The Very, Very Complete Guide to Productivity, Focus, and Your Own Longevity
The iPhone could be an incredible tool, but most people use their phone as a life-shortening distraction device.
However, if you take the time to follow the steps in this article you will be more productive, more focused, and — I’m not joking at all — live longer.
Practically every iPhone setup decision has tradeoffs. I will give you optimal defaults and then trust you to make an adult decision about whether that default is right for you.
In addition, because this is a long post, I’ve written it in a way to make it easier to skim. Here’s how to read the post:
- Level 1 — Casual. Read the headlines — figure out the details yourself. Most of this isn’t rocket science.
- Level 2 — Tutorial. Read the steps underneath the headline. I’ve spelled out every step so that you can save your brain power for something else.
- Level 3 — Productivity Nerd. Below the tutorial steps, I’ve included discussion of the behavior design implications. This is for true productivity nerds, i.e. the readers of Better Humans.
As a bonus, because I know you got excited when you saw this was a seventy minute read, I’ve gone all out on getting pedantic about productivity and even included three appendixes to give an overview of the behavior design principles, to break out the potential financial budget for implementing this advice, and then a real-world example from my own phone.
#1. Turn OFF (almost) all notifications
Open the Apple Settings App, then go to the Notifications Section. You’re going to need to get good at opening the Settings app, so learn to find this icon:
Go app by app, turning off all notifications.
By the end, the vast majority of your apps should have a notifications setting that looks like this, i.e with no notifications:
There are only a very few reasons to leave notifications on for a particular app. Here are those reasons:
- For all delivery apps, leave notifications on. These notifications are supposed to only come when you want them to, i.e. if you’re standing on the corner trying to get a Lyft. Apps in this category: Uber, Lyft, Postmates, Grubhub, Caviar. Of those, Postmates is the biggest offender of spamming you with unwanted interruptive notifications. Consider deleting that app.
- If you get very few text messages, turn off badging on your Messages app but leave banners on. Since you’re setting your phone up to have very few notifications, you’ll actually end up seeing most of your text messages on your home screen as they come in (previously, they were probably swamped by other notifications). Then, the unread badge for messages is just overkill to create anxiety about messages you already saw. If you get lots of text messages, then turn off all notifications and treat text messages like an inbox that you only check at set intervals. If you are one of those people sending hundreds of text messages throughout the day, then you are crazy and throwing your life away.
- Leave notifications on for your calendar app. Not missing appointments is basically the entire point of a cell phone.
- Leave notifications on for Maps and Google Maps. These apps only notify you when you’re actively getting directions.
- Leave notifications on for phone calls. Although, consider turning them off and updating your voicemail to say that phone calls are a dead medium. My voicemail says: “You have reached my voicemail which means you tried to call me which means you are a dinosaur. Please upgrade your life and try me via text or email.” (It doesn’t really say this.)
- For all the notifications that you left on, go back and make sure badges are turned off. Badges are the red dots with numbers in them that give you anxiety that there’s something important going on in that app. You’ll live longer if you never see another badge.
I led with this advice to turn off notifications because it’s the most powerful. Also, you’re never going to finish reading this post if you leave your notifications turned on.
These are the productivity reasons that should make you wary of notifications.
#1: Notifications are uncontrolled interruptions from your real goals. They prevent you from ever getting into a flow state. You should be in control of what you do and when — not your phone. I’m going to refer to this over and over as “your phone is a tool, not a boss.” See Appendix A at the end of this article for more.
#2: The brain science behind learning requires sustained focus to trigger myelin growth around active neural pathways. That’s what brain plasticity is about. However, if you go around interrupting that process, you’ll never get the myelin growth that locks in whatever you were learning. Essentially, notifications lead to a stunted life.
#3: Those red dots cause anxiety, and anxiety causes health problems like heart disease. It’s not hyperbole that I talked about life expectancy in the title of this post. Not specific to red dots, but mild anxiety was shown to increase mortality by 20% over a ten year period.