I have broken my dumb addiction to my smart phone. You know the feeling. You respond to notifications and find yourself swiping through apps, mindlessly tapping and typing having no intention or goal, just opening them out of habit. Anxiety sets in. Time is lost. You wonder what just happened. I’ve tried all the popular ways of limiting phone usage, and while doing the obvious like turning off notifications helps, it didn’t keep me away from my phone. While out on paternity leave, I took a step back to solve this problem once and for all. There is a way to tame this compulsion.

These tactics are extreme and won’t all work for you. But read on, and see if at least one of these tricks doesn’t help you with your problem.

Note: This post is specific to iPhone users, but the principles can be applied to all other devices.

Rule #1: No second screen.


This is a big one. My all-time favorite. When I show this to people, the response I usually get is “that’s smart, you’re crazy”. I limit all of my apps to my home screen, I have no second screens, and all of my apps live in my dock. The benefit of this system is that I’m forced to search for my apps, not browse to find the one I’m looking for (more on this topic in Rule #2). I keep the native Phone and Messages apps visible in my dock because that’s what phones were originally designed to do. The rest literally go into a folder called “Apps” and placed in the dock, and I put the more commonly used apps on the first page of the Apps folder.

If you think you have too many apps to fit into one folder, then you probably have too many apps. With a limit of 9 apps per page of a folder and a 15 page limit per folder, the upper limit in iOS 7 and up is 135 apps in a single folder. That’s way more than you should ever need.
Pro Tip: Now that your screen is clear, you have space for a calming, inspiring, or meaningful image. If you are wondering what 4/7/8 is on my wallpaper, it’s a reminder of the amazingly effective breathing technique developed by Dr. Andrew Weil.

Rule #2: Live and love Spotlight.


Metaphor: You’re at work and you’re on the way to the bathroom when you get caught by a chatty co-worker. Phone equivalent: You’re browsing to find your Calendar app to check appointments for the day, and on the way you get caught by Facebook. Its shiny red badge (more on this in Rule #3) beckons for your attention. You dive in and find yourself looking at more cats and babies and when you come up for air 10 minutes later you forget what you were doing in the first place.

Set your intention, then use Spotlight to search for the app you need. This eliminates distraction and makes you think deliberately about why you are grabbing your phone in the first place.

Pro Tips:

  1. I prefer that Spotlight be used only to search for apps. This removes the clutter of in-app and web results. It’s an easy thing to change in Settings.
  2. You can still search the web without getting immediate results, just type and “Search Web” appears as a small text link below the query.
  3. You can use Spotlight to open commonly used apps without even searching for them. With one swipe to open Spotlight and tap into the search bar, you’ll see the top suggestions right there.
  4. When in Spotlight, one swipe to the left brings you to Widgets. Limit the widgets you use. I use them for at-a-glance information, like Weather, Calendar, Todo list Tasks, and the phases of the Moon (nerd!).

Rule #3: No notifications.

Remember in Rule #1 how we left only Phone and Messages open in the dock? Well, those are the only apps I have notifications for. It’s a phone, so when someone calls or texts I can respond. Everything else is a distraction, and should be opted in to. That way your big Apps folder doesn’t have that red badge with a random number of notifications from various apps within it.
This is extreme, but I don’t even receive text message alerts when my phone is on vibrate. I don’t see them in my Notifications screen either. Only when I unlock my phone do I see the red badge calling my name. Basically, I treat text more like email. Again, I opt-in to the distraction.

Rule #4: Do Not Disturb All Day.


I don’t want to be interrupted by random people who I don’t know. They can leave a message and I’ll reach them when I am available. So I set Do Not Disturb (DND) to allow calls only from my Favorites. If that’s too extreme for you, consider allowing only calls from Contacts. And always allow repeated calls. If there’s a real emergency, that call is probably more important than your focus time.

The problem with DND is that it turns off. Even if you turn on DND manually in the middle of the day, it will automatically turn off when the scheduled time for DND is up (defaults are evening hours). To keep it on all day, use this hack: Set it from 12:00AM to 11:59PM.

Pro Tip: If you get calls from telemarketers, block them immediately. If you get unsolicited texts, you can block those too. And you can even report them as junk.

Rule #5: The Post-It Note Technique

Todo apps are amazing for productivity; but I often find myself opening Todoist, my favorite, and mindlessly following the list of tasks for the day without stepping back and thinking about what really matters. I still use Todoist to manage projects and recurring tasks. And I use my calendar for anything truly scheduled. But my mornings now consist of reviewing Todoist and Google Calendar, and writing three things that are most important and really should happen that day on a Post-It Note, then sticking it to the back of my phone.

I’ll try to choose two work-related items and one personal/family related item. Think of it as one thing to do in the morning, another in the afternoon, and one in the evening. Anything tiny that I can knock out quickly that day I’ll jot down on the Post-It too, and cross off as I get it done. The benefit: It prevents me from having to open my phone at all, and I stay focused on what matters!

Rule #6: The Hair Band Technique

For those with absolutely no self-control (me, obviously), I required one more gate to prevent me from mindlessly using my phone. If all of those hacks work, and you have the discipline to back away from your phone, then you won’t need this tip. But even after all this setup, I needed one more barrier to hold me back. So try this: Take a stretchy hair band and wrap it around your phone. Put it right in the middle of the screen so you can answer incoming calls but are prevented from using it mindlessly.

Every time you want to use your phone, this brings about a mindfulness exercise and makes you ask “what is my intention?” If you really want to use the phone, set your intention for why, and remove the hair band. Use Spotlight to open the app you need. While the hair band blocks the full usage of your phone, it still works with Siri, so you can use voice to make calls, get directions, and even open apps. But similar to the Spotlight technique, using Siri forces you to set your intention before opening the app you need.


Live with intention.

This is the moral of the story. Don’t let distractions rule your precious time on this planet. Mindfulness starts with little moments throughout your day, and after a few days of using these techniques, I’ve become more aware, less stressed, and care more about my time away from my phone than with it. Maybe some of these techniques will make you think I’m crazy, but it’s worth it if at least one of them can make your life a bit more peaceful.