iPhone focus mode is almost the perfect detox tool

Two days before Friday, before leaving for a week’s vacation to Florida, I went through my digital pre-roll routine. I set my Slack status to “vacation” with the palm tree emoji and notifications paused until further notice. I’ve turned on the Gmail auto-responder. I deleted a bunch of apps from my phone that would only distract me from poolside bliss.

The last thing I did was pick up the iPhone and create a new focus mode. Focus, in case you didn’t know, is a new iOS feature designed to allow you to quickly switch your phone from one context to another. You can set it to close your work apps on the weekends, turn off notifications while reading or sleep, or only alert you to new emails from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and not a moment later. It’s really just an extension of Do Not Disturb, but it gives you more specific control and lets you have different settings for different situations.

My new focus mode was called Vacation Mode. The goal was simple: I wanted to make sure that people who needed me could reach me and that I would be alerted if someone stole my credit card or my house burned down. In short, I wanted my phone to shut up and leave me alone. And ideally, I also wanted him to actively stop me from using it whenever possible.

Unfortunately, the fact of the focus does not live up to this idea. The only thing it controls are your notifications: You can choose which specific people your calls and messages arrive and which apps are allowed to light up your phone. This is a good Idea; It’s a lot of work. You have to manually scroll through all of your contacts and then all of your apps, in alphabetical order, to choose the ones you want to exclude from focus blocking. (The app does offer some AI-powered suggestions in the app picker, but I found them basically useless. No, phone, vacation mode doesn’t require calendar notifications.)

This is where I end up: I’ve allowed phone calls from All Contacts and added Messages, Reminders, WhatsApp, Home, and my Banking apps to the list of allowed apps. I’ve also turned off the toggle for “time-sensitive” notifications because, at least in my experience, there’s nothing remotely time-sensitive about the “time-sensitive” notifications I receive. I’ve turned off all notification badges too. It wasn’t a perfect setup, but it did mean that I would receive all texts and calls from people I knew and be alerted about the important things.

Turning on vacation mode significantly reduced my phone’s buzzing and lighting throughout the week. It was great, and I didn’t miss out on anything I actually cared about. But all those notifications blocks focus mode? They did not leave. They just grouped together on my lock screen, with one small swipe away. Thus, every time I lift my phone, I find myself getting bombarded by them anyway. When I picked up my phone to check the weather, it was like taking me to the office, with all my news alerts, Slack updates, and junk email alerts popping up — and then, well, I’ll just search TikTok for a second.

There’s this underlying tension that makes focusing difficult. Apple definitely knows that showing a bunch of things you don’t want is less of a problem than failing to show the really important thing you need to see. As a result, the feature is permanently stuck in a place to be careful. But if Apple really wants to help users take back control of their phones, it needs to make the focus more aggressive. Most of the tools to do this already exist! Focus should integrate with Screen Time so I can say “While I’m on vacation, only allow me to use Twitter for five minutes a day” instead of having to change this setting separately. Instead of just hiding notifications, focus should turn them off completely, as if you had gone to the notification settings page and turned them off. Focus mode currently lets you hide entire pages from your home screen, but it should allow you to hide certain apps or widgets or even just rearrange things once focus is on. I don’t just want to hide some distraction on my phone while on vacation – I want it He went. All of these things should be part of a whole, not separate from each other. Nor should they feel like the Rube Goldberg machine they are currently on.

Screenshots of iPhones with focus modes on iOS 16.

In iOS 16, the focus mode gets some big improvements, including within apps.
Photo: Apple

The good news is that this appears to be where Apple is headed. In iOS 16, for example, you’ll be able to set up different lock screens for different focus modes, and they improve both the setup process and the recommendations you get along the way. The new software also allows you to opt out of things instead of opting in, so instead of saying “Only these six apps can reach me,” you can say “Everything can get to me except these six apps.” This will make starting into focus modes a lot easier.

However, the real key to the Focus receiver is the new Focus Filter API, which gives developers the ability to change their apps in response to the settings you’ve enabled or modified in Focus Modes. Apple’s own apps are a good guide to what it might look like: in iOS 16, I’ll be able to tweak Vacation mode to hide my work events in the Calendar app or silence my work email in Mail but still send things to my account. personal accounts. Apple suggested to developers that they might want to use focus filters to let people hide certain accounts, turn off in-app alerts, or even change the entire app layout based on what the person is doing. (You can imagine, for example, a navigation or music app that might look different once you’ve turned on the Driving focus mode.) “Essentially, if your app can display different content based on context,” Apple’s Teja Kondapalli told developers during WWDC session in June, “You may be able to use focus filters to improve user experience.”

It looks great, doesn’t it? Maybe in a year I’ll be able to turn on vacation mode and change Slack’s status automatically, the auto-responder automatically reacts, and all my notifications except for really important ones are gone. However, there are two problems with this strategy. First, it assumes developers will willingly create less attractive versions of their apps with fewer notifications, badges, and incentives to pick up your phone. This will not happen. And secondly, it still puts all the work in the hands of users: you’ll have to configure focus filters for each app individually.

In the end, though, I’d recommend doing the work to set up some focus modes. I now have two of them, including one that turns on automatically whenever I open the Kindle app so I don’t get distracted by notifications when I read. This feature is not powerful enough and too complicated to use, but it is a step in the right direction towards giving me physical control of my phone. I’m back at work, but I’m still on vacation mode, and my phone is still mostly quiet. I have kept it that way.

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