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Focus Pocus

Last week I attended the Ellucian Live conference. Seeing so many long-time friends and colleagues and the event returning to its pre-COVID attendance levels was exciting. I was also amazed how many people walked around the convention center staring at their phones.

Don’t get me wrong – I love my iPhone. I get massive productivity gains from my device. However, I work hard to make sure my phone does what I need it to do when I need it to and does not interrupt or distract me when I don’t. Today I will be prescriptive about how you should tame your smartphone.*

Tame the Notifications

Every time you get a notification on your phone, even if you ignore it, it disrupts your train of thought. That disruption may be brief. Often the notification captures your attention, and you stop what you are doing. This can have significant productivity consequences. One University of California study finds it takes 23 minutes to refocus after every interruption.

Years ago, I looked closely at my notification settings and realized I didn’t need to be notified by about 75% of the apps installed on my phone. I encourage you to do the same thing. Go to Settings, select Notifications, and look at the settings for each app on your phone. Ask yourself whether you need to be interrupted by a message from that app. Be ruthless. Set most of them to have Allow Notifications turned off completely. 

For the ones you leave with notifications enabled, be thoughtful about how you let them notify you. I can get a notification whenever the garage door opens or closes. I find that’s a convenient way to look back and figure out when one of my kids got home. However, I don’t need to be notified when it happens. That app’s notifications are enabled for the Notification Center but not for the Lock Screen or as a Banner. This means the notifications sit in the Notification Center and are available when I choose to look at them but are otherwise invisible to me.

For my notifications, I see an opportunity to switch more apps to this silent notification option. I can review my Notification Center once daily as part of my daily planning ritual and further reduce the number of apps interrupting me throughout the day.

Embrace Focus Mode

You are missing out if you haven’t set up focus modes on your iPhone. Once upon a time, you only had “Do Not Disturb” and standard settings. Now you can create as many unique focus modes as you wish and customize each for a specific purpose. You can create or update these through Settings, Focus.

Here are some of the ways you can configure a focus mode:

  • Identify specific individuals that are allowed to text or call you. An hour before bed, my phone goes into “Family Only” focus mode, and only family and close friends can call or text me.
  • Specify which apps (if any) can notify you while the focus mode is enabled.
  • Identify which pages of apps on your phone are displayed while the focus mode is enabled. I have a “Wake Up” focus that hides all the pages of apps except the first one, so I’m not tempted to look at email, Slack, or LinkedIn before I complete my morning ritual.
  • Set a schedule. You can set a focus mode to turn on automatically at a specific time or when a particular app is open. When I open my meditation app, my phone automatically enables a focus mode, so I’m not interrupted while meditating.

Think about the different activities in your life and what focus modes you might set up for those activities. Here are some suggestions:

  • 1:1 meetings. Tune everything out so you can be fully present with the person you are meeting.
  • Reflection time. By now, you have hopefully blocked time on your calendar for reflecting. You don’t want anyone interrupting that time.
  • Family time.
  • Exercise time.
  • Sleep.

Set an Alarm

Many people don’t take full advantage of the alarm feature on their phones. I often set the alarm to go off 15 minutes before my next meeting. When I do this, I don’t check my watch constantly to ensure I’m not late for the meeting. I know I’ll get notified when it’s time to transition.

When I do laundry, I set the alarm to go off when the load should be done so I can process it quickly.

I use the Procrastination Pomodoro technique to help me get motivated to work on something, setting a timer to ensure I devote 25 minutes to the task before taking a break.

Look for the themes in your life where you could put your mind at ease and be more fully present by setting the alarm to tell you when the next thing is coming.

Infinity Pools

I’ll close with one of my favorite takeaways from Make Time: How to Focus on What Matters Every Day by Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky. They talk about “Infinity Pools.” TikTok. YouTube. Instagram. Facebook. Netflix. Anything that serves up an infinite stream of content. Their goal is to keep your eyeballs on them. I’ve gone down many a YouTube rathole where they kept serving up another compelling video that is just short enough that I keep clicking. These are productivity kryptonite. Find yours and implement a strategy to counteract it. For me, the solution to YouTube was to uninstall it from my phone. Yes, I can still get to it in a browser if I want to or even re-install it, but there’s enough extra effort there to discourage me from taking the plunge. Apps like Facebook and Instagram haven’t been uninstalled, but they are on the last page of my phone and buried in a folder, so I don’t get distracted by them and dive in when I shouldn’t.

Putting It Into Practice

Take a few minutes to get your smartphone under control so you can be more focused and productive.

  • Turn off notifications for as many apps as possible.
  • Set up focus modes to minimize interruptions at specific times.
  • Leverage alarms so you can be more present in the moment.
  • Uninstall or bury “infinity pool” apps like TikTok and YouTube

Schedule time with Josh.

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* I am an iPhone user, so my specific examples will be how to configure an iPhone, but I am sure equivalent options exist on Android phones as well.