How to have a distraction-free phone without crippling it

I truly believe smartphones are the single most empowering tool of our era. These little devices can do things we couldn't even dream of just a few years ago, no matter where we are.

With great power comes great responsibility, though.

My phone has greatly improved my photography, but it's also hurt it. I've found myself losing track of time while on my phone and missing shooting opportunities, like a sunrise in the morning. I've also found myself replying to tweets in the middle of a shoot, just because I grabbed my phone to meter the scene and saw the notification.

To avoid stuff like this, many people go to the extreme of keeping just the very basic apps on their phones. This is a mistake, in my opinion. Trying to avoid the downsides of using a smartphone, they are also missing out on the good stuff.

I believe there's another way, a way where we can still take advantage of these devices while limiting their negative effects.

This what I've come up with (this is for iOS, but Android should provide similar functionality).

1.- Bury your apps

Bury your apps in a folder. This creates some friction, making it slightly harder to open them or to be tempted when using your phone.

Be merciless here, leave only the most important apps on the home screen.

2.- Enable downtime

Screen Time is a new feature in iOS 12 that allows us to track the time we spend on our phones, and limit it using downtime.

Enable downtime for at least 23 hours a day (I have it on from 4pm to 3pm).

During those 23 hours, if you try to open a "forbidden" app, you have to accept a popup in order to use it for 15 minutes. After that time, the app will get blocked again. More friction.

This will also block any notifications from apps.

3.- Whitelist the most important apps

We all have apps that we must be able to use at any given time. For example, messaging apps so messages from family and friends can still go through (silence chatty groups and people, though!). Email or Slack if you use your phone for work. Banking apps, so you can be notified if someone else is using your credit card. Or other apps where you are not likely to spend a lot of time, like the weather app or the camera app.

They should be apps that most of the time won't interrupt you and your day, but if they do, you better pay attention to them.

That's all. Your phone is now a distraction-free phone, and you still have all the functionality available at your fingertips. This is how it works.

We can still open Instagram if we want to. When we do that, we'll be able to see all the notifications that were blocked until then.

This is intentional, though. We are the ones opening the app, for whatever reason. It's not because we grabbed our phone to check the time and saw a random notification from IG, opened it and then forgot about everything else.

Getting that popup every 15 minutes also helps us to be aware of the time we are spending on our phone. It's a constant reminder of what we are doing, the snap we sometimes need to put the phone back in the pocket and carry on with our day.

Thanks to downtime, when I wake up I don't have any notifications waiting for me besides the weather for the day. If I open Twitter or any other app, it will be on me. The phone doesn't control me anymore.

This is an incredibly useful feature that has changed the way I use my phone. I feel more in control, I use it more intentionally and I don't get interrupted by notifications that (more often than not) could have waited a little longer.

PS: I wish there was a way to enable / disable downtime at any time, instead of scheduled downtime hours. 3 to 4pm will not always be the best time for me to get the notifications. And it doesn't take in consideration weekdays vs weekend either.

PS2: this can be synced across devices, so both my iPhone and iPad respect and follow the same rules. This is awesome.