In the age of constant digital distractions, I firmly believe our smartphones are not to blame.
Similar to any other “thing” in history, the problem is very rarely the tool itself—but rather the relationship we have with it. Now, are software applications engineered to keep users attentive, engaged, and scrolling? Yes. But we as human beings can also engineer ourselves to be more conscious of our behaviors, and learn to make our devices productive extensions of ourselves—opposed to allowing ourselves to become slaves to our devices.
If you’ve even instinctively reached for your phone to check the news or social media, even though you literally just checked it, then you know how easily these habits can form.
I first realized how much I needed to be conscious of the relationship I had with my smartphone and other devices when I accidentally left my phone at home.
And it was the most productive day I’d had in months.
I showed up at the office and realized I’d left my phone at home. And all throughout the day, I found how much I didn’t want to jump between tasks—because that would have been unproductive. Instead, I stayed focused on things for much longer and ended up getting far more done.
When I realized how much my phone had been affecting my productivity, I wanted to get proof that I was spending way more time on my phone than I thought I was. So I started looking at the screen time tracker on my iPhone telling me how much time I was spending on my phone, and that was a mind-blowing discovery. Hours and hours each day were being eaten up—some, of course being work-related (emails, Skylum and my personal social media accounts, reading, etc.), but just as many hours were not work-related.
So, I decided I was going to fix the relationship I had with my smartphone.
Here’s how I did it:
1. I got rid of all the apps I didn’t really need.
A few years before this, I had gone down a chaotic rabbit hole of trying to find apps for everything: health, wellness, productivity, games, you name it.
I had hundreds of apps on my phone.
The first thing I did was deep clean and remove all the apps I didn’t need and never really used. I ended up getting rid of 70% of what was on my phone. For a while, the only productivity apps on my phone were Google products: Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Notes, and AdSense.
2. I started using Apple’s Screen Time function to set limits on my app usage.
If you have an iPhone, then in your settings is the ability to set limits on how long you’re able to use certain types of apps like social media. You can create a schedule for yourself, and during certain hours only certain types of apps will be immediately usable. The rest will be greyed out, and will prompt you with a message before allowing you to bypass the rule you had set for yourself.
I started setting limits for myself when I was traveling, or days I had a ton of meetings, so that only certain types of apps will work—so if I’m traveling, only giving myself access to travel-related apps (encouraging me to be more present). Or, when I’m at home, I’ll set the downtime from 8:00 p.m. to 5:00 a.m., encouraging me to not be on my phone and be more engaged with my family.
Lastly, I set daily limits for social media apps: Facebook Messenger, LinkedIn, etc., all have a combined limit of 45 minutes per day. I can extend those limits if needed, but I use that as my barometer.
3. The apps I have kept each have their own dedicated folder.
Of the apps I have chosen to keep on my phone, I have organized them dedicated to their specific function.
For example, I have a folder of apps specifically for my kids—a folder for my older son, and a folder for my younger son.
Then I have a folder packed with photography apps, a folder for communication apps like Zoom or UberConference, Google Hangouts, etc.
Any apps outside of dedicated folders are personal education or development apps I use very regularly: Apple News, Masterclass, Google Calendar, and ZEN Money. In addition, I have several reading apps: iBooks, specifically for audiobooks; and Smart Reading, which gives you summaries in Russian.
Lastly, I have organized my phone into two parts: managing my personal productivity, and managing my travel schedule.
On the first screen, I have apps like Focus Keeper, a Pomodoro Timer, my translation apps, etc.
And on the second screen, I have apps like Airalo, which allows you to purchase virtual SIM cards in countries you travel (at a heavily discounted price compared to a regular SIM card). These are apps that make my travel experience better but are not “time wasters” like, say, social media.
All in all, I couldn’t imagine going back to the way my smartphone used to be organized. Taking the time to really question how I’m interacting with this device, and whether or not my habits are distracting me or propelling me forward, has been a huge lesson learned.
If you have been noticing yourself spending a lot of time on your phone recently, I highly encourage you to do a deep clean and get rid of all the apps you don’t need—and start there.