Stolen Focus on Phone Apps

Recently I finished a book called Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention – and How to Think Deeply Again. With it, I realized that a lof of our time spent on screen are designed to be distracted away by something else and it’s really hard to focus on 1 stuff at a time. At any moment, if you don’t take effort, you will be swarmed by notifications, badges, cravings for rewards, fear of missing out, and many more tricks. The author postulates that this is what makes us, collectively, have lower focus than what we used to have in the past, i.e. focus being stolen away from us.

One hypothesis on why all of this is happening is that within most apps, one of the business metrics of how successful an apps is is called “retention rate”, and many companies are doing all they can to increase this retention rate. Because if one opens your app, you can sell them some advertisement or products, which in turn contributes to the company’s revenue. To achieve this, these days, many apps use patterns like: sending notifications, app badges, marketing emails, like counts, and even games. Because of all this, these days, one can replace “retention rate” with “addiction rate” and they essentially meant the same thing.

So the first step to regain our focus is that we have to realize that we have a problem in focusing on a task. Our phone is a tool and we should use it as it is. Of course we can still have our down time for entertainment, but we shouldn’t be mindlessly distrated by them all the time.

I find that I actually have been practicing one of the mitigations that the author mentioned. As mentioned back in Phone Notifications (2017), I am using a “whitelist” approach to phone notifications, only giving out notifications to apps that actually matter. I also noticed that the granularity of Android permissions have improved a lot since my post. The ones I enabled are: important communication apps (like Phone, SMS, WhatsApp, Telegram, email, calendar) and banking apps. That’s all. All other apps are not that important anyway, and will only check them occasionally.

The book also mentioned about how apps home screen actually tries to capture your attention by using their colourful icons and badges. My mitigation to this is to use a custom launcher: KISS Launcher. This is basically a minimal Android launcher app (home screen app), where if you want to use an app, you have to actively search for it, i.e. you have an intention first. It can even hide apps icons in the list. This is so that you can avoid being passively distracted by an app and mindlesly going into an apps without thinking. Well, it’s no silver bullet since if you’re addicted to an app, you can end up automatically searching it up for a dopamine hit.

The other trick in sleeve is the “Do Not Distrub” mode combined with automation feature (Bixby Routines in my Samsung phone). I turned this mode on/off on schedule, during sleep time, commute time, and exercise time. So far, it has made my commute quite pleasant, as I can focus on Duolingo and not distracted by other things.

So yeah, those are the steps that I’ve applied to myself to reduce distractions when using my phone:

  • Having a “whitelist” approach in notification permissions
  • Using a intent-based launcher app
  • Automate “Do Not Disturb” mode

The author went on and discusses many more aspects, like parenting, schooling, anxiety, and how they all relate to reduction in focus in general. Do give it a read!

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