Little Hacks

Little changes can cause amazing outcomes. The last chapter of this story features three small tweaks I made to my phone settings, that have radically changed the way I interact with my digital life.

Our goal here isn’t to be defensive and resist our phones but to ask the question, “how can we make our home screen a livable place?” A place we can return to frequently, knowing it will respect our intentions and support our conscious use. And a place that makes room for the thoughts and concerns we want to have, and not the ones we don’t.

From time to time, I ask myself which is the single habit I can easily stick to right away, that will have the largest impact in my daily life.

For example, a few years ago I read The Miracle Morning — good book, where I came across a seemingly harmless quote, that might strike as a rather obvious statement at first, but ended up radically transforming the first hours of my days.

Well, hitting the snooze button keeps us from waking with a sense of purpose. Each time you reach for that button, you are subconsciously saying to yourself that you don’t want to rise to your life, your experiences and the day ahead.

I simply tried it: put the alarm clock across the room, in a place where I had to stand up in order to stop it. I have never hit the snooze button once again since. Now I wake up every single morning at 6am and get a ton done before 9am. In fact, I’m writing this because of it.

Little action, huge impact and upside.

Along these lines, last week I read this article and something similar happened. My home screen and notifications settings were already a reasonably quiet place, but the article made me revisit some habits and the overall relation I had with the device.

Since, I came up with a simple set of rules that have radically changed the way I interact with my iPhone.

Home screen

  • Two screens: first of all address the amount of screen real state to place apps. Having a predefined number of screens in the springboard acts as a natural constraint for the number of apps you can fit in the canvas. Moreover, I found that avoiding mindless swipes between screens reduces the time “wasted” on the device, doing nothing.
  • No folders: keep everything visible. Hiding complexity under the rug is usually not a good long term solution, but on top of that, folders are the cheating mechanism for the previous rule, so avoid them.


  • Stick to the ones you actually use: this seems like a simple rule, but spring cleaning apps can become a rather unpleasant task. The nagging thought of “maybe I need it for X…”, “I used it that one time…” will never remiss. That’s the reason why I took a radical opposite approach to tackle this issue: I started with zero apps and installed them as needed. You’ll be surprised with the few apps you actually use: right now, my phone only has 16.
  • Default to defaults: require a really compelling case to install 3rd party apps that mimic Apple stock ones. This can be controversial for two reasons: first one, because we all love 3rd party apps, but second, because Apple stock apps are usually not that great. Then the question: why do it? I found that “staying default” limits “what you can do”, reduces duplicity and complexity across the OS. If there’s no strong case to do it, stay default. Mail, Contacts, Calendars, Weather, Photos, Safari… are great examples of stock Apple apps that can suit most of our basic needs.
    • The exception to that rule, of course, exists. If the delta of functionality (and enjoyment) the app provides is so massive that is worth dealing with the added complexity, so be it. In my case, Bear, Spotify or Citymapper are clear examples.
    • Then of course there is functionality the OS doesn’t provide by default. In these cases, of course a compelling case is still required, but the utilitarian aspect here becomes more relevant.


Last, but most important, notifications. The single feature that can make or break the experience of using a your phone.

The most important realization about notifications is that they clearly map out as an 80/20, even 99/1. In other words, 1% of the apps, produce 99% of the notifications. This 1% being messaging apps, where their very nature of 1-to-N communication layer turn you into a random node of the network, able to receive notifications from any node that can potentially connect with you.

The problem though, falls back again to the defaults. The moment you accept the app request for sending notifications, you’re granting any person on Earth the ability to light your phone screen up at their will. In other words, you are giving free, ubiquitous access to the backlit mechanism of your most precious and personal device.

This is simply madness.

In order to avoid this, I created three distinct states an app can inherit as notifications settings (slightly updated for iOS 10, which changed the way History and Lock Screen worked).

  • Off: these are messaging apps. Turning their notifications off by default have three combined benefits: 1/ your screen won’t be flashing every minute because of an unimportant WhatsApp group notification, 2/ your battery will last way longer, 3/ you won’t be peeking at your phone looking for the next dopamine shot, because you already know it will be none.
  • Only show in history: this should be the default mode for almost all apps, but messaging. You will silently receive notifications, but they won’t light up the screen and quietly stack in the history tab, waiting for you to go there and check them out.
  • System default: stay to the defaults (this is lighting up the screen, sounds, badges… the whole pack) only for critical notifications such as reminders, important calendar events or potential security warnings.

Following these three simple rules had transformative results that truly changed the way I interact with my iPhone. Things as easy as rearranging apps, forbidding red bubbles, avoiding colors and limiting to just two screens, literally, gave me an extra hour per day out from “wasted time” and made me be more present, relaxed and sharp.

Again, little hacks, amazing outcomes.

First published on May 31, 2016