A woman that is paradoxically both stressed and calm and meditative.

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5 simple steps to Improving your mobile phone productivity and calmness

As useful and revolutionary as the smartphone has been, it is also a cause of a lot of stress, distractions and hours of unproductive activities. Here’s a simple guide on how you can rectify some of that (Reading time: ~13 mins, or a few mins if you skim)

Introduction.

We know how the phone can quite easily become addicting (and/or excessively habitual)[1], or be overly distracting (even affecting our long term concentration and memory)[2]. So the question is then how can we set ourselves up for success, and use the phone for its most useful capabilities (whether it be communication, entertainment or some of its many utility functions) while trying to minimise its harmful or undesirable effects?

This guide article provides a handful of extremely quick and simple tips on how you can configure your phone, in order to:

  • Be (and feel) more productive
  • Limit a lot of needless distractions
  • Increase your calmness and composure
  • Reduce some stresses and anxieties

The guide focuses on things you can do right now, so literally in 15 or so minutes (or at least under an hour) you can be on a path to improvement. Time well spent.

In a future article I will cover a few other things that you can start implementing immediately, but which require some time and habitual changes to enjoy the full benefits from.

There are other processes that we aren’t going to discuss in this article, such as how to manually change your broader mobile phone habits (like creating “mobile free zones” or “mobile free time” in your house or family, to restrict mobile use to a specific time of day, not using phones in the bedroom, replace some social media with more IRL social interactions etc.). While those kinds of initiatives can be very beneficial, this article focuses on quick things you can do now that will certainly have an immediate impact and benefit to you (“quick wins”).

Follow these steps in the sequence they are written, don’t overthink them (everything can be undone) and try and commit live with the finished set up for at least a couple of days.

With that… grab a glass of wine, a cup of coffee, glass of water or a snack. or just make yourself comfortable and let’s get started!

1. Temporarily delete disruptive/distracting apps

Time to implement: Very quick

Reward / Efficiency: Very high

Phone screen where user is trying to delete facebook

Deleting apps takes a second and you can install them again.

TL;DR: Delete/Uninstall apps you find you open too much and that cause undesirable interruptions or distractions you, or that you deem you are “wasting too much time” on.

Instructions:

With this step, I want you to uninstall/delete the apps that are either:

  • Apps you open a lot of times during the day (either knowingly or almost just by habit/reflex) and that you think wastes your time or distracts you. Maybe it’s social media apps that you open to procrastinate when you should be working etc.
  • Apps that you think is a waste of time and that you spend too much time on. Could be certain entertainment apps or news apps etc.

And remember, a great many apps are actually (and unethically IMHO) designed to be addictive, so don’t feel bad about your current habits![1]

We are not trying to rid you of all apps by the way. There is a reason why we have our nice powerful Apple iPhones or Android smart phones and not some old school Nokia flip phones. Also, we certainly need the occasional distraction and entertainment – but we want to keep the balance, and with this step we are aiming to take back control over what we allow ourselves to be distracted by and how much (it’s akin to acknowledging we want the occasional treat but that we are packing away the Mars bars in a corner cupboard out of sight or not buying them in the first place)

Note that you can always reinstall the apps later, so don’t be afraid – go ahead and remove some apps! Be aware that which apps you choose will be very individual to you, because firstly, you may not have the same apps installed as other people, or secondly, you might feel that certain apps are too distracting or wasteful to you but they may not be as “problematic” for someone else (and vice versa).

Think about the apps you use the most but that you wish you didn’t (is it Facebook? YouTube, Twitter?). Note that if you don’t want to remove the app completely, there is a fallback in step 4 below, but please remove a few apps (and don’t skip to step 4 yet!).

In my case I chose to remove the following apps:

  • Facebook (because I don’t really use it, but hear from lots of family and friends that they feel it’s very addictive)
  • Instagram (I may start using it more soon, but for now it’s out – paradoxically I may great a diagram for this article and post it on IG)
  • Netflix (because I found myself watching Netflix a few times when I shouldn’t – I can still watch on the TV, and I like to force myself to meditate or read when I commute).
  • Stan (an Australian Netflix equivalent – same reason as with Netflix)

Note that after a while (I think it was a couple of months) I re-installed Netflix and Stan, and I haven’t been watching stuff on the mobile (which was my main aim with removing it in the first place) but rather just used it to shoot movies and series up to the TV. So mission accomplished there (more beneficial habits were developed).

I chose to keep Twitter and LinkedIn. I probably look at tweets too much (my excuse is “I’m consuming my news this way” but in reality maybe I should get rid of it and just browse it occasionally on the laptop instead), and I do like and use LinkedIn quite a bit too – I won’t even try to make excuses for that one. I also keep WhatApp since it’s a top communication tool for me, but I have turned notifications off (more on that in the next step) and I have left a bunch of groups that I felt no longer had enough positive value for me.

2. Turn off all notifications and badges

Time to implement: Quick

Reward / Efficiency: Very high

TL;DR: Turn off almost all (if not all) notifications and badges for your apps, so you can be in control when you want to pull/check information, and thus be more productive and try and get into a state of flow and (if needed) deep work.

Instructions:

A lot of research has shown us that distractions can be very costly to productivity (both in terms of pure throughput for less complicated tasks, and in terms of being able to achieve a state of deep work). For example, research has shown that it can take up to 23 minutes to recover from interruptions unrelated to your work at hand[3] and that a simple email or chat notification generally steals 8-9 minutes from the task you are working on[4]. They are also likely to increase stress[3].

Go ahead and turn off all your popup notifications, notification badges (/notification dots on Android). Especially for the apps that are the most interruptive or distracting to you. This means definitely turn off:

  • Email notifications (if you must there are ways where you can enable notifications for your nominated “VIP” contacts), 
  • Chat notifications
  • Most app notifications. 

Don’t worry you won’t miss out on much – you can go into the app at regular intervals (i.e. schedule “email check times”). 

You can leave certain app notifications on if they are 

  • “very important” or 
  • “quite important and frequently notifies you” (but this is a slippery slope). 

And remember there is a difference between urgent and important!

For myself, I turn notifications off by default and then enable as I think will benefit me. With that in mind, here are some specific app-settings I have;

I have turned off pop-up notifications and badges (because I check them frequently enough, and there will always be something “new” in there) from:

  • Email
  • Asana
  • LinkedIn
  • Twitter (apart from people I’ve got alerts on – this means you need to have notifications on and tweak the settings inside the Twitter app)

I have turned off pop-up notifications from:

  • Asana (because I know there’s going to be new stuff in there whenever I go in – I don’t have to be reminded and stressed about it)

And I have left all notifications on for:

  • SMS (because I don’t get a lot and have already unsubscribed from most services that send me SMS)
  • My bank (because if they notify me it’s probably important)
  • Slack (but then inside the Slack app settings I’ve enabled notifications only for “DMs, Mentions and Keywords”, so at least it’s less noisy)

If you don’t remember, you can turn notifications off on iOS in “Settings” “Notifications”

3. Make it greyscale

Time to implement: Very quick
Reward / Efficiency: High

TL;DR: Turn your phone from colour to greyscale.

Instructions:

This is one of my favourite recommendations, but something I don’t quite now if there is yet science to back up the benefits of. But I vehemently encourage you to turn your screen from colour into greyscale. There was a recent Wired article that talks about it (https://www.wired.com/story/grayscale-ios-android-smartphone-addiction/) and there is even a movement around it (https://gogray.today/). The basic idea is simply that the phone is quite addictive and “stimulating” and somehow turning it from color to greyscale helps dull that a bit. 

I’ve had my phone on greyscale for about a year or so and I honestly feel like:

  • I use my phone less, 
  • The phone feels less “stimulating” (in a good way). 

In fact, since we now have features on the phone that allow you to monitor your phone consumption time (and how many times you pick it up), try and record your phone usage now and then on a weekly basis for 3-4 weeks after “going grey” (on iOS you can see this data under “Screen Time” in “Settings” but this data is only available on a weekly history basis so remember to write it down). 

To turn your phone to greyscale:

iPhone: go to “Settings” “Accessibility” “Display & Text Size” → “Color Filters” (and then turn them on to “Greyscale”)

Android: Follow instructions here https://gogray.today/

Note: When you take photos and videos on your phone in greyscale mode it will “seem” like they are taken in greyscale, but fret not as they are actually still taken and saved in colour.

Note: If you have to watch a YouTube video or something else in colour you can simply switch back to colour for a little while and then back to grey afterwards.

Note: I have had friends who were heavy Instagram users (in particular, they would take a lot of photos and want to check them before uploading them) and for them this didn’t work, but I’ve also had friends who love this hack!

4. Interrupt undesired behaviour using Screen Time (iOS) or Digital Wellbeing (Android)

Time to implement: Quick

Reward / Efficiency: High

TL;DR: Use iOS “Screen Time” or Android “Digital Wellbeing” to put time restrictions on certain apps, even just to give you time to pause and reflect before you use them.

Instructions:

This little tip is a recent but beneficial addition for me. At this stage I assume you’ve already gotten rid of some distracting and interruptive apps that you don’t want on your phone, and that you’ve disabled notifications to be more in control of app usage. However, you might still be left with certain apps that you feel like you can’t remove, and while they don’t overtly distract you by notifications you may still use them too much and like to change your habits of usage for this them (for example, it could be that you are prone to procrastinate using a certain movie or social app). One of the tricks here is to “interrupt” your brain pattern, give you time to think before you act on impulse/habit, and thus help you improve your decision-making (in this case not to open the app and rather continue with the task at hand or some other more worthy activity). This is somewhat related to a psychological concept called “Delay Discounting”.

This method of setting up “time blocks” for when you can use certain apps can also be (poor) second best solution to limiting certain app usage if you can’t quite delete it (but please delete it if you can, according to step 1 in this guide, as that naturally works much better).

This method can also be a good way to curb the use of mobile apps you might not be able to uninstall because they don’t have a Desktop version (i.e. SnapChat, TikTok etc).

I order to set time restrictions on apps (on iOS);

  • Enable Screen Time by going into “Settings” “Screen Time”, then turn on screen time
  • Under Screen Time settings, add a time window where you’d like to implement the anti-procrastination help by going into “Downtime” (i.e.  I have mine set from 10am-4pm – so I can check these apps freely until 10am and then again after 4pm)
  • Go into “Always Allowed” (under Screen Time settings still) and turn it on for all your apps apart from the “offending apps” (i.e. Twitter or whatever)

For Android devices, please refer to Google’s guide: https://support.google.com/pixelphone/answer/9137850?hl=en

For me I’ve put Twitter and LinkedIn and Ebay on this “stop and think, before proceeding” list.

5. Simplify your home screen (leave two rows free, top used apps only)

Time to implement: Quick

Reward / Efficiency: Low-Moderate

TL;DR: Remove the clutter from your phone home screen, keep only the top used apps (try to keep it to distraction-free ones!) and leave two rows free.

Instructions:

This one is more of a “feel good” step, but in my case I feel more productive and organised by looking at/using my “cleaned up” home screen.

  • Minimise the amounts of app icons you have on your home screen (leave bottom two rows free)
  • Only keep your top apps on the home screen
  • Get rid of distracting apps from the home screen (however don’t fool yourself, you will quickly get into the habit of scrolling to the tab with the distracting apps (so follow step 1 and uninstall them if possible)

Bonus smart watch tip: turn most, if not all notifications off,

If you have a smart watch, make sure you turn most notifications off. Even the ones you have turned on on your phone, turn them off on the watch. The last thing you need is even more distracting interruptions. I used to “feel” very productive by getting all messages on my phone (and how I could quickly send a pre-canned response – who didn’t love the “fist bump” response!) but it’s a time wasting feature that disrupts you from deep and focused work.

Hope this was useful, may you be slightly more productive and less anxious/stressed going forward! Let me know if you have questions, comments or ideas.

References

[1] Trevor Haynes (figures by Rebecca Clements) (2018). Dopamine, Smartphones & You: A battle for your time. Harvard Medical School. http://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2018/dopamine-smartphones-battle-time/. Accessed 27 December 2019

[2] Henry H. Wilmer, Lauren E. Sherman and Jason M. Chein (2017). Smartphones and Cognition: A Review of Research Exploring the Links between Mobile Technology Habits and Cognitive Functioning. Frontiers in Psychology.  https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00605. Accessed 27 December 2019

[3] Gloria Mark, Daniela Gudith, Ulrich Klocke (2008). The cost of interrupted work: more speed and stress. CHI ’08: CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. https://dl.acm.org/doi/10.1145/1357054.1357072. Accessed January 1 2020

[4] Shamsi T. Iqbal, Eric Horvitz (2007). Disruption and recovery of computing tasks: field study, analysis, and directions. CHI ’07: CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. https://dl.acm.org/doi/10.1145/1240624.1240730. Accessed January 1 2020