How to make your phone an asset

Spend countless hours doom-scrolling when you should be working? Tired of the incessant pinging of inane notifications? This week, blogger Clarissa shares some tips on how to optimise your phone for focus without downloading a single app!

By Riss Muller.

If you’re anything like me, your phone is somewhat of a time drain. It pings, you go to check it, and the next thing you know an hour has passed and you’re scrolling mindlessly on social media. Also like me (and I suspect many others), you may buy into the “all or nothing” mindset when it comes to your phone: either you’re on it for hours (and missing out on work) or swearing that you’re going to lock it away somewhere (and then worried about missing out on important notifications). Sound familiar? Fortunately, there’s a much more sustainable middle ground you can use immediately as it’s already right under your fingertips!

DISCLAIMER: Depending on what phone you have, Android or iOS, the specifics of how to implement these features may vary but, crucially, virtually all smartphones have these features built-in, no matter the operating system. Since I use an Android, that’s what I’ll mostly be referring to but I’ve included pointers for the same features for iPhone users too.

Step 1: The Essential Home Screen

Since part of the aim here is to decrease mindless phone usage, the gist of this first tip is to think of your home screen as a collection of the apps you feel you’re in charge of. If the app triggers mindless checking, move it somewhere else.

To kick things off, categorise all the apps in your phone as:

  1. Tools: anything that helps you accomplish defined tasks which you rely on frequently, e.g., getting somewhere, remembering appointments etc.
  2. Slot machines: the apps which you open and get lost in, e.g., social media or email (tech ethicist Tristan Harris coined this term as these apps hook us in by getting us to risk a tiny amount of time for some kind of reward)
  3. Aspirations: things you’d like to be doing, such as listening to audiobooks, meditating, exercising etc.

Once you’ve got your list, rearrange your home screen to only include “tools” and “aspirations”. Anything else goes onto a different page or stays in your app catalogue.

Your search engine, calendar, and reminders are all okay to have on your home screen since it’s likely that they’re both “tools” and something you use very frequently. In a nutshell, your mantra for this clean-up should be “if you don’t open it almost every day get it out of the way!”.

(Bonus tip: if you’re an Android user, make use of widgets for “at a glance” things like the weather or reminders).

Aspirations are a key feature in this step and shouldn’t be overlooked. They function as replacements for the apps you’re trying to avoid. It’s hard to give something up cold turkey, but if you have a replacement habit you’re likely to be much more successful.

Messaging and email are also tricky points. If you’re someone that only gets the occasional message or who doesn’t check messages often, they’re okay to have on your home screen. If, however, you’re typically inundated with messages and emails or struggle to ignore message notifications move them off your home screen. It seems counterintuitive, but with messages or emails constantly popping up chances are you’re checking them on someone else’s schedule rather than your own. The fix? Get them out of the way and put aside dedicated time each day where you check and respond to them. 

My list looked like this:

Riss’ categories of apps. Image: Riss Muller.

And after some rearranging, my home screen went from cluttered and chaotic to clear and helpful:

Riss’ new organised home screen, free from distractions. Image: Riss Muller.

Step 2: Turn Off (Almost All) Notifications

There’s a two-pronged attack here. The first is disabling or scaling back the bulk of your notifications except for a curated whitelist, such as calendar reminders, ride services, or maps. For important whitelist members, such as calls and messages, fine-tune how the notifications appear. This could mean disabling lock-screen notifications, disabling badges, or opting for banner-only notifications (you can find these options by going to Settings and then Notifications for both Android and iPhone).

The second prong of this step is also found under Notifications settings: do not disturb. This feature is the unsung hero of smartphones and if you take anything away from this blog, let it be this: take advantage of do not disturb. It’s easily accessible from the pull-down menu or in Settings and is such a useful tool for times when you really need to focus. The best part? It’s highly customisable, so if you’re worried about missing urgent messages or only want it active for an hour, at certain points in the day, or at certain locations you can easily tailor it. My current set-up is allowing repeat callers and certain contacts to override DND but all other notifications are completely off whilst it’s active.

If you’re someone who sticks to a specific work-break schedule you can even account for that, and tailor the “Mode” to deactivate and reactivate corresponding to your specific work and break times.

If you really want to maximise your phone’s potential, however, go the extra step and make use of “Modes” (or “Automation” on iPhone). This feature has been a game-changer for me. As someone with ADHD, the chances of me remembering my phone is on DND are low and I’d often leave it on and miss important calls or reminders when I was no longer working.  

This feature is essentially DND’s older more nuanced sibling: it’s automated, offers greater customisation, and you can have multiple active for different aspects of your day. I mostly use Focus Mode and Sleep Mode, both of which have my customised DND built in, but also feature things like grey-scaling my screen, disabling access to specified apps, and decreasing blue light. The best bit? They’re automated to activate (and deactivate) at certain times of the day on certain days of the week. If you’re someone who sticks to a specific work-break schedule you can even account for that, and tailor the “Mode” to deactivate and reactivate corresponding to your specific work and break times.

Step 3: Delete Apps

The last tip is a bit polarising. Simply rearranging apps or hiding them from view can go a long way to discouraging distractions, but for many of us (myself included) it doesn’t quite go the full nine yards. This is a bit of a hardcore move, but if you’re committed go ahead and delete the apps which cause the most distraction. Equally, if you’re in the habit of checking them on a schedule, also consider that final step of just removing them completely.

“The last tip is a bit polarising. Simply rearranging apps or hiding them from view can go a long way to discouraging distractions, but for many of us (myself included) it doesn’t quite go the full nine yards.”

For me, I opted against deleting my time-sucker apps (I’ve tried it previously and only a few stuck) and instead have them completely out of sight tucked away in my apps catalogue. This creates the extra hurdle of having to manually search for them which I’ve found sufficiently disincentivises me from using them. Like all these tips, this step is up to you and your goals. For me, balance and sustainable efforts are most important, rather than abstinence, so adding barriers to accessing “slot machines” works better than deleting them entirely.

If you’re still finding yourself scrolling on your phone, then take a look at our blog series on procrastination and how to combat it. Alternatively, it’s important to remember to have well needed breaks, so take a read of our blog on taking breaks here.

Have you managed to break from the shackles of your phone? What tips worked best for you? Let us know by tweeting us @researchex, messaging us on Instagram @warwicklibrary, or emailing us at

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