Remove the clutter and distractions with a Minimalist iPhone

If you’re like the average American, you’re checking your phone 344 times per day. That’s once every 4 minutes (source). Some people say this is not an unfortunate side-effect of technology. That some clever engineers have deliberatly designed the UI/UX of phones to encourage a slot-machine-like addiction (yes, I am looking at you little nice red bubbles and homepage widgets).

But we’re not helpless. We’re smart too and we can use UX to our advantage as well.

You’ll find here a simple setup that drastically changed how I use my phone and my relationship to it.

The 20 second rule

Happiness researcher Shawn Achor coined the term 20 second rule to describe a simple way to break bad habits and create good ones, without relying on will power.

Change your environment so it takes more than 20 seconds to engage into a bad habit, and lower the time to less than 20 seconds for doing the right habit. For example, if you want to build a habit of playing the guitar and watch less TV, take the batteries out of your TV remote and move them to another room so it now takes more than 20 seconds to start the TV. And take your guitar out of your closet and put it at the center of the room you spend most time in so it takes less than 20 seconds to start playing.

Let’s apply this principle to our phone.

A distraction-free homescreen

After iterating a few times, I ended up with the homescreen below.

Before we go into how you can customize your iphone to look like this, here is why this design works well for me.

Designed to encourage positive behaviors When I pick up my phone, I only see things that are good for me. It’s like putting the healthy food in the cabinets that are easy to reach and the bad food far from sight. I carefully selected the apps that help me live a joyfull and generous life: start a meditation session, write down a fleeting thought, do deep work by cutting off the noise with background sound, journal my day, check my fitness and sleep metrics, start a soundtrack to sleep, etc.

Designed to reduce decision fatigue This concept is a bit more subtle. I imagine that like me, you iterate on apps over time. For example, I have cycled through quite a few meditation apps (Headspace, 100% Happier, Wake up, Insight Timer, Oak, etc). Before this setup, I had to relearn a new habit everytime I made a change. But what if we unbranded” the apps and created a shortcut named as a verb” that simply indicates the activity we want to do and points to the current app of the moment? So this is why most apps” on the homepage are actually shortcuts named meditate”, or scan”, or sleep”. Today the meditate” shortcut starts the Oak” app. Tomorrow, I could change it to start a timer. The sleep” shortcut starts a Youtube white noise playlist. Tomorrow, I could change it to start a white noise app. I will just have to update the shortcut and I won’t need to relearn a habit, as the home screen will remain exactly the same.

Designed to remove distractions Pushing this concept even further, I found it very useful to use iOS shortcuts not only to open an app, but to open it right where I need it to start doing what I need it to do immediately. Most apps out there are designed like a grocery store. You come in to buy a jar of mayo but you have to fight with yourselft to avoid getting distracted as you walk through all the aisles on your way to the mayo. For example, Youtube has some great videos for practicing Yoga routine. But throw the first stone if you have never opened Youtube wanting to find this Yoga routine but never got there because you ended up following a bunch of expertly well chosen videos recommended by the Youtube algorithm. iOS shortcuts are a great way to get directly to the aisle with the mayo without walking through the other aisles. You can use a shortut to get you straight to your Youtube Yoga video without even seeing a feed. Bonus: you don’t have any red badges neither that will make you want to open an app to make it go away.

Designed to be un-rewarding Last but not least, you’ve probably noticed that this home screen is pretty plain. Everything is black and white. No fancy icons or cute wallpaper. By now you know this is by design. This home screen would not give a dopamine rush to a sloth.

How to set up a custom homescreen on your iPhone?

iOS is pretty limited in terms of what can be done to customize app icons and the layout but there are work arounds.

I tried a few techniques, some of them simple, some of them more advanced. I ended up using the simplest technique: create an iOS shortcut for each action” to open the right app at the right place and export this shortcut to the homepage picking a monochromatic icon. Here is a tutorial on how to do this.

To create the app icons, I find icons I like using Google Search and I use the NextIcon app to quickly edit those to fit my preferences (eg. add black background, crop, etc).

Last, I used this trick to create a layout that allows for blank spaces on the home screen.

What about all the other apps?

I use 2 more home screens to organize the other apps. Home screen #2 looks like this.

It also uses verb-like” folder names to make it clear what my intention is before I go open an app.

Home screen #3 just has one folder with all the remaining apps. Those are apps I still want to have on my phone, but they are apps that do not create a better me. I use the Spotlight search to get to those apps, ie. swipe down and enter the first few letters.

I have had this setup for nearly a year now. It created a change much bigger than I expected when I started nerding on this. It’s made it easy to use my phone on my own terms, to make it a tool for goodness.

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March 6, 2022