Mindful mobile usage (iOS)

Mindful mobile usage (iOS)


Published: 2020-01-20

As I age — back in ye’ ol’ days! —, I’ve gotten more mindful of how I use technology. After all, I help build it, as a software engineer. Post-Snowden, my focus on privacy has driven my usage of tech: yes, I actually read Privacy Policies. Not that that presumes I could use things perfectly: some manners of comfort and usability trump fundamentalism because absolutes are tricky to maintain. Being a social creature in this hyper-connected world has its drawbacks.

My phone is literally a tool. I don’t like it, don’t need reassurance from it, or to touch it frequently. This is by no means a high road I’m taking, I simply didn’t get attached to the thing. After dabbling in Android, Firefox OS, Replicant, and Copperhead — am I forgetting something? —, I’ve decided to stick to iOS. Apple isn’t perfect, but their advertising ecosystem never took off so it seems they’re okay with providing a bit more privacy and control over your data. Not that this matters much, as, after all, they host data on Google Cloud Platform (encrypted, but still).

On an average day, my phone is essentially a brain extender via the app Things, a platform through which I can use WhatsApp (I know!), and a way to maintain a modicum of control over chaos (calendar, RSS, and e-mail). Lately it’s also been useful for my learning of Dutch, habit tracking, intermittent fasting, and meditation (via Oak).

What it doesn’t include is just as important: no social media (I don’t have accounts anywhere), no shortcuts to bad behavior, and nothing superfluous or (too) harmful. Again, this isn’t to preach a form of morality, just my thoughts on how to keep my phone from taking over my life. As it turns out, I’m rather concerned that might happen.

My initial screen on iOS, with the grayscale filter on.

Disabling notifications

Such an easy one. Do Not Disturb doesn’t cut it, I don’t want to wake up to a screen full of red numbers and a stream of things to deal with in the morning. Some of the worst offenders are easy to banish permanently: the LinkedIn app causes so many bullshit notifications I simply uninstalled it. In general, I only want to be notified of things I care about:

  • Transaction updates from my bank
  • Calendar events
  • Messages from contacts
  • E-mails from my primary account (but no others)
  • Actual reminders (from Things)

This means I have to purposefully chase after everything else, on my own terms. Duolingo, for example, is a battering ram of notifications, so I allow it to have a badge count, but not to make noise or show up in the Notification Centre. That seems reasonable.

A number of apps would notify mean of things that matter, but that I have no need to react to as they come:

  • I’ll open Reeder when I actually want to get updates from blogs and YouTube accounts that I follow.
  • Legit apps, such as Habitify, Goals, and Zero are easy to access and see on my homepage, so there’s no need to have them ping me.
  • All apps related to transit (public transport and car sharing) can stay quiet all the time.

And that’s it. Simple. Everything else is not granted the privilige of notifications, count badges, or any noise whatsoever. Figure out what works for you as you go, and then head off to ‘Notifications’ and take back control of your attention. Stop checking your phone simply because an app needs some attention right now.

Color filter: a grayscale experience

My phone spends most of its time with the “grayscale” color filter [1] [2] turned on. I’ve mapped triple-click to Accessibility Shortcuts, so I can turn it off quickly when I want to see an image or video in full color. There’s some evidence it might help with ‘smartphone addiction’. [3] [4]

Keep your phone clean

Uninstall apps you don’t use. Regularly check permissions and put a brake on ‘data colonialism’. Keep each screen free of clutter, and app folders to a minimum by simply not having them in the first place.

Use a neutral wallpaper that won’t distract you, and gives you no reason to fire unecessary chemicals that bind you to your device.

Keep only the apps you use the most on your dock.

Use the search functionality more often: if an app is needed sporadically, hide it away and search for it as needed. While we’re talking about search, take control of that too. Most apps don’t need to have their internals show up in search. Prevent Siri from suggesting silly things by disabling Siri Suggestions.

Your first page (‘homepage’?) should contain only what you want for your life, the apps that make you better and keep you in touch with those that matter. No, Snapchat probably doesn’t fall into that category.

Screen Time

Screen Time is a remarkable feature: it can hlep you keep track of device usage, but also curb your worst tendencies. App Limits are a powerful way to remind yourself of what matters the most: real life. Communication Limits can be made truly useful, in combination with Downtime. Together, these two should help further in keeping you away from your phone, as only really important contacts and apps are now allowed to reach you.

If you set this one up properly — ideally also on your laptop —, it can do wonders for limitting your usage of a device that should only be used when actually necessary.

Apple Watch

If you rely on the Apple Watch, it should definitely not be an extension of your phone. Disable notifications from most apps, except for those that truly matter:

  • WhatsApp is allowed to show me what a friend texted.
  • My bank can notify me of transactions.
  • Zero can tell me when to stop fasting.

That’s it. Even e-mail doesn’t go into my Watch, because I’ve no use for that on the tiny device. Neither would Habitify or my health insurance’s app need to reach out to me via my Watch. It’s a device meant to help me with my health and exercise, not another source of distraction.

Some privacy settings

There are much better guides into privacy on iOS, but some things to keep in mind:

  • iCloud Photos is A Very Bad Idea™. Apple’s servers have been hacked in the past, with many celebrities having their intimate photos taken. First of all, stop taking naked photos! But if you must, keep them as offline as possible.
  • Limit Background App Refresh to only apps you trust or truly need. [5]
  • Disable Hey Siri, just grab your phone and use it if needed. [6]
  • Curb access to Location Services (most apps don’t really need this), Contacts, and so on.
  • Disable Microphone access to everything except apps that really need that.
  • Read access to your photos should be extremely restricted.
  • Access to Health data should be extremely restricted. At best, allow apps to write, but read as little as possible.
  • Turn on Limit Ad Tracking.
  • Although Apple and other developers could truly benefit from Analytics & Improvements, think about which categories to turn on. Some form of telemetry is useful, but these aren’t open-source companies showing you exactly what they collect. (Sorry third-party developers, I’m one too!)

  1. https://www.iphonelife.com/blog/5/tip-day-how-turn-grayscale-mode-ios-8 ↩︎

  2. https://lifehacker.com/change-your-screen-to-grayscale-to-combat-phone-addicti-1795821843 ↩︎

  3. https://observer.com/2018/05/grayscale-can-cure-smartphone-addiction/ ↩︎

  4. https://blog.mozilla.org/internetcitizen/2018/02/13/grayscale/ ↩︎

  5. https://www.macrumors.com/2019/05/28/background-refresh-apps-sending-data/ ↩︎

  6. https://www.macrumors.com/2019/08/28/apple-apologizes-over-siri-privacy-concerns/ ↩︎