House Training my Phone

In my continuing attempt1 to manage distraction and facilitate focus, flow and occasionally “deep work,” I’ve been working on taming my phone.

First, I cleared the Home screen. This is what mine looks like:

I’ve moved all apps to one of three locations:

  1. The three most used apps for getting through the day (in my case, Todoist for tasks/lists, Bear for notes and Google Calendar) in the dock,
  2. A “Daily” folder with other critical apps I use daily that don’t present too many opportunities for going down rabbit-holes2, also in the dock,
  3. And all other apps on the second page, a few that I access routinely outside of folders, the rest in a combination of alphabetical and topical folders.

I very rarely access the second page because the apps there are either rarely used or because I want the “friction” of getting to them3 to act as a trigger for intentionality: that little bit of extra effort prompts me to consider if I am doing something necessary or just procrastinating.

I’ve also disabled almost all notifications and badge numbers. The only ones I leave on are notifications from people—Messages and Snapchat (which I only use to chat with my daughter)—and the Habitica app, which remind me of repetitive things I need to do every day.

This was an organizational system I’d been moving toward for a while, but I pulled the trigger when I discovered the “3D Touch” function on folders, which handily shows a synopsis of Badge notifications by app so I can tell if I have something important to respond to without burrowing:

That’s it.

  1. See my Facebook Reduction Plan. TL;DR: use lists, pages, the Messenger app/site and timed (or otherwise constrained) sessions.  

  2. Messages works here for me because I don’t text much and have chosen it as my one always–available stream for emergency communication at work (I only check in to email and Slack a few times each day). Other apps in this folder include Overcast for podcast listening, Habitica for positive habit forming, Headspace for daily meditation, 1Password for password management, Day One for (mostly photo) journaling, Notes for capturing things quickly with Siri, Airtable for recording my coffee brewing (yes, I geek out that way) and the Camera because I can never remember to access it by swiping up. 

  3. For this reason, the new iOS “feature” forcing me to type the whole name of an app when searching for it is actually a feature for me 


From Gil Fronsdal, BELLA, an approach for being mindful of the Five Hindrances:

B.E.L.L.A. = Be, Examine, Lessen, Let Go, Appreciate

  • Be: Let it be. Don’t act; don’t react; stay present.
  • Examine: Examine the components; uncover.
  • Lessen: Relax the body; focus on antidote, such as cultivating kindness. At worst, remove yourself.
  • Let Go: Once understood, let go.
  • Appreciate: When the hindrance is past, appreciate its absence; when no longer caught up, appreciate not being caught.

My Facebook Reduction Plan

It might seem strange that after surviving the (so far but barely) worst of the political season, it took a routine recurrence of the eternal Oxford Comma debate to force me to rethink my use of Facebook. But so it goes. After being tagged and trolled into another round of disputation in which the futility is rivaled in intensity only by my bewilderment that there is a debate at all1, I belatedly realized I need to become much more intentional in my use2 of Facebook. It was precisely because the comma debate was, as usual, so inordinately frustrating and draining—at least when engaging in conversation about politics it feels like there’s something actually important at play—that I knew I needed to re-consider my engagement.

Facebook faces what I believe to be an insoluble existential problem in being, as Mike Caulfield put it recently, an “identity platform that is being used as a news platform”3. But my immediate need isn’t about that, at least not directly. I don’t want to find a better way to get “news” from Facebook or expect Facebook to give me “better” news. I don’t need news from Facebook at all…I merely want to exert a little more control and make using Facebook a more positive experience while enjoying connections to friends, writers, fellow editors and other literary venues.

So, this is what I’ve done:

  • Created a few Friend Lists: one with the subset of people whose posts I want to see regularly, another with the subset of people whose posts I want to see regularly but who also tend to be excessively political or just too much, in some way, for me to read without preparing myself and a few others limited to magazines and literary venues, etc. The first list is my new starting point for Facebook.
  • Selected a very small group of friends to “See First” in my News Feed Preferences.
  • I still use Facebook messages to talk to some people, but I use the app (or the web app) so I don’t even see the News Feed or anything else when doing so.
  • Removed my “pinned” Facebook tab4 in my browsers.
  • Limited my Facebook time to promotion/sharing on my “official” pages and brief, timed sessions otherwise…and trying not to perform the latter in the morning.

The last two have been most important in combating my behavioral problems, using Facebook as a means of procrastination and feeding the gnawing black dog of depression. Plagued by insomnia, I found myself waking up (way too early) and pulling up Facebook with my morning coffee. Instead of reading or writing or attending to anything on my endless to-do list of vaguely creative tasks I ended up endlessly scrolling—and eventually rage-scrolling—in search of…I don’t know what. I don’t want to be a rat pushing a lever, much less one pushing a lever for a reward I can’t identify or define—and may never have existed in the first place. I had no answer to the questions I posed to myself as to what I might find that would make me want to stop scrolling or what positive result came from my routine feeding on Facebook.

The downside? Since I read a lot less and comment/like a lot less, I imagine I’m losing some of the network effects of interaction, resulting in lessened exposure not just of my own posts but those from concīs and Katexic Clippings too. I suppose I fall victim to the occasional niggling but of FOMO. I have one less thing to blame for laziness and sloth. And I do occasionally miss the loose-knit communities I’m part of there.5

None of this is rocket science; I’m mostly posting about it here as a signpost for my future self.

  1. My position: long live the Oxford Comma…where needed for clarity. As a friend noted, it might be too long for a bumpersticker. 
  2. Some friends of mine have dumped Facebook altogether. I still see too much value in the connections to friends, family, readers and writers—not to mention its ubiquity as an authentication hub—to go that far. And Facebook is a little insidious in requiring professional pages such as those for concīs and Katexic Clippings be connected to personal pages…and, I suspect, using one’s personal activity in Facebook as a magnifier for promotion, both literally and in visibility on other timelines. 
  3. The primary problem, the conflation of “news” and “News” is illustrated right there in Facebook’s titling of the “News Feed.” I suspect there’s no solution because it reflects that we as members of whatever groups we form, on social media or not, are de facto identity platforms through which we try to grok news. But that’s a mostly different thing. 
  4. I can’t believe I reached a point where I actually had pinned Facebook. 
  5. This is where I should invoke some analogy to illustrate that Faecbook isn’t evil, followed by mourning the loss of community that used to happen in blogs and other spaces, capped off with noting the catch-22 of reviving that community, all seasoned with a pinch of nostalgia about the loss of significant conversations like the ones we had in the good old days. 

Ultimate Productivity Theorem and Corollary

The simplest and most useful rule for productivity1, where “something” can be an action of any kind:

1. Ask yourself what will happen if you ignore something. If nothing, or nothing important, or no one cares, then do so.

And the corollary:

1a. Ask yourself what will happen if you stop doing something. If nothing, or nothing important, or no one cares, then do so.

It’s astounding how many things fall into one of these categories.

  1. Note: I’m defining “productivity” here as “helping me get things done that make me happy(ish).”