The Optimal iPhone Settings and Best Apps for Productivity, Focus, and Health

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#1. Turn OFF (almost) all notifications

Open the Apple Settings App, then go to the Notifications Section. You’re going to need to get good at opening the Settings app, so learn to find this icon:

Go app by app, turning off all notifications.

No badges, almost all notifications off. See below for exceptions.

By the end, the vast majority of your apps should have a notifications setting that looks like this, i.e with no notifications:

Please, please, please: No notifications is best, but at least turn badges off.

There are only a very few reasons to leave notifications on for a particular app. Here are those reasons:

  • For all delivery apps, leave notifications on. These notifications are supposed to only come when you want them to, i.e. if you’re standing on the corner trying to get a Lyft. Apps in this category: Uber, Lyft, Postmates, Grubhub, Caviar. Of those, Postmates is the biggest offender of spamming you with unwanted interruptive notifications. Consider deleting that app.
  • If you get very few text messages, turn off badging on your Messages app but leave banners on. Since you’re setting your phone up to have very few notifications, you’ll actually end up seeing most of your text messages on your home screen as they come in (previously, they were probably swamped by other notifications). Then, the unread badge for messages is just overkill to create anxiety about messages you already saw. If you get lots of text messages, then turn off all notifications and treat text messages like an inbox that you only check at set intervals. If you are one of those people sending hundreds of text messages throughout the day, then you are crazy and throwing your life away.

Never allow badges!

  • Leave notifications on for your calendar app. Not missing appointments is basically the entire point of a cell phone.
  • Leave notifications on for Maps and Google Maps. These apps only notify you when you’re actively getting directions.
  • Leave notifications on for phone calls. Although, consider turning them off and updating your voicemail to say that phone calls are a dead medium. My voicemail says: “You have reached my voicemail which means you tried to call me which means you are a dinosaur. Please upgrade your life and try me via text or email.” (It doesn’t really say this.)
  • For all the notifications that you left on, go back and make sure badges are turned off. Badges are the red dots with numbers in them that give you anxiety that there’s something important going on in that app. You’ll live longer if you never see another badge.

I led with this advice to turn off notifications because it’s the most powerful. Also, you’re never going to finish reading this post if you leave your notifications turned on.

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These are the productivity reasons that should make you wary of notifications.

#1: Notifications are uncontrolled interruptions from your real goals. They prevent you from ever getting into a flow state. You should be in control of what you do and when — not your phone. I’m going to refer to this over and over as “your phone is a tool, not a boss.” See Appendix A at the end of this article for more.

#2: The brain science behind learning requires sustained focus to trigger myelin growth around active neural pathways. That’s what brain plasticity is about. However, if you go around interrupting that process, you’ll never get the myelin growth that locks in whatever you were learning. Essentially, notifications lead to a stunted life.

#3: Those red dots cause anxiety, and anxiety causes health problems like heart disease. It’s not hyperbole that I talked about life expectancy in the title of this post. Not specific to red dots, but mild anxiety was shown to increase mortality by 20% over a ten year period.

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#2. Hide social media slot machines

‘Slot machine apps’ is a pejorative phrase to refer to apps that use variable rate rewards to try to trigger mindless and addictive behavior. That’s how the app tries to become your boss — although maybe boss isn’t even a strong enough word. These are virtual drugs and due to societal oversight, your dealer (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat) is allowed to pose as a respectable member of society.

Thankfully, you can configure all of your social media to eliminate the addictive elements.

  • Move Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, Pinterest, Periscope, LinkedIn and Tumblr into a folder on your second screen. These are addictions.
  • Some people call this folder ‘Social’ or ‘Media’. For a while, I titled my folder Worthless. That was overly judgmental. I’d recommend calling this folder Leisure so that you’re being clear with yourself about when to open it.
  • This setup goes a little bit deeper, though: hide your favorite social apps on the second screen of that folder.

This last trick comes from Tristan Harris

Here’s what I mean. When your addictions are in the first screen of a folder, they’re still visibly calling out to you. Still bad:

Source: Tristan Harris

Instead, move your apps to the second screen of that folder, like so (the first screen has just one app, the second screen has the rest):

This second-screen-of-folder-on-second-screen strategy requires that at least one app be visible. When you reach this decision point for social media apps, you obviously should choose LinkedIn. It’s the least addictive.

Extra credit for people that are actual productivity nuts: just delete all your social media apps.

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#3. Hide messaging slot machines

This is the same strategy as #2, just for messaging apps. Messaging apps also have a built-in variable rate reward — that’s what makes them slot machines.

  • Move your mail apps, Slack, Messages, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger into a folder on your second screen. You decide when you check these. Live a life without interruptions!
  • I call my folder Messages. The default iPhone folder name suggestion is Productivity. That’s an outright lie.
  • Follow the same trick from #2, hide all but one of the apps on the second screen of the folder.

I check these on my own schedule and have all notifications turned completely off.

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The productivity secret for inbox management is to decide when you want to check your messages. Then, process them all in one big batch. Batch processing puts you in control. Unfortunately, most people live life reactively, constantly checking their inboxes for messages to react to. For you to reach your full potential, you need to switch to a batch processing mindset for all of your inboxes.

These messaging apps should never interrupt you. This goes back to the brain science justification in #1. You want to block off your day so that you have some contiguous time dedicated to being smart and creative (no interruptions) and then other blocks dedicated to rapid task processing (email, etc.). Cal Newport calls this Deep Work (in a very good book).

Productivity nuts: consider deleting all of these apps. People who set a schedule for when and where they check their inboxes often realize they can do all of their emailing from a proper computer. For Slack users, private messages and channel notifications are meant to be asynchronous — that means you don’t need immediate alerts.

 

#4. Disable App Review requests

You open an app intending to get work done, and then that app prompts you to leave a review. This is an unwanted interruption, and your job is to remove as many interruptions as possible.

So disable these unwanted Review Requests.

  • Go to Settings > Apple ID > iTunes & App Stores.

Is it crazy how we think of computers as productivity devices but then allow so many unproductive features? I think it’s crazy. This isn’t just some app-developer hack, it’s actually a built-in feature provided by Apple. That’s how blind Apple is to the damage caused by interrupting your work flow.

What’s happening with review requests is that when you use free apps, you are actually entering a partnership with the app developer where you are working on their behalf, often by clicking on advertisements, or in the case of app reviews, by acting as marketing.

Apps with more positive reviews get ranked higher by Apple. As a consequence, app developers tend to interrupt you with review requests just as you’re doing something productive.

Do you care about the morality of opting out of this partnership? A savvy user can often leach off of the hard work of app developers and the money of investors without giving anything back. I’ve been doing that with the MoviePass service — seeing twice as many movies as I paid for, all subsidized by some venture capital investors. (Unfortunately, that gravy train seems to be ending.)

When you or I do take advantage, we’re basically stealing. This sort of stealing is not illegal, but is it bad for your health? The impact off morality on longevity is muddy. As close as I could find was research on religious vs. non-religious people within the same country.

Religious Americans are reported to have more robust immune systems, lower blood pressure, and better recovery times from operations, (although these claims have been disputed).

If you’re worried about the effect of morality on your longevity, here a few workarounds. Manually go to the App Store, look through your recently updated apps, and add reviews to each of them. Share your favorite apps with your friends (as I’m doing in this post). Or, opt for the pro or paid versions. I’m finding that I almost always prefer to pay for an app.

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#5. Turn on Do Not Disturb

Most people should have their phone permanently on Do Not Disturb.

Do Not Disturb is not as severe as you might think, thanks to a sub-feature to “Allow Calls From Favorites.” As a result, you can still allow certain people to interrupt you or wake you up.

The trick to getting the Do Not Disturb feature to work all day is to turn it on from the same time to the same time, such as from 9am to 9am. I tested it and that works (I was worried it would effectively turn itself on and off again in the same minute).

If, however, you do want strangers to be able to contact you (for example, if you work in sales), then just set Do Not Disturb for your sleep and leisure time.

  • Go to Settings > Do Not Disturb
  • Do Not Disturb works a little differently on your Mac versus on your iPhone. On the iPhone, you just need to toggle it on and make sure you don’t toggle the Scheduled option. But on a Mac, Do Not Disturb is always scheduled, so turning it on all day requires hacking the schedule to be something like 9am to 9am. Many of you though will prefer to just have it on for a set time, say 6pm to 9am.
  • Allow calls from your favorites. Now your Favorites list actually takes on more meaning: this is your whitelist of people who you would allow to interrupt you.
  • There’s a Repeated Calls option to allow repeat callers to get through. Do not select this. We absolutely do not want to train telemarketers to think this will work.

You might want to double check who is on your favorites — I added my dog’s vet in order to make sure those calls always came through.

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The justification here is similar to the steps above. Limited interruptions is smart for a number of reasons, including the science of brain plasticity, the health impact of anxiety, and the productivity gains of optimizing for deep work (all covered in more depth in Appendix A below).

What the above Do Not Disturb setting allows you to do is to take a ‘whitelist’ strategy to interruptions. So rather than banning telemarketers one-by-one (‘blacklisting’), you pre-select the very limited number of people who you would allow to interrupt your day. For me, that’s my immediate family, my dog walker, and my dog’s vet.

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#6. Be strategic about your wallpaper

The absolute best wallpaper is an all black background. Choosing black destroys the idea that your phone is some shiny toy that you need to be looking at all the time.

Plus, with OLED screens (most new iPhones), black actually saves battery (as much as 60%). If you chronically run out of battery or are a true productivity nut, then black is the best option for you.

  • Go to Settings > Wallpaper > Choose a New Wallpaper > Stills. The all-black option is right there at the end.

If you can’t stomach making a thousand dollar phone look that ugly, choose the black with rainbow stripe option that’s right next to the black option in the Stills. That’s what I’ve done for all the screen shots in this article.

 

Simple background that looks good in all cases.

There are other options:

If you’re shy, choose a wallpaper that will help as a conversation starter.

On new OLED screens, this white dog, Eloise, uses more battery power than a Black Lab or Scottish Terrier.

On new OLED screens, this white dog, Eloise, uses more battery power than a Black Lab or Scottish Terrier.

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If you find inspirational images inspiring:

  • Confirm that this is you by looking at your walls. You’ll have at least one inspirational quote hanging in your home.
  • Go browse for killer inspiration (fewer words is better): 39 from PopSugarPrimerPinterestBrit & Co.
  • Save the image to your phone.
  • Go to Settings > Wallpaper > Choose a New Wallpaper > Camera Roll
  • Choose the motivational wallpaper. Pick Still (saves battery life) and Set Both.

One problem with inspirational images is that words often make your phone feel cluttered. It’s better to have an image, like a mountain or a person working out, than it is to have a quote or motivational phrase. For example, here’s a reasonable set of affirmations that just don’t show up well behind various iPhone icons and widgets.

Nice affirmations, bad background.

If you are going to have affirmation or motivational text, a quick hack is to make the background yourself in Instagram Stories. Instagram will let you save the Story to your phone’s Photos.

In this case, try to stick to just a single word, and place that word low enough that it shows up below your Do-Not-Disturb message. If you take this approach, consider two things:

  1. Try just using this for your Lock screen rather than your Home screen. Text often works better on your Lock screen than it does behind the apps on your Home screen.
  2. Try creating a new wallpaper every few weeks that has the same affirmation, but a different background. That way you don’t become blind to your affirmation.

Here’s an example Jonathan Howard sent me when he was reviewing a draft of this article:

 

If you still haven’t found a suitable strategy, pick an image with a dominant color that tells a color story to prompt one of the below emotions.

  • Red: Passionate, Aggressive, Important
  • Green: Natural, Stable, Prosperous
  • Blue: Serene, Trustworthy, Inviting
  • Black: Powerful, Sophisticated, Edgy
  • White: Clean, Virtuous, Healthy

Don’t pick orange (cheap) or yellow (warning). If you’re not sure? Pick Red. All of these color choices will drain your battery more than a black background, but you may find the emotional gain to be worthwhile.

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The reality for me is that I alternate between a black background and a meaningful picture. There’s some possible science supporting the value of small changes to your work environment to create a boost in productivity. Unfortunately, I can’t find a citation, although I’m 90% certain I read this in David Rock’s Your Brain at Work. The theory is basically that shaking up your environment a small amount puts your brain on alert (but not so much that you’re anxious).

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#7. Turn off Raise to Wake

The Raise to Wake feature lets you quickly see notifications on your lock screen just by lifting your phone.

This is a bad idea. You don’t want to accidentally see notifications on your lock screen when you just happen to be moving your phone around. You want only see notifications intentionally.

Winners check their notifications on their own schedule.

  • Go to Settings > Display & Brightness > Raise to Wake. Turn off.
I’m going to re-use this screen shot two more times when I cover auto-lock and night shift.

This is yet another setting to make sure you’re the boss and your phone is your tool.

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#8. Add the Screen Time widget

The Screen Time widget is new from Apple and it helps show you where your time is going. Ideally, the Social Media category will be non-existent. Unsurprisingly, I’m not going to be able to find a screen shot where that is true.

To install the Screen Time widget:

  • Swipe to the Today Screen by swiping right from your home screen.
  • At the bottom of the Today screen, select Edit. This will bring up a list of apps that have widgets.
  • Tap the green plus button for Screen Time to enable the widget, and then tap and hold on the three-horizontal-lines button to reorder the widget to be near the top. By the end of this article you’re going to have three widgets at the top of your Today Screen: Google Calendar, Weather, & Screen Time.

You’re going to use this widget as a reality check against your own biased memory.

This article is going to recommend a few more widgets later, and then recommend that you build the habit of checking the Today View by swiping right from your home screen (conceptually, it lives to the left of your home screen).

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It does seem to be roughly true that what gets measured gets done. There are a number of variants of that quote, but my favorite is “What gets measured gets done, what gets measured and fed back gets done well, what gets rewarded gets repeated.”

A goal for many of the steps in this article is for you to use your phone less, and to use social media apps much, much less.

This widget is how you’ll know if you’re succeeding. I consider it the feedback part of the above quote. Then hopefully the reward is an intrinsic satisfaction in your own life and productivity.

In addition to installing the widget, you should set yourself a goal for social media usage. Imagine you had a child and were setting a limit for how much television they could watch each day. Is one hour reasonable? Probably. Is six hours reasonable? No.

Now, instead of this child, consider instead that you are setting limits for yourself, and that social media has replaced your television watching time. How much “leisure” time each day do you think is appropriate for yourself? If you’re not sure, choose thirty minutes. That’s enough time to scan your Facebook and Instagram, drop tons of likes on your friends, tweet once, get the gist of the news, and consume a huge dose of We Rate Dogs.

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#9. Add content restrictions

Sometimes it’s helpful to block yourself from certain websites. I have zero pride preventing me from treating myself like a toddler in need of parental controls. The reality is that we all could use some strict blocks to prevent our worst habits.

On the iPhone, the feature to block specific websites is hidden inside of Apple’s Limit Adult Websites feature.

I’m not trying to make any point at all about your adult website usage. I just want to help you find the feature (and it’s the most deeply buried feature in this article).

  • Go to Settings > Screen Time > Content & Privacy Restrictions > Web Content and then select “Limit Adult Websites.”

Turning on this feature allows you to then add specific websites, which don’t have to be adult websites at all.

What you should consider is whether you have any habitual behaviors around checking specific websites and then use this feature to break those habits. For example, I used to live in San Francisco and so had a habit of checking the website for the daily paper. That’s the one site I block because I don’t want to have that habit anymore.

Additionally, I was a huge Grantland reader before it was shut down by ESPN. I still type that URL into my browser just out of pure muscle memory.

Don’t be shy about turning off certain websites. Disabling bad life choices is a great strategy.

If I were designing content restrictions for productivity, I’d have one called Google-only, which would allow you to Google any term and then click any result. But you’d be blocked from going directly to any sites or clicking deeper into any site.

However, since I’m not the boss at Apple, the solution above is the best available approach and is probably ideal for most people. I’ll give a more hardcore solution next.

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#10. (Optional) Use restrictions to turn off Safari

None of you are going to do this… but I tried a month with no access to a web browser. If you are up for this, I definitely want to hear from you.

The theory is that the browser is one of the addictive slot machines that draws your attention and wastes your time.

So I used parental controls to disable Safari.

In practice, I would very occasionally need a web browser, so I’d download the Chrome app, do my browsing, and then delete the Chrome app.

If this method of reclaiming your phone at all appeals to you, here’s the secret:

  • Go to Settings > Screen Time > Content & Privacy Restrictions > Allowed Apps and then disable Safari.
This screen shot is only for the hardest of hardcore phone addiction-breakers.

When I tested this, I used Chrome as my occasional browser because the path for removing access again was shorter. I trusted myself more to delete the Chrome app than to remember to find the Safari restriction option that’s hidden behind five taps.

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#11. Organize your apps and folders alphabetically

There are four ways to organize your apps: by function, by color, by random chance, and alphabetically.

You’re going to organize your screens by function, and you’re also going to organize apps into folders by function. The home screen is for tools only. The second screen is apps organized into folders. The third screen is for junk, namely Apple apps you aren’t allowed to remove.

However, on each screen and within each folder you have to make additional decisions about organizing. You should choose alphabetically.

  • On your home screen, organize all of your apps by name, with numbers (like 1Password) coming before letters.
  • In your folders, organize the apps hidden behind the first screen alphabetically as well.
  • On your second screen, organize your folders alphabetically.
  • I’m going to leave it mostly up to you on how to organize apps beyond the first screen. Probably, they should mostly be inside folders.
  • I think it’s a bad sign if you have apps spilling out into a third screen. Put them in folders! The only thing on the third screen should be apps that you can’t uninstall. On the latest iOS, you can actually uninstall all the Apple apps except for Wallet, Safari, Find iPhone, and App Store. I put all these Apple apps into a folder on my third screen, mostly as a precaution in case I need them one day. In practice, I mostly just use Wallet and get to that through the right-hand button shortcut (double press).
We’ve barely scratched the surface of why this home page looks the way it does.

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The phrase “your phone is a tool, not your boss” is implying that you’re the boss. But it’s more subtle than that.

We want to set your phone up so that your rational brain is the boss, and your emotional, addictive, worst-decisions brain is asleep or blocked.

The best explanation for this is in the book, Thinking, Fast and Slow (or just read the NYT book review for a good overview). The author lays out a model for the brain as having two systems.

The Fast system is our default. It’s effortless, instinctual, and functional for staying alive, but also the source of most of our worst impulses. It’s the system that likes slot machine apps.

The Slow system is what we think of as our rational brain. It’s analytical, but requires effort and intention to access.

When I train meditation in my Heavy Mental program, I train a verbal way of moving the thoughts that come up during a meditation into our Slow system. That way we can analyze the thought, and then drop it. The entire trick is that activating your language center always activates your Slow system.

Here, we’re doing something very similar. When you go for an app, I want you to have the actual name of the app in mind. That way it’s easier for you to be acting rationally and intentionally. That’s the main reason to adopt an alphabetical organizing structure.

The second good reason is that alphabetical is less brittle. Organizing by function is hard because sometimes apps have more than one function. Organizing by app name is intellectually trivial in comparison.

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