Taming the phone 2: Putting apps in their place

Putting apps in their placeMy phone keeps trying to take over my life. One of my jobs as a Christian minister is to work out how to use my phone without being used by it. In my last post, I discussed one key way to do this: minimising notifications. In this post, I’ll be discussing another key way to do it: putting apps in their place.

(This blog series is about habits and personal organisation structures I’ve developed over the years for “sustainable sacrifice” in Christian ministry. They’re specific to my own situation, so if you think any of them are worthwhile you may have to adapt them. For more information about the purpose of this series see the first post: Slip, slop, slap for sustainable sacrifice.)

The apps on smart phones are designed to be a joy to use, and easy to open. This is, of course, very useful. But it’s also very dangerous. That’s because it’s too easy to be pointlessly distracted by the apps. My life as a Christian and a minister of the gospel has a definite direction and purpose. With God’s help, I need to be disciplined in living in light of that purpose. I need to develop and nurture disciplines in loving God, knowing his word, bringing his word to others, and loving those entrusted to my care. Because apps are so distracting, I need to be deliberate about placing my apps in a way that helps, rather than undermines, these disciplines.

Here’s how I place my apps at the moment. Obviously the details will be different for each individual (e.g. I use an iPhone SE). However, there are general principles that I hope will be helpful.

In the dock: Apps that I should open frequently

iPhone Dock - All the time

The “dock” is the place to put apps that I should open frequently, throughout the day. Apps in the dock will always appear on my “Home screen”, regardless of what “page” of the Home screen I’m in. Here are my four open-frequently apps:

  • Omnifocus is my task management app. I use it a lot. I’ve set it up to tell me what tasks I should be doing right now. It also has a link to my calendar so I know what appointments are coming up soon. Task management apps only work if you use them frequently and keep them up to date; otherwise they became a mess and a burden. Putting my task management app in the dock ensures I look at it all the time. I’ll be writing a lot more about Omnifocus in future posts.
  • Settings is useful to have in the dock because it includes a lot of settings I sometimes need to adjust when I’m using other apps.
  • Messages and Phone apps are in the dock because they’re useful for communicating with people immediately. Although most of the time I should be focussed on the people I’m with and/or the tasks at hand, I must allow myself to be interrupted in certain cases. For example, I should be interruptible by my family, or by people with genuine urgent pastoral issues, or by emergencies that mean I should abandon whatever I’m doing. These kind of legitimate interruptions will normally come through messages and/or phone calls. So these apps are in the dock.

Page 1: First things first

iPhone First Screen - First ThingsOn the the first “page” of my “Home screen”, I put the apps that I need to give top priority to each day. These are the “first things”. My morning discipline involves staying on page 1 and giving proper attention to all the apps in it, before moving on to anything else.

There are four kinds of apps on this page:

  1. Apps for prayer and Bible reading (CloudMagic, Bible Study, PrayerMate). These really are the the top priorities for a Christian, let alone a Christian minister. NB “CloudMagic” is an email app I’ve set up to only check email from an address I forward prayer points to
    [Update October 2016: CloudMagic recently changed its name to Newton and started asking for a ridiculous $70 per year, so I deleted it and changed to Spark].
  2. An app for daily language learning (Anki). I use Anki to revise vocabulary for languages that are important for me as a teacher in a theological college. Language learning and revision needs small bits, every day. So it belongs in “first things”.
  3. Apps that I use at the gym, to help with exercise (Podcasts, Health, Pandora, Clock). Regular exercise is important for me since I have a health condition that means if I don’t exercise I’m in pain. It also helps to avoid stress, and helps me to focus throughout the day.
  4. News and weather apps, so I can check on what’s been happening in the world, and plan for the day.

Page 2: During the day

iPhone Second Screen - During the Day

Once I’ve finished giving proper attention to the apps on page 1, I’m ready to move on to page 2. Page 2 has all the helpful apps that I may need to use at various times during the day.

These page 2 apps have the danger of distracting me a little, so I keep them in folders. This means I have to use an extra press of the thumb to open the app. It might sound like a small thing, but this little barrier helps me in my discipline. Instead of automatically opening the app, it gives me time to ask, “Do I really need to open this app right now?”

Page 3: Inboxes

iPhone Third Screen - InboxesOn the third screen are my “inboxes”. By the term “inbox”, I mean a place that collects “stuff”. And by “stuff”, I mean messages or other kinds of information that might substantially affect my workflow, but which I haven’t processed yet (these are technical terms from the GTD methodology).

Although I have other inboxes not on my phone (e.g. my mail box), it’s useful to have these particular inboxes on my phone. At the moment, the inboxes installed on my phone are:

  • Email
  • Feedly (to catch up on blog posts)
  • WordPress (to catch up on any activity on my site)

My inbox apps are, of course, very useful to me. My discipline is to check and process my inboxes at regular periods during the day. That way, I don’t miss any urgent stuff (more of that in a future post).

However, the inbox apps are also the most dangerous for me, because they have the most potential to needlessly distract me from the people and the tasks I should be focussed on. So each time I check the inboxes, I have to remind myself that there’s a chance I will be distracted by stuff that isn’t actually urgent. Firstly, there’s the unimportant stuff that just sounds more fun or enticing than which I’m doing right now. Secondly, there’s important stuff that doesn’t have to be done straight away. In both these cases, I’m tempted to abandon the people or task in front of me, and instead do the stuff. Not only is this bad for the people or tasks in front of me, it also adds to my stress. When I do the stuff, I’ve suddenly become reactive instead of proactive. That is, instead of doing what I’ve deliberately decided beforehand to do, I’m just reacting to a random piece of stuff I haven’t processed yet. Too much of this, day after day, is bad for the soul and can really contribute to stress.

That’s why I’ve put the inboxes on page 3, in a separate folder. To open them, I have to swipe, press, and press again. This little physical barrier gives me time to ask myself why I’m opening the inbox. Am I opening it because now is the proper time for me to check and process the stuff? Or am I opening it out of a reflex reaction? Is it because I’m afraid I’m missing out on something? Is it because I’m bored and want to see what other fun things there are for me to do?

Absent apps

There are some apps that are off my phone completely. For example, I don’t have Facebook on my phone at all right now. For me, this is the app with the highest potential distraction factor. I alternate between having Facebook on my phone (definitely on page 3, i.e. in my inboxes folder), and removing it entirely. Right now, it’s too distracting for me, so it’s not there.


App placement can help me in my disciplines, but of course it doesn’t solve anything by itself. I still fail in my disciplines. In fact, I have to confess that even as I was typing this blog post, I thoughtlessly checked the email on my computer, saw an email with a piece of non-urgent stuff, started to answer it, then stopped myself just in time!

However, my app placement means that I can even gain a benefit from my failures. Because I’ve put in place barriers to distraction, I can obviously see when I’m breaking the barriers. And my failure rate is a good gauge of how tired and stressed I am. The more I find myself swiping and opening apps that I don’t need to open, the more I realise I need refreshment: spiritual refreshment from prayer and God’s word, and physical and emotional refreshment by taking some time off.

I’ll talk more about all those things in future posts. For now, the point is: it’s good to put apps in their place. And their place is what helps discipline, rather than what hinders it.

The posts in the series so far

  1. Slip, slop, slap for sustainable sacrifice
  2. Taming the phone 1: Minimising notifications
  3. Taming the phone 2: Putting apps in their place
  4. Building blocks of a trusted system
  5. Capturing wild commitments
  6. Living life in “the zone”: using zones to regulate life
  7. Inboxes. Getting all the stuff out of them. Every day.
  8. Who’s afraid of to-do lists? Making tasks that work
  9. The weekly review: Planning for sustainable sacrifice
  10. The trusted system: a week in the life