My iPhone is the most important device I own, at least judging by how much I use it. High usage doesn’t automatically translate into proficient usage though.
For the better part of a decade, I used to be okay with my iPhone being a buzzing mess of notifications, pointless scrolling, fragmented communication and all-around clutter.
I realize that this is not unique: there seems to be increasing awareness and almost alarmist attitude towards smartphone usage nowadays, culminating in products like the Light Phone. Alas, falling back to a non-smartphone would be to admit defeat and leave one of the most powerful tools we have for navigating modern life by the wayside.
So, rather than getting rid of my iPhone, I set out to get better at using it by making a deliberate effort in configuring it properly. My goal is to take all of the upsides that smartphones offer without giving in to their temptations for wasting time & attention.
In practice, my setup is focused on:
- Eliminating distractions
- Prioritizing & consolidating communication
- Acknowledging & channeling weak moments
Getting rid of Ads
I am not kidding myself in assuming that ads don’t work — and precisely for that reason, I aim to reduce exposure as much as I can for myself.
Ads on websites
Those are the easiest to deal with on iOS — Safari content blockers are the way to go for on-device ad blocking. So far, I’ve tried AdGuard and 1Blocker, eventually sticking with 1Blocker because it works more reliably for me. I also use it to block other website elements which don’t add value to me, e.g. suggested videos or comments on YouTube.
Ads inside apps
If an app provides a paid upgrade to remove ads, I do exactly that. If that’s not possible, however, I use a DNS-based ad blocker as Safari content blockers work in — well, Safari only. I use an AdGuard Home / Wireguard combination, but I’ve seen that both AdGuard and 1Blocker offer a virtual VPN tunnel on the iPhone itself, achieving the same effect.
YouTube video ads
In terms of ads, this truly is the final frontier. I’ve found no way to block ads inside the app itself. DNS-based ad-blocking doesn’t work/is flaky at best because Google serves pre-roll ads via the same domain as the main video.
I’ve started to use the mobile website version of YouTube instead. This offers 2 benefits:
- I can use 1Blocker to hide comments, suggested videos and everything else that distracts me from the actual video or tries to pull me into watching more videos.
- For blocking video ads, and a generally more pleasant viewing experience, I’ve recently discovered Vinegar, a Safari extension by Zhenyi Tan. So far, it’s the only reliable way I found to get rid of YouTube video ads completely. It does this by replacing the proprietary YouTube video player (using all kinds of wizardry to serve up ads) with a standard HTML5 player that’s streaming the main video file. A brilliant idea, elegantly executed.
Reigning in notifications
Analyze & batch
What I wanted to avoid here first and foremost are iPhone pick-ups caused by non-urgent messages.
I realized that I’ll pick up my phone at least every other hour anyways to e.g. pay via Apple Pay, read an article, search for something, text with someone etc. So, the ideal way to handle non-urgent notifications for me is to batch them.
iOS 15 ships with a new feature tailored towards that approach, ‘Scheduled Summary’.
I’ve set up three summaries per day, scheduled based on how notifications used to be distributed throughout the day for me (you can check this via Settings → Screen Time → See All Activity).
Notifications from a few select apps, i.e. the iOS calendar, I’ve still configured to be surfaced instantly.
Automate focus mode
While reading at night, I also want to mute notifications that aren’t batched until the next day. I have a do-not-disturb schedule set up, activating do-not-disturb (affectionately called by some ‘Little-Moon-Mode’) from 10 pm until 7 am. With iOS 15 and the new Focus mode options, you can get much more sophisticated than that, allowing certain apps to surface notifications during work hours. I did not need that yet though.
Prioritizing & consolidating communication
It’s easy to be ‘available’ nowadays — most (if not all) messenger apps are free to install and sending messages typically doesn’t carry any direct costs for users either.
This sounds obvious because we’ve gotten used to it quickly, but WhatsApp ‘just’ launched in 2009, and iMessage in 2011.
They’ve generally changed things for the better. One thing I miss from the good ol’ SMS days though is that there was only one messaging channel to keep track of and care about.
I live in Europe and the messenger space is pretty fragmented with iMessage, WhatsApp, Telegram and Facebook Messenger being the most popular ones I can make out.
On Linux, I used to use one messenger (Adium I believe) which aggregated the popular messengers back then (ICQ, MSN etc.) into a single thread of communications. On Android, something like this existed too for a while (I forgot the name).
On macOS, there’s a new project called Texts which aims to consolidate Twitter DMs, WhatsApp etc. It looks well made and promising — there’s no iOS client yet though.
Ultimately though, most of my messaging is happening on my iPhone and for that, I haven’t found a way to consolidate conversations across messengers.
Hence, I decided to take a more radical approach and outright settle on a single messenger app.
Granted, I’m missing out on some more casual conversations. But given enough time and persistence, I figured the people I care about will all be on the same platform.
I think that Telegram is the best messenger — by a wide margin. So wide, that every time I had to use WhatsApp, I was frustrated because it’s such a weak product compared to Telegram.
Upon switching entirely and solely to it, I’ve changed my status on other messengers to let my contacts who wanted to reach out that I’m only available on a greener pasture going forward.
Unfortunately, I found out that people rarely read WhatsApp statuses and of course, WhatsApp isn’t exactly keen on optimizing the off-boarding experience for users. So, there’s no visible indication to contacts that you’ve uninstalled the app nor is there a setting to let you visibly deactivate your profile for contacts.
So, expect some initial confusion from your WhatsApp contacts. It’s been 1 year since I’ve gotten rid of the app and after the first couple of weeks, this resolves itself though.
For email and work, things are delightfully simple by comparison: I use Spark to keep my email accounts in sync across devices. At work, we use Slack.
To prioritize communication, I use Todoist and Slack reminders. When I receive a message that needs some thought or research before replying, I’ll add them to my todos in Todoist. For work messages, I use Slack reminders to achieve the same. Hopefully, Telegram launches a „snooze this message“ / message reminder feature too.
Acknowledging & channeling weak moments
So far we’ve largely dealt with passive usage, i.e. the iPhone nudging you to pick it up and react to something. But what about those moments where you’re e.g. waiting in a restaurant for someone? The goal is to direct some preemptive thought into acknowledging and optimizing for weak moments like those. Ultimately, we don’t want to just reach for the app that provides the most convenient way of quick entertainment (i.e. TikTok) in those moments and instead use them to either learn something or just consciously relax.
For moments during which I’m having low attention span/energy (e.g. loud coffee shop, tired, just some minutes left while waiting for something) I have a backlog of items to read. My news-consumption setup helps me a lot in achieving this. I usually scan for new articles once a day in Reeder and move the ones I wanna read into Instapaper. When I e.g. need to wait for the bus, I default to opening Instapaper and read them.
To make the best use of e.g. longer train rides, I have a project in Todoist set up where I keep a curriculum of stuff I want to learn. In there, I save links to YouTube videos, articles, books etc.
So, the ideal decision tree for me works like this: Low attention span → Instapaper. High attention span → Curriculum.
I still have some bad habits with iPhone usage which I wanted to keep in check. Currently, those are:
- Checking my brokerage accounts (for no particular reason)
- Opening Bloomberg.com randomly to check headlines
iOS luckily offers good tools for making it harder to succumb to those temptations:
- Timer to set limits for app usage (this works for websites too!). This support article from Apple describes how to set them up.
- Moving time/attention suckers to folders or App Library.
- Block websites outright via 1Blocker custom filters.
- Activate the following accessibility settings: Color Filter → Black / White & Reduce White Point. This helps make the display more functional and less engaging for me. Plus, it conserves battery.
Taken together, these settings help me use my iPhone more like the powerful tool it is than a nagging distraction (which it can be if misconfigured).