There’s been a lot of chatter lately about smartphone addiction, digital detoxing and the like. An interesting piece by Dieter Bohn over at The Verge got me thinking about whether I really need all those notifications.
I decided initially to try a ‘notifications diet’ – dramatically cutting back on the number of apps allowed to send me notifications. But as I started going through the list in Settings, I realized I also had apps I never use. I opted to extend the plan to an ‘app diet’ too …
First up were all the companion apps for gadgets I’ve tried but no longer use. These included things like BACtrack, BEAM, Lifeprint, SensePeanut and so on. As a tech writer, it’s really easy to accumulate significant numbers of these.
Then there were the apps I used to find useful but have since been superseded. For example, I had an app called Near Lock, which offers a way to automatically unlock my Mac when Apple Watch came within Bluetooth range. That was a useful app in its day, but that functionality is of course now built into watchOS. Ditto a QR-reading app, a function now built into Apple’s Camera app.
I had quite a few ‘duplicate’ apps. I do use both Apple Maps and Google Maps (I prefer the latter, but the Apple Watch integration makes the former useful sometimes), but I had literally half a dozen other mapping apps I never use. Similarly, I had several translation apps, though only ever use Google Translate these days.
There were apps for services I no longer use. I haven’t used Spotify since I cancelled my premium subscription about a month after my Apple Music switch. I used to be pretty active on Flickr, but have long since stopped using the service. I used to use AccuWeather as my weather app, but now use Dark Sky, and so on.
Next up were apps I tried mainly out of curiosity. I’m pretty good at deleting the ones I reject after first use, but there were others I’d toyed with a few times and then abandoned which were still hanging out on my phone.
There were apps automatically installed on my iPhone when I installed them on my iPad, but which I never use on the smaller screen.
Finally, there were some apps where I couldn’t even remember what they were or what they did. When we were moving home, for example, a couple of removals companies had me install apps to do a survey of the contents to generate a quote – those ones I didn’t even recognize until I opened them.
There were some unused apps I’ve kept on my phone. For example, I don’t actively use Signal, Telegram or Line, but everyone has their own messaging app preferences, and it’s always good to have options to allow people to contact me via their most-trusted method.
There were also a few apps I’m not expecting to use again, but which have a lot of data I wouldn’t want to have to recreate if I change my mind. An example here is Apple’s Podcasts app; I currently use Overcast, and can’t imagine switching back, but don’t want to have to recreate all my subscriptions if I change my mind.
With unused apps deleted, it was time to revisit the question of how to reorganize the rest.
Way back in 2013, I described how I’d switched from grouping apps by logical category to doing so by occasion (how ancient do those iPhone 4 screenshots look now?!). My first homescreen was only those few apps I used at home, while the next one was the apps I use most frequently when out and about.
I still applied that general approach – my main homescreen was still mostly the apps I use at home, though smart home tech means there were now many more of them! But over time, I’d gotten lazy, and my apps had become a bit more random in their locations.
To a large extent, that doesn’t matter – I mostly have Siri open apps for me, and otherwise do it by search if it’s not immediately visible – but it’s messy, and I don’t like messy. So I rejigged things.
What I found was that, because I’d trimmed so many apps, I was actually able to fit all of my most-used apps – whether at home or mobile – into a single home screen.
I’m kind of using the Settings app as a divider between the ones used mostly at home and the ones used mostly out and about.
My second home screen is now what used to be the third – my other main apps, stored in folders. I previously had the folders ordered alphabetically, but this time have ordered them by approximate frequency of use. I only have half a screen’s worth of these.
My third screen comprises the apps I use while travelling. My travel has reduced from several times a month in my tech research days to several times a year, but it’s still really handy to have those apps all on one screen when I am. Again, only half a screen of these.
You might wonder why ebook apps are on the travel screen. That’s because I normally use my iPad to read ebooks, rarely doing so on my phone. The one exception is while flying: there are some airlines that get a bit sniffy about iPads in use during the take-off and landing phases, and when I’m hooked on a book and want to continue reading it while in the many queues we experience while flying (Security, boarding, Immigration), it’s much easier to slip a phone in and out of a pocket than reach into a bag for my iPad.
The same applies to the apps in my Entertainment folder. Again, I normally watch movies, TV shows, TED talks and similar on my iPad or Mac, but occasionally while travelling the phone is handier.
And GoodReader lives there because it’s mostly used to organize travel documents – itineraries, hotel details and so on.
My final home screen is reserved for the App Store, TestFlight and a folder of unused apps – those are the ones I mentioned that I don’t currently use but wouldn’t want to have to reconfigure if I changed my mind, along with apps I never access directly. This includes Contacts (accessed only through the Phone app) and Reminders and Weather (accessed only via Siri).
With my apps culled and organized, it was then time to decide which of them would be allowed to generate notifications.
I’ve adopted a pretty strict regime here. I obviously want to be alerted to messages, so all messaging apps are allowed banners and badges. Same with the Calendar app, Reminders, Uber, Waze and so on, where there are clear reasons to allow alerts.
But for now at least, I’ve taken a ‘when in doubt, switch off notifications’ approach. For example, no Twitter alerts. I mostly use it for work, when I’m sat at my Mac with TweetDeck in front of me, so there’s no reason for alerts on my phone. No podcast alerts – there’s always stuff to listen to when I’m in the mood, I don’t need to be alerted the moment new episodes land. No Dark Sky – I check the weather when I care. No eBay even when I’m selling stuff – I only need to know when it’s sold, not live updates of bids. And so on.
I’ve also switched off badges on most apps. Mainly those annoyed me anyway. I’ve kept them on for a few things, like Facebook (that’s my one social network weakness), but have them off for the vast majority of apps left on my phone.
The upshot of all this? My phone feels like a calmer part of my world. It’s not constantly flashing up alerts. I don’t have a long stream of notifications to scroll through on the lockscreen when I take it out of my pocket. I don’t have a mass of apps with those little red dots all demanding I look at them.
It feels like it is now what it should be: a device that’s there to serve me, rather than the other way around.
Have you done something similar? Are you tempted to, reading this? As always, please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments.
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