We've all been there, mindlessly scrolling through a store website or social media or the news or streaming video services, when you stop and ask "What am I doing? Why? Stop it." I had to do it just now to start writing this paragraph.

It's way too easy to fall into those traps, and in fact almost all of these services are intentionally designed to keep you hooked as long as possible. They use algorithms to surface the next content you're most likely to consume. They use site and app design to provide hints about the next step to take. They use reward psychology to make you feel good about the thing you just did and prompt you to do it again.

Woman Stressed Bed Phones Pexels
Source: Thirdman on Pexels

It's all in the service of keeping you engaged, as the more time you're with them and the more content you view, the more ads you'll see and the more chances they have for you to click on one of those ads. I would be lying if I said we don't do the same thing on CrackBerry (though without the ads): the goal is to get you to read as many articles as possible and to eventually click on a link to an affiliated store where you'll buy something. We lay out the site in a way that we hope entices you to click on article after article, we call special attention to the links we want you to click with design elements, and so on.

There's nothing wrong with any of that. That's how we all agreed some 30 years ago that websites would work as businesses, adopting the model where content is provided for free in exchange for users seeing ads. It's the same model as over-the-air broadcast radio and TV: you get it for free just by tuning in, but your entertainment will be interrupted by ads. Maybe we would've been better served by an internet where consumers pay directly for the products, but in the 1990s we were nowhere near ready for that technologically.

My phone tracks how many hours I spend in apps… some of those numbers are embarrassing.

Accessing those attention-draining services are one of the primary uses of our smartphones, and they do take up a disproportionate amount of our time and attention. I could point you to the Screen Time report on my iPhone that shows how much time is spent in various apps, but it would show a downright embarrassing amount of my time is spent on Reddit, and way too much time overall on my phone.

My phone is the last thing I interact with before I go to sleep and the first thing I reach for after I wake up, and I know many of us are the same way. It constantly begs for my attention throughout the day with notifications, and I've taken steps to limit which apps can bother me and often use my smartwatch to triage them before grabbing the phone itself. But the truth of the matter is that most of it… just isn't necessary. Sure, there's the endorphin bump that comes from some of these interactions, but that biochemical reaction was intentionally triggered by the design of those services.

So here I am, looking at this distressingly high number for my daily smartphone usage and wondering if there's something I could do better about this.

Both iOS and Android offer a tools to help with this. On Android it's called Focus Modes and Work Profile; Focus mode literally locks down certain apps so you can't open them or receive notifications from them, while Work Profile is basically like having a separate set of apps and data just for work that you can flip to with just a simple switch.

iOS Focus Mode settings
Source: CrackBerry

iOS takes a different approach with Focus, which in a way combines elements of both the Focus Modes and Work Profiles. You can set up multiple Focus modes with different app notification settings and home screens (effectively hiding the apps you'd find most distracting), but it doesn't lock out any apps or segregate data the way an Android Work Profile can.

Both of those options require a decent amount of set up by the user to make it happen, and they're either too limited (Android) or complicated enough that it takes some time to wrap your head around them (iOS). We need something smarter and easier.

I think that Apple's Focus modes are a good start. Once I understood how it worked, I actually found it somewhat useful for certain situations. I have a focus mode for when I report for reserve military duty and it switches over to a different home screen with the apps I specifically need then and silences a notifications from some more annoying apps. I also have a focus mode for when I show up at the local symphony hall or my favorite movie theater, which silences everything and even changes the lock screen to a low-contrast red-on-black option.

But it took some thought and set up to get there. It's all a very manual process. What we need is something that is more context aware. For example, if I were to go into an office every day, my phone should recognize that as a potential work location and do a few things:

  1. Suggest this location as my work site.
  2. Suggest setting a focus mode for when I arrive there.
  3. Recommend specific apps to block from notifications, using my usage data and app classifications (e.g. I probably don't need to see TikTok notifications while at work).
  4. Recommend apps to lock entirely
  5. Recommend a home screen based on the apps I use while there (excepting the now-blocked ones)

The location tracking can also be as simple as "you're at the movie theater, would you like to turn on do not disturb until you leave?"

Or it can use those always-on microphones to detect that I'm watching TV and suggest settings to get me to watch the show instead of just having it on in the background while I mindlessly scroll through Facebook.

Smartphone addiction is a real thing, and it's hard to fight because almost everything we do on the phone is designed to addict us. We need our phones to provide us more control to fight that, and to be more proactive in helping with that fight.

Man Standing On Dock Gabriela Palai Pexels
Source: Gabriela Palai on Pexels

I love data, and something like Screen Time seems like a great option to show me where I'm spending my time, but that's just not enough for me or for most people. It's the same issue that makes the whole "quantified self" movement — I have the data, but what do I do with it?

My Apple Watch is very good about making sure I get in enough exercise and standing in my day, regularly prompting me to get up if I've been parked at my desk to long, and giving me motivation to close these stupid activity rings. But you know what? It works. It's positive and motivating and it helps me perform better throughout the day. I need the same from my phone, I need it to go "You've been on Reddit an awful lot today, maybe take a break with a breathing exercise? The weather is decent here's a nice walk you could go in instead."

Yes, I know that's asking for my phone to intrude even more in my life. But given my tendency to just wile away hours of my day on inane nonsense, having it butt in with a "maybe don't spend so much time in this app" every now and then would be good for me.

Read more