Make Your Smartphone a Productivity Tool — Not a Distraction

Like a lot of people, I have a love-hate relationship with my smartphone. It does so many things so well. Yet, in the end, it often results in time use that I’m not happy with and sometimes money spent that I’m not at all happy with.

What I’ve realized over the last year or so is that given that I use it so often, it makes sense to sit down and optimize the thing so that it’s geared toward what I most want it to do and it’s geared away from the things I don’t want from it. In other words, I had to think seriously about what I wanted my smartphone to do and what I really didn’t want it to do. What things does a smartphone provide that bring value into my life? What things does it provide that doesn’t bring value into my life?

I want to get the maximum value out of my smartphone given the money I spent on it and for the ongoing cellular plan. I want to maximize what it does well for my life and minimize what it doesn’t.

So, here’s what I’ve done over the last year. I hope you’ll find some of it valuable. Note that I use an iPhone of 2- to 3-year-old vintage most of the time, though everything here should work well on newer iPhones, Android phones and other smart devices.

Figure out what you really want it to do.

Here’s an interesting question: what are the five things you actually want your smartphone to do for you? And another one: what are five things that your smartphone does that cost you money, focus, time, and positivity without giving you much in return?

Those are tricky questions, but after some careful thought, I was able to come up with lists for myself. I strongly encourage you to come up with your own lists, because most of the tips that follow come from trying to accentuate the positives on my positive list and minimize the negatives on my negative list. By knowing what you want and don’t want, it’ll be easier for you to pull out the strategies that work well for you.

Here’s what I want it to do:

  • I want it to help me communicate meaningfully with people I care about.
  • I want it to be able to look up the answers to questions when I have them.
  • I want it to help me navigate.
  • I want it to monitor my to-do list and calendar and personal notes.
  • I want it to entertain me, but in a way that lifts me up and isn’t merely burning time.

Here’s what I don’t want it to do:

  • I don’t want it to interrupt whatever it is I’m doing unless it’s really urgent.
  • I don’t want it to eat up time without a purpose, or convince me to do not-important-and-not-urgent things.
  • I don’t want it to convince me to buy things I don’t really need.
  • I don’t want it to bring down my happiness.

I found that my phone did the positives somewhat well while also putting the negatives on my plate. What I wanted to do was to really accentuate the positives while doing my best to cut down the negatives.

#1. I turned off virtually all notifications.

I went into the notifications menu (on iPhones, this is found inside the settings app) and went through every single app, turning notifications completely off unless there was an extremely good reason to do so.

I turned off notifications from almost everything — my email program, my social media apps, news apps, all of it. Unless there was a very specific reason why I would want to be notified of something, I turned off notifications. Right now, the only apps that can send me notifications are a pair of direct one-on-one messaging apps, my calendar and my to-do list. Nothing else notifies me of anything, period. I turned it all off.

In some specific apps, I wanted to only allow notifications from a very limited subset of people, mostly my immediate family. For example, I went into the Messages app and tapped on every person that I didn’t want to be interrupted by, and turned on “Hide Alerts.” I’d still see that they had sent me texts, but receiving a text from that person doesn’t interrupt anything. So, the only people that will cause me to nave a notification of a new message from them is basically my immediate family plus one or two more people.

Right there, because of those changes, my phone almost never vibrates, and when it does, I know it’s something well worth paying attention to. Even more interesting, because my phone doesn’t vibrate very often anymore, I pick it up less and less frequently than I once did.

#2. I deleted several social media apps and strongly cut down who and what I follow on the ones I kept.

For each and every social media app on my phone (that’s not strictly work-related), I asked myself this: am I coming away from the uses of this app as a happier and better person? Or is the content I see within it mostly making me sad or angry? I was deeply honest with myself about each one and the truth of the matter is that I ended up deleting many of them.

Ask yourself this: when you open up that social media app, do you often scroll through and feel angry? Do you feel envy? Do you want to immediately start arguing with someone? None of that brings anything of value into your life — nothing. Get rid of it. It wastes your time. It grabs your focus. It makes you feel a lot of negative emotions. Toss it.

With the ones I kept, I went into that app and intentionally unfollowed or muted every person that wasn’t either bringing me genuinely actionable or useful information or wasn’t extremely close to me personally. I cut the number of people I was following on Twitter by a huge percentage, and I cut my Facebook folks down by about 90%. Almost everything that was making me feel sad and negative from those apps was gone in a flash.

#3. I intentionally filled my home screen with the 24 apps that brought the most positive value in my life and either deleted or relegated everything else to a folder on the second screen.

The reason here is simple: if I want to do something that’s not immediately available on my home screen, is it really worth doing?

I put some thought into those 24 apps. Which ones do I actually use for positive things? Those should stay. Which ones tend to distract me? Those should go. Which ones tend to make me feel worse? Those should go. Which apps serve as time-wasters without bringing me any positive value in life? Those absolutely should go.

For the most part, I just deleted everything that didn’t fit. If I really wasn’t sure about deleting an app, I stuck it in a folder on the second page, putting it out of sight and out of mind.

Here are some of the apps that stuck around on my home screen:

  • Evernote
  • Fantastical (for calendars)
  • Things 3 (to-do lists)
  • Slack
  • Messages
  • Pokemon Go
  • Audible
  • Calm
  • ESPN Fantasy Sports
  • Seconds (for exercise routines)
  • Pocket

There are a few other apps that made the cut, like Timery and Google Maps, but you get the point. I keep a rotating slot on the home screen for apps that I’m trying out, like V for Wiki or Geocaching.

Notice what’s not on the home screen. There are no games other than Pokemon Go (which encourages me to go outside and walk) and Geocaching (which encourages me to go outside and walk) and ESPN Fantasy Sports (which is basically a way to connect with real-life friends in a positive way). There is no web browser because I don’t want to buy stuff on my phone. There are no news apps, because I don’t want to be interrupted by the latest 24-hour news fluff. The two true social media apps still around — Instagram and Twitter — are very carefully curated in terms of who I follow to bring me a lot of personal value.

The second screen has some other apps in folders that I basically never look at unless there’s a need, mostly customer rewards apps for specific places, and apps I might need in specific situations but not for general use, like my auto insurance app or my children’s school app.

There is basically nothing on my phone — and certainly nothing on the home screen — that I can tap on for purposeless distraction or negativity. It’s all either productivity stuff or meaningful positive entertainment. Most of the apps left on the home screen are either extremely curated social media that’s actually positive and useful to me or else curated reading (Kindle and Pocket) and listening (Audible and Overcast and Spotify) apps geared toward learning new and useful things I’m actually interested in.

#4. I use “Do Not Disturb” mode aggressively and sometimes leave my phone in other parts of the house.

Although my phone doesn’t give me many notifications at all these days, sometimes I want nothing to come through except for absolute emergencies. In those cases, I turn on “Do Not Disturb” mode, which you can activate in settings on the iPhone.

“Do Not Disturb” offers a lot of different options. For me, the most important one is that it allows me to block all calls except those from a select group, and that group is my wife, my oldest child (the only one with a cell phone), my parents and my children’s schools. Nothing else triggers any sort of notification, and everything else is blocked.

I use this constantly. I use it whenever I need to focus on a task. I use it when I want to really dive deep into something, like a book or a hobby project.

Another strategy I use is that I will sometimes just leave my phone in another room, which is an even deeper “Do Not Disturb” mode. When I do that, I can’t even instinctively grab my phone to look at it — it’s just not around. I usually don’t do this on school days, but I’ll often do it on weekends when I know where my kids are and I want to really focus on something.

The truth is that there is very little in life that is so urgent that it should interrupt your “flow state” when you’re engaged with something you care about. Ninety-nine percent of what my phone used to show me were needless interruptions of my concentration, which would take me out of a state of focus. I just don’t need that.

#5. I turned off the “Raise to Wake” feature.

Another thing I noticed is that whenever my phone would move much at all, the screen would light up and I’d immediately see some notifications waiting for me, most of which were really unimportant and all of which could wait. Yet, somehow, knowing those notifications were there would compel me to look at my phone and waste time and break concentration.

My solution to that problem was to simply deactivate the “Raise to Wake” feature so that if I moved my phone a little, it didn’t immediately show me notifications. This is another setting that’s easy to change in the settings app. Just go into the “Display & Brightness” sub-menu and tap on the button next to “Raise to Wake” to turn it off.

Now, my phone only wakes up if I tap on the screen or press a button, which means it’s a lot less likely that I’ll inadvertently wake it up and distract myself with it.

#6. I set up several very useful shortcuts.

The shortcuts app for iOS has been invaluable to me. I’ve used it to set up several shortcuts that I can activate with just a tap. When I swipe right on the home screen, my phone moves to Control Center and right at the top there are ten or so shortcuts that do really useful things with a tap.

I have one that puts my phone in “Do Not Disturb” mode and sets a 5:30 a.m. alarm, which is usually what I want before I go to bed. I have another that calculates my ETA to home and then texts that information to my wife (saying “I’m at XX location and should be home in Y minutes.”), which I often use when she’s expecting me or when the weather is inclement. I have one that sets a two-hour-long “Do Not Disturb” timer. I have one that lets me set a reminder that will pop up when I arrive home, and another that sets a reminder that will pop up when I go to the library. You can find all of these by searching through the suggested shortcuts in the shortcuts app, and within the app you can choose to add them to widgets (meaning they’re available if you swipe right on your home screen) or as an actual icon on your home screen.

These shortcuts save me lots of fumbling around for common things I do on my phone. For example, getting an ETA estimate and texting it to Sarah might take a little while, but I can do it with just a quick tap. It saves me a few seconds there and a minute here and it makes my phone feel genuinely more useful.

#7. I charge my phone away from my bedside table (still working on this transition).

This is something I’m gradually adjusting to, but it already feels like a real positive change when I remember to do it.

If I still want to do something outside of sleeping, whether it’s on my phone or not, I stay out of bed. Part of my bedtime routine is to plug in my phone on the far side of the bedroom, then go to sleep.

Basically, I’m migrating to charging my phone across the room from where I sleep so that, when I’m in bed, I’m not tempted to look at it. If I’m still awake enough to want to play with my phone, then I shouldn’t be in bed yet. I want to have a standard bedtime routine where I get in bed and fall asleep rather than dawdling with my phone for an hour when I should be resting.

These changes add up to my phone being a much less intrusive but positive presence in my life, rather than an intrusive and often negative presence that it used to be.

Given the expense of a smartphone and an accompanying data plan, I want my phone to be a tool to make my life better, not one that distracts me, takes me out of the moment and brings down my mood. Those uses had crept into far too much of my cellular phone usage, and thus for me to get enough value out of my smartphone to keep paying for it, I needed to rethink entirely how I was using it.

These seven steps have made an enormous difference in my use of my smartphone. I use it far less than I used to. When I use it now, I feel like the time I spent on it was useful and positive, and I usually walk away in a better mood, not a worse one. I don’t feel anger or frustration or negative feelings. I don’t feel like I wasted time.

If you want to feel more like this about your smartphone, follow the steps in the article above. Turn off virtually all of your notifications. Ditch most of your social media apps, and if you really want to keep one or two, pare them down to feeds that bring positive emotions into your life, not anger and sadness. Delete all of the time-wasting apps from your phone and fill your home screen with stuff that nudges you to be your best self. Use “Do Not Disturb” mode aggressively. Don’t use your phone in bed. Turn off “Raise to Wake” so that you’re not attracted to your phone if you bump it.

Make those changes and you’ll feel a lot better about your social media usage.

Good luck!

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.