Skip to content

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

Published inMinistry

Publications by Lionel Windsor:

  • Lift Your Eyes: Reflections on Ephesians

Recent blog posts

  • Entering a tomb in PompeiiWe too: the offenders (Ephesians 2:3)
    Judgmentalism. It’s a bigger problem than we think. Judgmentalism is certainly a danger for God’s people. That’s because God’s people have God’s word. God’s word helps God’s people to see how wonderful God is, and how terrible humanity is in comparison. But Ephesians 2:3 contains two highly significant, emphatic words: “we too”. We too, says Paul, were the offenders. We, too, were the disobedient. These words aren’t talking about all those horrible people “out there”. They’re talking about God’s people. And it’s something we, too, need to hear. These words tell us something incredibly important—something that we ignore at our peril.
  • Photo by Daniel Lienert on UnsplashThe root of the problem (Ephesians 2:1–2)
    I hadn’t visited the dentist for years. Then I felt a tiny amount of pain in one of my teeth. But I ignored it. I didn’t want to bother with a dentist. Anyway, I had my own solution: I’d always brushed my teeth quite thoroughly, and was proud of it. So I just kept brushing. But after a while, the pain came back. This time, it was worse. So I finally visited the dentist. That was painful, too. The root had become so infected that I needed root canal surgery. That was a while ago. But last year, it flared up again, as these things apparently do. And yet I chose to visit the dentist again, even though I knew it might be painful. Why? Because I’d learnt something. I’ve learnt that if I have a problem that goes to the root, and if I know someone who has the solution to the problem, I shouldn’t ignore it or try to fix it myself. I should face up to the root problem, and get help. So I got help. Now, I don’t have a tooth in that spot at all. In Ephesians 2:1–2, Paul seeks to go deep, to the root of the problem. The problem Paul talks about here is incredibly serious. It can be very painful to admit. But Paul can and does admit it—because he also knows the person with the solution. According to Paul, this isn’t a problem to ignore or try to fix ourselves. It’s not something we can educate ourselves out of. This is a problem to face up to, and get help.
  • Captivated by ScriptureCaptivated by Scripture: A personal reflection on D. W. B. Robinson’s legacy for biblical studies
    What made Donald W. B. Robinson such an inspiring and influential teacher for generations of students? His commitment to being captivated by Scripture. This is a paper given by Lionel Windsor at the legacy day and launch of Donald Robinson Selected Works Volume 3: Biblical and Liturgical Studies & Volume 4: Historical Studies and Series Index. Moore Theological College, Sydney, 16 March 2019.
  • The first thing to say about church (Ephesians 1:22–23)
    Here in Ephesians 1:22–23, for the first time in his letter, the apostle Paul uses the word “church”. He’s taken quite some time to get to this point. That might make you think that the church isn’t very important to Paul. But actually, the reverse is true. This is a climactic statement. So far in Ephesians, Paul has poured out his praise to God for his blessings and plans and purposes. He has told his readers how he is praying for knowledge and hope and strength in God. Now, finally, at the highest peak of this amazing prayer, Paul names “the church”. So what is the first thing Paul has to say about the church? What is the word he associates most closely with the church? What matters most to Paul when it comes to the church? The answer is, in fact, obvious. It’s so obvious that you might think it doesn’t need to be said. You might even wonder why Paul bothers saying it, when there are so many other more practical things he could say about the church. But while it might seem obvious, it needs to be said first. Why? Because it’s so easy to assume it. Yet without it, nothing else about the church makes sense.
  • Grave of John BunyanStrength to live (Ephesians 1:19–21)
    What do we do when we feel weak in the face of the powers that be? One response might be just to shut down, close ranks and find a bitter satisfaction in our identity as victims. Another response might be to try to fight as hard as we can to exert our power and dominance over others, seeking to turn the tables so that we become the conquerors instead of the oppressors. Both of these responses involve seeking strength and power in ourselves. They are often the way that oppressed individuals and groups in our world respond to the powers that are oppressing them. But is that the way God wants his people to respond to our weakness in the face of power? In Ephesians 1:19–21, the apostle Paul gives us a far better way to respond. Paul’s response involves looking for strength. But it’s not a strength that comes from within ourselves. It’s a strength that comes from God himself.
  • Christ, the Cross and Creation Care ConferenceConference: Christ, the Cross and Creation Care
    I'll be speaking at the "Christ, the Cross and Creation Care Conference", Sydney. 8.30am to 3.30pm, Saturday 22 June 2019. A conference run by A Rocha Australia
  • Palatine Hill from Roman Forum with contrails – Black and WhiteWhat’s the point of theology? (Ephesians 1:17–18)
    The full name of the college I teach at is “Moore Theological College”. That word “Theological” says something important about who we are. It reminds us about what we're on about. Yes, the Bible is at the centre of everything we do. Yes, we seek to train people for ministry. Yes, we're driven by the worldwide mission of Jesus Christ. Yes, we're committed to learning together, and having our characters formed in loving Christian community. But our careful study of the Bible, and our pastorally-motivated ministry and mission training, and our encouragement of one another in our community, all matter because of something more basic: theology. Unfortunately, the word "theology" can be misunderstood. It sometimes gets used to mean something like “technical details about spiritual things that experts argue about and isn’t much practical use to regular people”. But that's just a caricature. It's not what theology is. Theology is something far more profound, far more life-changing, and far more fundamental—not just for people at a college, but for everyone. In Ephesians 1:17–18, Paul prays for his readers—people who have come to believe in and live for Jesus Christ. It's a prayer for more theology.
  • Youth praying, Finchale PrioryPrayer: What are we actually doing? (Ephesians 1:15–16)
    “A Muslim, a Jew and an Anglican Minister walk into a classroom”. This was the advertising blurb for a local Community College seminar I participated in a few years ago. I joined a Muslim educator and a Jewish academic (who is also a friend of mine) to give a series of presentations on different aspects of our three religions to interested people from the community. When we came to the topic of ‘prayer’, I was fascinated to hear what my co-presenters had to say. Even though we were all using the same word, ‘prayer’, the word meant very different things in the different religions. As a believer in Jesus Christ, what did I have to say about what prayer is? What would you have said? Christians, too, can often be a bit confused or unclear about what prayer actually is. That’s where the Apostle Paul really helps us. In these verses in Ephesians, Paul starts telling his readers about his own prayers for them.
  • Photo by Danielle Macinnes on UnsplashThe Holy Spirit: Our security (Ephesians 1:14)
    The Stanford Marshmallow Experiments are a favourite illustration of motivational speakers. The lesson is this: If you can learn how to delay gratification early in life, you’ll do better in later life. Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? But unfortunately, like many popular conclusions drawn from famous psychological experiments, it doesn’t stand up to closer scrutiny. The more up-to-date study demonstrates something far more mundane: if you grow up in a secure home where you know there will always be food on the table, you’re more likely to be able to put off eating a marshmallow. This isn’t a particularly useful lesson for motivational speakers. But it’s a great illustration of what it means to be a child of God.
  • Mission. Photo by Ben White on UnsplashThe message is the mission (Ephesians 1:13)
    What is God’s mission? What means is God using to bring about his purposes in Christ? What does that mean for our own mission as Christians and churches?

On this site

All content copyright Lionel Windsor