November 24, 2020

Reclaim Your Attention: How to Keep Your Phone from Distracting You

As powerful a tool as smartphones are, they can cause serious harm to your productivity and even quality of life. Thus, you need to take steps to protect yourself from your phone’s potential negative consequences while still retaining its benefits.

In this guide, I’ll take you through the process of making your phone less distracting. We’ll start with how to remove distractions within your phone, and then we’ll move to some broader measures to make your phone less distracting overall.

My hope is that by the end of this article you’ll be on the path to developing a healthier relationship with your phone, reclaiming the attention it may have stolen.

Remove Unnecessary and Distracting Apps

Before we can discuss how to mitigate your phone’s distracting features, we need to establish a clean slate to work from. This means deleting all the random apps you’ve accumulated. If you’ve never taken the time to deliberately organize and decide which apps you need, your phone is likely a mess.

This can be quite distracting in itself, as a messy phone means more time trying to find the apps that do benefit you. Plus, your phone likely contains distracting or unnecessary apps that you’d be better off deleting. So let’s start with a series of four questions you can ask to clean and organize your apps.

Do You Actually Use the App?

Your phone probably contains more unused apps than you realize. This is especially true if you’ve had the device for a couple of years.

Therefore, the first step to organizing your apps is to ask, “Do I actually use this app?” If not, then you should probably delete it.

Of course, there will be some apps that you rarely use but are still worth keeping. For instance, I don’t often use the Southwest Airlines app. But the potential inconvenience of not having it accessible the few times a year when I’m going through the airport is enough for me to always keep it downloaded on my phone.

If you’re not sure if you’ll need an app later, there’s no harm in keeping it. The goal is to remove apps that you definitely don’t use. Going through my phone, for instance, I removed a French dictionary app leftover from when I was actively learning French. And I also removed the VRBO app, which was leftover from a family trip to the beach over a year ago.

This is also a great time to remove any stock or default apps that you don’t use. My phone, for instance, came with a lot of Samsung-specific “bloatware” that I know I’ll never use. So I promptly deleted most of those apps when I got the phone.

Unfortunately, some phone manufacturers prevent you from removing certain apps even if they’re useless to you (looking at you, “Galaxy Store” and “Samsung Notes” apps). It’s possible to get around this if you jailbreak your phone, but that’s beyond the scope of this article (and not something I recommend unless you really know what you’re doing).

Does the App Needlessly Duplicate Functionality from Another Device?

It’s easy to justify keeping certain apps because of their “useful” features, but you should question how much benefit an app provides on your phone specifically. Would you be better off using that app on a different device? If so, then you should delete the app from your phone.

For instance, I used to have the Asana app on my phone. It seemed like a good idea, since I could check on project statuses without having to go to my computer.

However, I only used Asana for work tasks, so there was no real need for me to check it while away from my office. Having constant access to it only amplified my stress and wasted my time. So I ended up deleting it from my phone, and I suffered no loss of productivity (quite the opposite). And even if I had, it would’ve been easy to download the app again.

This brings up another important point: deleting apps isn’t permanent. If you later realize you do need an app on your phone, you can always download it again. Because of this, there’s no real risk to deleting an app, and you shouldn’t be afraid to do it.

Do the App’s Drawbacks Outweigh Its Benefits?

Downloading apps is so easy that we often do so even if it only provides a tiny benefit. Furthermore, we rarely stop to think about the potential drawbacks of an app and how they might outweigh the benefits.

In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport calls this the “any-benefit” approach. And if you want to make your phone less distracting, this is the wrong approach to take. Instead, you should always consider an app’s drawbacks alongside its potential benefits.

For instance, it’s easy to justify having an email app on your phone. Here are a few of the potential benefits:

  • Being able to check messages more often.
  • Responding to messages when you aren’t at your computer.
  • Composing messages during “unproductive” times such as waiting in line at the grocery store.

These are all compelling, to be sure, and this capability would have seemed insanely futuristic even 20 years ago. However, let’s also consider the potential drawbacks of accessing email from your phone:

  • Constantly responding to messages can increase your stress.
  • Being connected to email all the time can prevent you from being present and enjoying the time when you’re not at the computer.
  • If you can work anywhere, then where do the boundaries of work end? You could soon find yourself working all the time, checking emails at 2 AM when you’d be much better off asleep

Using this analysis, I’ve decided it isn’t worth having access to work email on my phone. Of course, I’m fortunate to work at a company without a culture of constant communication or even a heavy reliance on email for communicating.

But the point still stands: always consider if the app’s potential drawbacks outweigh its supposed benefits. If they do, then you should delete the app.

Overwhelmed by email? Here’s how to tame your inbox.

Is This App a Time Suck? Can I Mitigate it?

This final set of questions brings us to interesting territory.

On the one hand, there are some time-sucking apps I don’t think anyone should have on their phone. If an app is a time suck and provides no additional benefits aside from distraction or procrastination, then I think you should delete it.

For instance, it’s difficult to justify having most mobile games on your phone, since they only provide a distraction. Not that I’m against video games; quite the opposite. But I think you should be deliberate about when you choose to game (and choose games that are more immersive and fulfilling than the latest iteration of Candy Crush).

On the other hand, there are apps that can suck up a lot of time but are still worth having. For instance, let’s say you own a small restaurant that relies on Instagram for promotion. In this case, it’s worth having the Instagram app on your phone to take pictures of the day’s menu, promote upcoming events, or otherwise update your followers.

However, having Instagram on your phone is also a huge source of potential distraction. There will always be the temptation to mindlessly scroll through your feed instead of doing something more fulfilling.

To preserve the benefits of having the app without harming your productivity, you need to mitigate its potential to distract you.

In the case of Instagram, you could use an app like Screen Time to limit how many hours a day you use it.

This way, you give yourself enough time to use the app for productive tasks without the added danger of it sucking up your time.

If you have an Android device, you could do something similar with an app like Freedom (see the next section for more tips that apply to both iOS and Android).

Beyond Apps: Make Your Phone Incapable of Distracting You

Our phones keep getting smarter — why don’t we?

– Jerry Seinfeld, 23 Hours to Kill

Removing unused, unnecessary, and time-sucking apps is a powerful first step to make your phone less distracting. If you only did that, you’d already be ahead of most people.

However, there are some additional steps you can take to ensure your phone will never distract you (even with the so-called “useful” apps it contains).

Limit How Much You Can Use Certain Apps

I hinted at this in the previous section, but there are ways to ensure the apps you do have don’t distract you.

If you’re on iOS, you can use Screen Time to set usage limits for both specific apps and groupings of apps.

For instance, you could limit your access to TikTok to one 30 minutes per day. Going further, you could limit all “Social Media” apps to an hour per day.

If you’re on Android, there isn’t (yet) an exact parallel to Screen Time, though you can accomplish something similar with Freedom (discussed below).

Beyond setting usage time limits, you can also limit when you can use certain apps. For instance, you could disable access to most (or all) apps after a certain time of day, during the range of time when you should be asleep, or during work/study hours.

On iOS, you can do this with the built-in Downtime feature. And on both Android and iOS, you can do this with Freedom. You can choose to block apps from specific predefined categories (“Social Media,” “News,” etc.) or create your own custom lists of distracting apps.

And of course, both Downtime and Freedom let you maintain access to apps that you might need in emergencies (the Phone app, for instance).

Strategically Limit and Disable Notifications

By default, most apps have notifications enabled. While this can be useful for calendar apps or messaging tools, it can also be immensely distracting. For this reason, I encourage you to disable notifications for any “non-critical” apps.

You’ll have to decide which apps these are for yourself. But I strongly encourage you to disable notifications from any app that frequently notifies you without real benefit. For most people, this will mean disabling email, news, and social media notifications. If you’ve never done this, it’s hard to express how much it will reduce both your distraction and stress levels.

In addition to disabling certain notifications altogether, you should also limit when you receive notifications. Luckily, both Android and iOS have a Do Not Disturb mode that you can use for this purpose. I recommend setting your phone to Do Not Disturb when you’re working or studying (unless you need your phone for work, of course).

And I also recommend scheduling Do Not Disturb to turn on an hour or two before bedtime and continue until at least when you wake up. Ideally, leave your phone in Do Not Disturb the first couple of hours after you get up so you don’t get sucked into checking notifications first thing in the morning.

If your phone isn’t constantly interrupting you with needless notifications, then you’ll find it much less distracting.

Reduce the Temptation to Touch Your Phone with Forest

Let’s say that even with Do Not Disturb and an app like Screen Time or Freedom, you still compulsively pick up and check your phone. In this case, you need to create an incentive not to touch it.

For this, I recommend the Forest app. When you enable Forest, it replaces your phone’s home screen with an animation of a growing tree. As long as you don’t touch your phone during your Forest session, the tree will continue to grow.

Forest app showing a tree growing

But if you pick up or tap your phone, the tree will wither and die. It may sound silly, but it’s a surprisingly powerful motivation to leave your phone alone. Especially since, over time, each tree accumulates into a forest that represents your progress.

Keep Your Phone Physically Out of Reach

The ultimate way to prevent your phone from distracting you is to physically remove it from your location. After all, your phone can’t distract you if you can’t see, hear, or touch it.

If you’re used to always having your phone in your pocket or sitting next to you, this will be an adjustment. I recommend you start by removing your phone from your work or study space. Keep it attached to the charger in another room and don’t look at it unless you need it for your work.

Next, I suggest removing your phone from your bedroom. Keep it attached to the charger in a different room if you can. This way, it won’t distract you while you’re trying to sleep, read, or relax.

Now, I recognize this isn’t always possible. When I lived in a shared dorm room, for instance, my phone had to stay in my bedroom. But even in cases where you can’t remove your phone from the room, you can still keep it far away from you. Just, whatever you do, don’t keep it next to (or in) your bed.

Finally, you should consider ways to keep your phone out of reach when you’re out and about. Instead of keeping your phone in your pocket (where you’re likely to mindlessly pull it out), keep it in your backpack, purse, briefcase, or another less accessible place.

This may seem strange at first. But once you get used to it, you’ll find you’re a lot more present in the world (which is the whole point of leaving your house, right?).

Rule Your Phone or It Will Rule You

It’s easy to forget that your phone exists (or should exist) to serve you…not the other way around.

But with the right combination of mindful app selection, limiting app usage, disabling notifications, and even removing your phone from your environment, you can free yourself from your phone’s distracting sway and get back to living life to the fullest.

Image Credits: hand holding iPhone

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