The Benefits of a Distraction-Free Smartphone

Get your phone to work for you — not the other way around

Photo by Rahul Chakraborty on Unsplash

As I’ve written before, I have a love-hate relationship with my iPhone. On one hand, I can’t live without it — I, like many other “knowledge workers” worldwide, rely on my phone to communicate, run my business, and obtain the information I need at a moment’s notice.

But on the other hand, I can’t live with it: constantly buzzing, vying for my attention, interrupting my work with meaningless distractions every few minutes.

Like many others who are questioning the appropriate use of technology in our lives, I want to have a healthier relationship with my phone. But how can that be done?

Clearly, I can’t just ditch my phone — that would be foolish. But deep down, I know that I need a more healthy relationship. I need a device that works for me, not the other way around.

The Motorola RAZR, my first phone. Memories of a simpler time.

Of course, I could go back to an old flip phone that can only call and text, but doesn’t have the Internet (believe it or not, they still sell these), but that defeats the purpose. I just want a phone that will work for me, on my terms — not on the terms of the phone’s manufacturer or the companies whose apps I use.

What I need is a distraction-free phone…and I think I’ve found a way to get it. Here’s how:

1. Delete as many apps as you can.

The first step in making your phone distraction-free is to delete almost all of your apps. As many as you can.

Be ruthless. If an app doesn’t serve a clearly-defined, well-thought-out purpose in your life, get rid of it.

Don’t keep an app because you “might” use it someday. You can re-download it if you really need it in the future. Delete it now. Chances are, you won’t think twice about it being gone. Out of sight, out of mind.

For the bold, delete email from your phone and commit to only emailing when you’re at a real computer. It may seem drastic, but you’ll get far more work done this way.

Social media is obviously in this camp, too. Take some time to think through what social media actually does for you on a daily basis. I found that most social media served no tangible purpose in my life whatsoever…so I deleted the apps from my phone, deactivated most of my accounts, and haven’t set foot on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter in months. A full list of reasons why is a topic for another day, but suffice it to say that I’m much better for it.

Do this and your life will improve. Promise.

Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky, ex-Googlers and authors of Make Time, call social media and apps like Netflix (or anything else with a scrolling feed designed to capture your attention indefinitely) infinity pools, and for good reason — they are designed to be bottomless pits of distraction. Get rid of them.

2. Take everything off your home screen.

Keep your 3–4 most-used apps in your dock, but move everything else to a folder on the second page. This has the effect of making your phone incredibly boring when you pick it up. It forces you to consider the reason for having your phone in your hand in the first place:

Distraction-free bliss.

Pick your phone up a few dozen times only to realize that you have no good reason for picking up your phone in the first place, and you’ll eventually stop doing it.

Moving distracting apps away from your home screen (resetting your defaults) is one of the most effective ways I know of to do this.

3. Turn off notifications. Like, all of them.

If missing notifications from an app isn’t a matter of life-or-death, or won’t cause you any personal or professional harm, turn them off.

A step in the right direction.

As a rule, I only have notifications enabled for four apps:

  • Find My iPhone. n case my iPhone is ever lost or stolen, I’d want to be able to display a message on the screen.
  • Google Calendar. For appointment reminders — probably the most crucial app I use on a daily basis.
  • Phone. Although most phone calls I get are from telemarketers, I can’t afford to miss client calls.
  • Things. My task manager of choice. I rarely use notifications for this app (I primarily use Google Calendar for time-based notifications), but I like having the option for this app, too.

You’ll notice that I turned notifications off for Messages. I went back and forth about that one, but I almost never get work-related text messages, and very few text messages are ever emergencies. If there’s an emergency, someone will call. Otherwise, I check these on my terms rather than allowing myself to be interrupted all the time.

Plus, text messaging is an asynchronous form of communication. More often than not, a text doesn’t need an immediate reply.

To that end, my phone is on Do Not Disturb most of the day, especially when I’m working on a task that requires deep focus. Do not disturb in the evenings is non-negotiable.

4. Turn your phone black and white.

Above and beyond the aforementioned tips of deleting apps, nixing notifications, and moving apps away from your home screen, the most effective trick I’ve found to improve my relationship with my phone is to turn it black and white.

When your phone is in black and white, it becomes incredibly boring:

Nothing to see here…

Gone are the flashy apps with their bright colors, notification banners, and alerts ad nauseam. Designers in Silicon Valley and beyond understand the psychology of color, and they use it to their advantage — our apps are designed to make you use them as much as possible, and that includes the color of the icon itself.

When you turn your screen greyscale, all that’s left is a phone that forces you to focus on what you came for.

In fact, this trick is so effective that, as a rule, I set a rule to turn my phone greyscale at the end of every workday and leave it that way until I begin working the next morning. I also leave it greyscale for the entire weekend. My phone, in turn, becomes incredibly boring, which makes my life more interesting and thoughtful than staring at a screen.

I wish iOS had an option to automatically turn your screen black and white on a schedule (like exists for Do Not Disturb), but until then, I manually enable Color Filters with a quick click of the side button. Here’s how:

IMAGE HERE

It’s a subtle way of saying to my brain, “Your phone is boring now. Perhaps that’s a cue that you shouldn’t be staring at a screen, but doing something else with your time.”

5. Best of all, leave your phone behind.

This one may not be for everyone — it depends on your job, how “reachable” you need to be, and who else is depending on you to be easily accessible.

I’ve often had a desire to leave my phone behind, but I still needed to be reachable by my wife or others if there was an emergency.

Lightweight apps and cellular connectivity make Apple Watch the perfect way to be reachable while leaving the distractions of your phone behind.

For me, the answer was a cellular-enabled Apple Watch. It gives me the freedom to leave my phone and all its distractions at home, while still allowing me to call or text someone if I need to get in touch. Thanks to awesome (and lightweight, distraction-free) apps on Apple Watch, I can still communicate, navigate, listen to music and more while I’m out and about — just without all of the distractions of a phone.


Obviously, this isn’t an exhaustive list of ways to make your phone more distraction-free, but these techniques are a few helpful ways I’ve found to make my relationship with my phone more healthy and thoughtful.

Have you tried to form a more healthy relationship with your phone? I’d love to hear what has worked for you!

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