Al Idian

iPhone Settings to Improve Focus


Our attention is constantly under attack. Most news and media organizations, ad-slinging tech companies, and internet influencers and personalities ultimately seek to convert our attention into profit. In Stolen Focus (2022), Johann Hari writes, “The sensation of being alive in the early twenty-first century consisted of the sense that our ability to pay attention — to focus — was cracking and breaking.”

The ability to pay attention for extended periods is important for creativity, self-reflection and satisfaction, and productivity. And curing our current environment of attention-deprivation will likely require great political change. Until then, we can do what we can to preserve and improve our own ability to focus.

In my case, I find that my iPhone has the potential to be the largest attack vector to my attention. I suppose the same is true for most people I know. Fortunately, the iPhone can be configured to minimize distractions and encourage improved focus.

Here below, I describe iPhone settings that have helped me personally. These are, of course, opinionated recommendations that will not work for everyone.

  1. Use the Focus Modes feature

    Focus Modes was introduced in iOS 15. At its most basic form, it is an enhanced Do Not Disturb feature. Beyond a conventional Do Not Disturb, Focus Modes are highly-configurable and well-integrated with the rest of iOS. For example, users can create a Focus Mode for driving that switches on automatically if the phone detects that the user might be driving a vehicle and disables all calls. Another Focus Mode might be for bedtime which will hide apps that are too stimulating or distracting.

    I like to have the following Focus Modes:

    • Do Not Disturb

      This is your typical Do Not Disturb feature. It disables all calls, messages, and notifications. Typically, I use this setting when walking, running, working out, or reading.

    • Work

      I use this at the start of focused work sessions when I am doing either paid or personal work. Unlike the more generic Do Not Disturb setting above, it allows notifications from my authentication app, something I use heavily to interface with remote systems. All other notifications, calls, and messages are disabled.

    • Sleep

      This Focus Mode is toggled on automatically at 930pm, which is when I should be getting ready for bed. It hides apps that might keep me from falling asleep. Effectively, this Focus Mode turns my iPhone into a great little ebook reader. All calls, messages, and notifications are disabled.

    • Driving

      I use this when I am driving or biking. Currently, the settings are identical to the Do Not Disturb one above, but I still prefer to keep a dedicated Focus Mode for this activity.

  2. Drastically reduce notifications

    Notifications are dangerous. If left unchecked, they can very quickly sap away one’s attention and focus.

    My advice here has three parts:

    • Notifications for most apps on your iPhone should be completely disabled. Some of your apps will continually bug you to turn notifications back on but you must resist. Like with the KonMari method, try to put as many apps as you can in this bucket. When in doubt, lean towards disabling notifications.

    • Enable notifications for only a select few apps. Ones that come to mind are Messages, Phone, and FaceTime. Note that you can easily disable these at certain times only using the Focus Modes features described in item 1 above.

    • Use the least distracting type of notification that you can get away with. For the Mail app, do you really need a notification on your lock screen or a banner to dynamically appear whenever you get mail? For me, a badge notification on the Mail app icon is sufficient.

  3. Disable all Siri features

    In Apple products, Siri pertains not only to the voice-activated smart assistant but also to a slew of “intelligence features” that includes suggestions. These suggestions are driven by user behaviour and data. For example, if a user habitually uses their Books app before bed, Siri might suggest this app to the user every evening.

    I personally dislike features like these, ones that try to learn user behaviour and make suggestions. I prefer to to interact with my devices with intent and agency. And so, I feel strongly about keeping this feature disabled. Unfortunately, iOS does not make this convenient: disabling Siri suggestions involves going into each app’s individual settings.

In the future, I hope to see Apple implement easy ways to opt out of software design paradigms that corrode user focus and attention. I think this is a genuine possibility given the positive action Apple has already taken in other important areas like privacy and repairability. For now, the settings described above help me maintain a healthy relationship with my iPhone.