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How to set up your phone to stay productive

Written 12 November, 2019, 5 minutes to read

Smartphones are ancillary to our modern ways of working, which are increasingly flexible, mobile and remote. But as work tools go, they are arguably one of the most unproductive.

Our phones are hotbeds of distraction – a pocket-sized portal to global newsfeeds, social exchanges and personal messaging. Even when we’re at rest, we immediately turn to them to plug suspended time spent waiting, commuting or just feeling bored.

But our phones aren’t a lost cause. We just need to be more intentional about how we use them and understand how we get derailed. Here’s how to set up your phone to stay productive and focused on-the-go.

Enabler or vice?

As an “always-on” technology, mobile phones have huge power to control our attention. A combination of push notifications, dopamine-inducing rewards and endlessly updating feeds can make it almost impossible to actually get things done when using them.

We are also social animals, and feel emotionally validated by human contact. As our most accessible devices, phones are our prime accomplice here, with 91% of all social media users accessing social channels via mobile devices.

But the productive cost of that distraction is huge – especially when you consider that it takes about 23 minutes to fully refocus after a distraction. While a quick Instagram check or WhatsApp response may seem harmless, it can create an “attention residue” that limits our ability to focus on any task that follows it.

Reclaiming your phone for work

Reducing notification noise and setting healthy barriers around checking newsfeeds are great ways to cut down on mobile social media usage. But there are more structural issues with our mobiles as tools for work that we need to untangle too. Here are 8 simple ways to set up your phone for productive work:

1. Cull pointless apps

We spend an unreasonable amount of time on pointless mobile apps that don’t support our interests or push our work forward. Each brings with it a can of potential notification worms, and just seeing it on our home screen can make us more inclined to interact with it. From those you downloaded once and forgot about, to those which frequently dominate your time, identify which mobile apps actually provide you with value. Hit delete on those that don’t – regularly repeating the app culling process to perfect digital minimalism.

2. Control your notifications

Mobile push notifications can be useful when they fit in with your schedule. But often, they just serve to interrupt your work and divert your efforts. To keep notifications productive, you need to decide what you want to let in when. Get familiar with notifications across your apps and customize them – whether that means setting them to specific “availability hours” when you choose to answer emails and Slacks, reducing their frequency or disabling them altogether.

3. Track phone app usage

Becoming more mindful of how you use your phone starts with knowing where your mobile time goes. While services like Moment do a good job of visualizing your mobile screen time, purpose-built time trackers like Timely can feed this data into a wider picture of your working day across all your devices. See your mobile activity across emails, meetings and GPS locations alongside your daily web and desktop activity from one automatically-created timeline. It makes reporting and invoicing mobile work effortless too, in case you actually need to bill for it.

4. Download Google Drive

Most of us use Google Docs, Sheets or Slides for cloud-based collaboration, so it makes sense to download Drive to stay productive on-the-fly. You can add or respond to comments, research directly in Docs with ‘Explore’ and open Word documents. The app will also automatically save even if you don’t have internet connection, which is ideal for those “tunnel” wifi black spots. Consider doing the same for your most essential work tools – access, usability and interaction are usually far superior (and less frustrating!) than just using a work tool on your mobile browser.

5. Restructure your home screen

Restructuring your apps on home screen is an easy way to stay organized and minimize unproductive intrusions. On iOS, set up different groups for work-related tools (like Outlook, Dropbox and Timely) and personal ones (like games, media and learning) – then try these more intense ones. On an Android, head to the app drawer and pin your most important work apps to your home screen.

6. Make use of ‘Do Not Disturb’

“Do not Disturb” is there for a reason, so if you need a fully uninterrupted period without phone calls, messages or notifications, actually use it! Just toggle the moon icon on your phone: by swiping from the bottom of your screen on iOS or swiping down from the top of your screen on Android. Most work apps have similar quick toggle buttons for achieving the same result – especially useful for muting instant messenger apps like Slack.

7. Download Pocket

We often come across insightful articles and websites when we’re at our busiest – and end up adding them to a graveyard of open tabs, or losing them forever. Pocket solves this frustration entirely by integrating with your browser and saving interesting articles for later with a tap. It’s a super useful app for keeping your commute productive – helping you use dead time for something beneficial and worthwhile.

8. Be mindful of empty time

A post-lunch lull, waiting for a meeting to start, traveling to and from work – these are all moments where we turn to our phones for passive, aimless scrolling. But by being mindful – and actively planning ahead for such gaps – you can make trapped time productive; whether it’s listening to a podcast or radio show, reading up on industry news, reflecting on your day, or collecting and structuring your thoughts. Being bored is actually kind of good for you!

How healthy is your relationship with tech?

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