How to Make Your Phone a Crazy Useful Productivity Tool In 5 Easy Steps

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Your smartphone can literally change your life.

A smartphone is a portal to the world’s information. You can teach yourself anything, contact anyone, and make your life whatever you want.

But based on the way people use their smartphones, you wouldn’t know it. People spend large amounts of money on these sophisticated gadgets, only to let them beep and boop all day and suck them into endless voids of meaningless content and fake news.

Your smartphone can only change your life if you make a choice to be different — to use this tool for productivity and education, instead of using it to pipe internet nonsense into your mind 24/7.

The good news is, it’s easy to make this change if you know what to do.

©Megan Holstein

#1: Delete Apps You Don’t Need

Everyone has apps on their phone they don’t use. Think phone games you don’t play anymore, apps for school you no longer need, or social media you no longer check.

These apps do nothing but get in the way of your productivity. They take up space on your phone, they create distracting notifications, and they use up your phone’s memory. The first and most obvious thing you can do for your productivity is get rid of them.

Pick up your phone and go through your apps. Delete any you haven’t used in the last two weeks.

As you do this, keep your personal goals for yourself in mind. Do you want to spend less time on Facebook? Maybe deleting the app from your phone is a step in the right direction. Ditto for gaming, online shopping, or other ways you waste time on your phone.

©Megan Holstein

#2: Turn off Notifications That Aren’t from Real People

Most of the notifications you get on your phone are a total waste of your time.

  • Notifications about sales, discounts, or time-limited offers companies create specifically to agitate and entice you.
  • Notifications about social activity in “your area,” “your network,” such as when people (or more likely, bots) like or view your social media posts.
  • Notifications from apps that “miss you,” despite no human actually missing you at all.

You can tell when a notification wastes your time by asking yourself this question: Would you want to be interrupted while watching TV by this notification?

There are times in life when we don’t want interruptions of any kind. Deep work and bedroom time with lovers come to mind. But what about when you’re watching TV? Waiting in line? Just living your life? What kind of things would you want to know about?

There are the obvious — calls and texts from friends and family. Maybe calls and texts about work, if you’re OK with that. If you use social media, you will probably want to know when a real human replies to your posts or interacts with you directly in some way. All these are from real people.

But most notifications aren’t from real people. They’re advertisements, or branding schemes, or ploys to get you to open your phone and start scrolling again. They make developers richer at your expense.

If you want a smartphone that makes your life better, not worse, turn off notifications that don’t come from real people.

Unfortunately, this is a bit of a job. For every social media and communication app you use, you need to find the Notifications Preferences in that app’s Settings section, and every app is different. Then you need to look at every single page for every single setting and make sure only notifications from humans will get through to you. Expect to spend an hour or two on this task.

To get you started, here are some links on how to manage notifications for popular apps: InstagramTik TokFacebookGoogle MailReddit.

©Megan Holstein

#3: Enable Healthy Features

Since 2016, when we started to wake up to the dangers of smartphones as a society, tech companies have been creating health-focused features for their smartphones. But unless you make the conscious choice to enable them, they won’t do anything for you.

My favorite example is Night Shift for iOS. (Similar apps do the same thing for Android). Our circadian rhythms, which regulate sleep patterns and appetite and a host of other important biological processes, depend on a day-night light cycle to function properly. Our bodies expect dim red light at sunrise and sunset, and bright blue light in the middle of the day. Thanks to modernity, we get bright blue light literally all the time if we want it. Massively convenient, but bad for our bodies. Night Shift enables an iPhone feature that makes the screen dimmer and redder at night so your body can shift naturally and comfortably into a restful sleep.

Other features that do similar things. One feature, called Sleep Focus, tells your phone to silence all notifications except for very important ones (such as phone calls from a spouse). Downtime kicks you off of apps during times you need focus so you don’t scroll and forget.

Features like this are so important for our mental and physical health. Yet so few people use them.

Configure some of the health-oriented features of your phone.

  1. Turn on your Night Shift or other night light feature so your phone gets redder and dimmer during sunrise, sunset, and nighttime.
  2. Let your phone know when you’re usually asleep so your brain can at least get a break from the constant dinging while you’re asleep.
  3. Tell your phone to kick you off of apps that keep you awake and distracted when you’d rather be working, resting, or sleeping.

#4: Replace Feeds with Useful Apps

The great danger of smartphones (and much of the internet) is feeds. Feeds commandeer some of the most powerful human instincts — the desire for novelty, the desire for stimulation, the desire to hoard resources — and use them to turn an internet full of content into a dangerous and addictive drug.

Chances are you deleted a lot of feeds when you deleted apps you don’t use anymore. But the most dangerous feeds are the ones you didn’t delete — the ones you use every day.

Unless there is some serious practical real-life reason you cannot do this, such as harming your career or marriage, get rid of every feed-based app.

I repeat myself: Get rid of every feed-based app.

Feeds are what suck you in and distract you. Feeds are what warp your mind. Feeds are what make you think you’re educating yourself when you’re consuming fake news. Feeds are what make you think the outrage you see online reflects anything other than someone else’s agenda.

You don’t have to give up technology or become a cave-dwelling hermit. There are so many better alternatives to feeds.

Educational apps are a great place to start. Most people have aspirations, like learning a new language or skill. App stores are full of apps that can make these things possible for you. Duolingo can help you learn new languages, Brilliant can help you learn new STEM skills, and Mimo can help you learn to code. When you want to screw around on your phone, these apps are orders of magnitude better for you.

You don’t have to focus on self-education. One of my favorite things to do is scour listings for free stuff in my area. I’ve scored some great furniture and gardening equipment from people in my area. I use the Craigslist and Nextdoor apps to do this.

Getting rid of feeds isn’t a painful act of self-denial. You think it is because you’re currently dependent on them, but once you escape their clutches, you see them for what they really are: a manipulative feature created by tech companies who want to sell your eyeballs to advertising companies.

Anything you can do with a feed-based app, you can do better without one.

©Megan Holstein

#5: Arrange Your Home Screen Carefully

A simple fact about humans: In a void, we prefer the easy way. We won’t bust our ass digging a hole with a shovel when we have a backhoe, and we won’t climb into the backhoe when we can pay someone else to do it for us. Preferably while we lounge by the pool with a martini.

What does this have to do with smartphones?

The apps and widgets you see when you open your phone are the easy way. The sight of them powerfully affects your choices, even if you aren’t consciously aware. You often find yourself using them without having made the decision to do so.

The apps that aren’t on the first screen of your phone are the hard way. You have to look for them to find them. You’ll only use them when you’re powerfully motivated — and that’s only if you weren’t distracted by something else first.

You can break out of this cycle by changing what’s visible on your phone.

Step 1: Delete every app off of every home screen. Start with a blank slate.

Step 2: Add apps to your home screen that support your values. Apps that support your values are apps like:

  • Apps you need for work
  • Communication apps that help you reach loved ones
  • Educational apps that help you reach personal goals

Apps that don’t support your values include phone games that distract you and social media that make your mental health worse.

Step 3: Stop when you have filled up one home screen with widgets and apps. If you have to swipe to a second home screen to find something, you have made those apps hard to use, and you have defeated the point.

Any apps that didn’t make the home screen cut, you can still access by going to your “all apps” view and using the search bar to access them. This will make them even harder to use, which is a good thing — you will not spend as much time distracted and wasting your life on your phone.

In Conclusion

None of these changes are difficult to make. If tech companies wanted, they could create and sell smartphones with these changes already made.

But tech companies will never do this. Why? They don’t profit when you use your smartphone as a tool. They profit when you spend six, eight, eleven hours a day staring unblinkingly into that beautiful thousand-color LCD panel.

If a software or hardware company makes money from advertisements, then it doesn’t matter what their PR departments say — their first priority will always be to get you to spend more time using their stuff.

You can get ahead of them. You can make the decision to use your smartphone as your tool instead of theirs, and enjoy all the benefits without suffering any of the consequences.

All you have to do to enjoy these huge benefits is spend a few hours fucking around with your phone settings.

What could be easier than that?