home screen.
  3. It’s actually faster to open them from Control Center than from anywhere else (because you can swipe up from any screen to get to it.)

Tip #4: Two Pages of Apps, and Hide the Candy Wrappers

Do you ever find yourself doing the following obsessive-compulsive behavior?

  1. You unlock your phone
  2. You rapidly swipe through a few pages of colorful apps
  3. You rapidly swipe back through the same apps without opening anything
  4. Then … you lock your phone again. Huh?

We compulsively swipe through our phones without actually doing anything.

This strange quirk is driven partly by our evolutionary instincts for novelty-seeking. The surprise of colorful icons (visual triggers) and red badges (new notifications) flying by feeds our brains with subtle psychological rewards, becoming its own form of sideways slot machine.

Here’s one way to fix it: Limit your home screen to just two pages of apps, so there’s nothing to scroll through.

“Whoa,” you might be thinking, “just two pages of apps?”

“What am I supposed to do, put all my other apps into folders?” Actually, yes.

Put all your other apps into folders on the second page and don’t worry about stuffing too many apps together. If you’re following Tip #2, you won’t need these apps visible as separate icons anyway, because you’ll be typing their name instead.

Extra Tip: Keep the M&Ms, but Hide the Wrappers

Here’s an extra tip based on Google’s M&M’s kitchen experiment. As part of its generous employee perks and benefits, Google stocks its micro-kitchens with seductive snacks and candy so its employees can keep snacking during work. But they ran into a problem: employees found themselves eating more unhealthy snacks than they wanted.

So their behavioral science team tried an intervention based on two observations:

  • They noticed how M&M’s visual packaging triggered people’s unconscious impulse to eat.
  • They noticed that the M&M’s were too immediate to eat: employees grabbed snacks from the shelf without a conscious thought in between.

They made two interventions:

  1. They put the candy into opaque, white porcelain jars with a lid (while putting alternatives like healthy fruit in see-through glass jars)
  2. They replaced the candy’s visual packaging with a neutral white placard and neutral font (e.g. “Peanut M & M’s” written in Comic Sans)

The first change created a brief gap, a moment of conscious choice, between the impulse and people’s actions. The second change dismantled the millions of dollars spent on advertising and conditioning M&M’s wrappers into our lives, and instead let employees choose for themselves.

The result? The new choice architecture reduced the consumption of M&M’s by 3.1 million calories in just seven weeks, in Google’s NY office alone — the equivalent of nine fewer vending machine-sized packages of M&Ms per employee. And they didn’t take any candy away, they just re-organized the existing choices.

We can do the same for apps on our home screens. Colorful app icons (the blue Facebook [F], or yellow-orange Instagram camera) visually trigger us to unconsciously consume just like candy wrappers. But instead of taking any candy away, we can just re-organize the choice architecture so we are in control — like this:

  1. Move your visually triggering apps into folders on the second page (opaque jars with a lid)
  2. Within these folders, move the visually triggering icons into the second or third page embedded in the folder, so colors won’t be visible from outside.

For example, this won’t work:

But this could:

Overall, I set up my second page of folders with mostly color-neutral, gray icons and hide the colorful apps deeper inside. With my phone set up like this, downloading new apps is like adding new hidden functionality to my phone– but not new sources of concerns, new slot machines or trapdoor distractions.

Tip #5: Only Get Notified When *People* Need Your Attention

Put simply: Turn off all your notifications except when *people* (not apps or businesses) are trying to reach you.

We live in an Attention Economy. That means every app and website — whether it is a meditation app, the NYTimes, or an addictive game — is trying to get you to come back and spend more time. Companies literally have teams of people called Growth Hackers, whose job is to invent new reasons (notifications) and new persuasive tactics to bring you back. I know this because I studied with the lab at Stanford that invented many of these principles.

That’s why we wake up to screens that look like this, inundated with notifications.

Gloria Mark, one of the leading researchers on “interruption science” at UC Irvine, has shown that unrelated external interruptions cost us 23 minutes before we resume focus. And it appears that the more interruptions we get, the more it increases our internal clock rates for self-interruption– put simply, the more we get interrupted, the more we interrupt ourselves.

The only answer is to have our devices interrupt us less by turning off notifications.

But what about email notifications?

Turn them off. You will always have new email, why add clutter to your life on top of that? Turning it off will train people trying to reach you to text or call instead.

You may have noticed that many 3rd party email apps (like Mailbox, Entourage, etc) send a notification for each new email by default. This isn’t because it’s good or healthy for people, but because they are trying to get you into the habit of using their app instead of the default one.

But what about social media — what if I was tagged in a photo or miss an event?

Like email, why not check these sites and find out about important events or notifications on your terms — not theirs? Rest assured, they usually find a way to email you about them anyway.

But what about other people-related apps like Skype, Foursquare, Airbnb reviews, or messages on dating apps like OKCupid or Tinder?

For notifications that count as “people trying to reach you,” especially the ones that won’t come in through email, keep notifications on. I would turn the rest off.

But but but… what if I miss something?

We lived for decades in the modern world without smartphones in our pockets, trust that it will work out.

Tip #6: Unambiguous Vibrations

Today when our phone buzzes, it could be anything: we’ve been tagged in a photo, our mom’s texting us about an emergency, or someone followed you on Twitter. Our phone vibrates in a similar way for each type. This leads to the phenomenon of “phantom buzzing” — where we’re not sure if that person we’re expecting got back to us or not, and we start feeling vibrations in our pocket that didn’t even happen.

Turning off notifications will alleviate some of this. But it would also help to distinguish between when actual people want our attention and other kinds of notifications.

Luckily, Apple let’s you do just that with custom vibration signatures. Go to Settings > Notifications > Messages > Sounds > Vibration > “Create New Vibration” to tap a custom vibration rhythm for when someone sends you a message (I use a rapid, triple-vibrate pattern). This way, even when my phone is on silent I can clearly tell when a vibration meant that a person sent me a message.

Unfortunately for those of you who use third party messaging apps like WhatsApp, WeChat or Line as your primary way of communicating, Apple doesn’t let you set up custom vibrations for other apps.

This is exactly why we need to demand these as part of our “attention rights” from Apple and Google, who inadvertently act as the guardians of what kinds of freedoms we have or don’t.

Tip #7: Buy a Travel Alarm Clock or Charge Phone Outside

80% of smartphone owners report checking their phone first thing in the morning. And many of us don’t feel great about that. It sets up our thoughts and concerns for the day, and programs our minds to think about our lives in a very particular way.

While setting an alarm without unlocking your phone (tip #3) is helpful, it’s even better to use a separate alarm clock.

The best solution is to charge our phones outside the bedroom, and use a separate alarm clock as our daily alarm. You can buy many inexpensive options on Amazon, including a few under $10.

In conclusion…

While I believe these tips will help people tremendously, it’s just a start. What we really need is a whole new approach to the design of the screens we live by– to make them truly livable and designed to help us spend time well.

Both Apple and Google could do a lot more to make our phone’s default settings reflect how people really want to live. Imagine if we lived in a world where our phones and the Internet were designed to make our darwinian instincts work for us, instead of against us. Imagine if these kinds of settings were the default, not something only a few people knew about.

Time Well Spent is about making that happen, let’s create that conversation.


Tristan Harris was Product Philosopher at Google until 2016 where he studied how technology affects a billion people’s attention, wellbeing and behavior. For more resources on Time Well Spent, see http://timewellspent.io.

Originally published at www.tristanharris.com on January 27, 2016.