Tips for overcoming distractions from your phone

Do you find yourself wishing you could be more productive on the go? Do you think that the 20 minutes you have while waiting for the train could be spent creating something amazing? Does the sight of hundreds of apps on your phone mean you spend more time choosing what to do rather than doing it? If you said 'yes' to those questions then you are certainly not alone and if you read on, I may be able to help.

I create a lot of media on the go such as videos, audio blogs and written articles. Because of this, I need a lot of apps to carry out all the creative tasks that I want to achieve. However, I also use my phone as a source of entertainment and information.

It's easy to become lost in your phone and forget where the time goes. For example, a while back I had some minutes to spare whilst waiting for someone at a meeting so I looked to my phone to provide a distraction. Rather than clearing my to-do list, I was caught in a seemingly endless cycle of checking my news feed, looking at social media and seeing if I had any email. After 15 minutes, my meeting partner arrived and I had just wasted the preceding time. I felt annoyed and vowed to strive for a better relationship between myself, my phone and the time I spend with it.

Embrace doing nothing

The first thing I learnt to do was recognise that not every spare moment has to be filled. Rather than get anxious about all the things you could do, why not declare 'choice bankruptcy'. This means that the time it would take for me to choose something to do and start it would take more energy and effort than the benefit I would receive. In those circumstances, I choose to have a walk, sometimes without listening to a podcast or music so as to allow my thoughts to run free. These moments of abstinence from technology and distractions can often prove to be some of the most productive moments of my day. Many articles and video ideas saw their genesis whilst walking and I think it is a great way to work through problems or other impasses. Try having a wander at least once a day and see if you notice the benefit.

Try and remove as many distractions as possible

If you have the luxury of having more than one device (such as a laptop or tablet) then try to experiment with having a distinction between a work device and a distraction device. When I feel my mind wandering my phone provides many a distraction. For example, I could read my newsfeed, play a game, listen to a podcast, check my emails, update my social media, edit photos, launch brain training, watch streaming videos and much more. This non-exhaustive list shows just how easy it is to be distracted. The more distractions you can physically remove and associate with another device means that you are more likely to be productive with you work device.

Reorganise your phone

This is a fairly regular obsession of mine and something which could probably have an article of its own.

I use an iPhone and in the early days of the App Store I would be content with downloading apps until I had pages and pages of icons. With the advent of folders, things have got a bit better but there is always room for improvement.

Have a look at what my phone screen used to look like a few weeks ago.

I tried my best to segregate the apps into meaningful folders such as "communication" and "creative" but I still felt my home screen looked messy and distracting. So I went about reorganising my phone screen to make it more productive and this is what I'm currently using.

I started by considering each horizontal row as serving a different purpose. There are five rows in total so I had to decide what were the five main things that I wanted to do with my phone. After a bit of thinking I came up with this list.

  • Learning, either through podcasts, audiobooks or articles.
  • Creating, an obvious choice given my line of work so I would need some apps relating to the media creation.
  • Health, whether it's sleep tracking, logging my exercise or perhaps meditating, I wanted to have that ability on my phone. Obviously I still had my games and utility applications (such as my mobile bank etc) but because they are not the focus of what I want to do on my phone I relegated them to their own folder and put them on the second page so I didn't see them every time I switched on my phone. The arbitrary restriction of having four icons horizontally meant I needed to prioritise my choices.

The final thing I did was to remove the distracting stock wallpaper and replace it with a much less busy dark image. It may be tempting to have a colourful photo or family portrait as your phone's wallpaper but in my experience, I find that adds to the distraction.

Be brutal with notifications

I'm sure you know what it's like when you get a new app, you're so eager to try it that you agree to all notification requests. You soon realise that you have hundreds of apps crying out for attention throughout the day. This can be a nightmare for productivity. You don't want to be busy working, only for your phone to tell you that someone has sent you a tweet or an email that you could just as easily read later.

After having a problem with this I took the nuclear option and revoked all notification permissions from my apps. Following that, I went down the list of apps that I had installed on my phone and made a decision with each one as to whether it was important enough to interrupt my day. After carrying out this systematic process, here are the apps that have made the cut:

  • Calendar - if something needs doing by a certain time then it goes on the calendar, it's important for me to be reminded of when an event is and when I need to leave.
  • OmniFocus - this is my task manager app of choice. When I reach a location where I can complete a task or when a task is available I am alerted.
  • Productive - this is my daily routine app which I follow each morning and evening to get into good habits.
  • Messenger - I made the decision to only let text messages notify me. I'll check the multitude of other messaging apps at a time that suits me.

There are other apps that I allow to have 'badges', small notifications on the app icon but the more ruthless you can be the better.

Get into the good morning and evening routine

My last bit of advice is something often spoken about but rarely achieved by so many. Getting into a good routine with your mornings and evenings can have dramatic implications for the day's productivity. While not strictly to do with your phone, I thought I would mention it as some further good advice.

For example, each morning I try to wake at a good time (between six and seven), do some meditation and stretching, follow my personal grooming routine. I then read my news or social media over breakfast before finally seeing what the day holds in store by looking at my to-do list and calendar.

For the evening, I lay out my clothes for the next day, have a quick look at my to-do list and calendar. Finally, to ensure I wake up nice and refreshed, I go to bed at a decent time (between 10 pm and 11 pm) and try to abstain from any electronic devices in the bedroom.

This has been one of the longest articles I've ever written and I am sure the subject of personal productivity is something I'm going to return to in the future. It is a subject that I think a lot about because it doesn't only have implications for my professional life but also my personal life. If you can make some positive changes in your daily routine and have your personal devices work for you rather than against you then I am sure you will notice a positive benefit almost immediately.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on distracting devices and what you've changed in your digital life to be more productive.