I Tried the iPhone’s New Focus Tool, and It Added 5 Hours of Productivity to My Work Week 

published Nov 1, 2021
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Credit: Joe Lingeman/Apartment Therapy

I consider myself a pretty efficient person, especially when it comes to my work as a freelance writer. But, like anyone else, I easily succumb to my iPhone when I should be working. I’ll be totally in the zone on an article or project until my phone buzzes, at which point I not only read and respond to the inciting text but also somehow end up swiping through Instagram stories and checking my Twitter DMs. Before I know it, I’ve spent 15 minutes on my phone, and I’m that much closer to the time I have to close my laptop and pick my kids up at school.

I’ve always relied on my own (apparently non-existent) self-control to improve my focus, but as my to-do list got longer and my schedule got fuller, I realized I needed some help keeping my head down. So when I learned about iPhone’s new Focus tool, I wondered whether it could help boost my productivity levels.

Focus, a feature available in the iOS 15 software update, filters distractions so iPhone users like me can get in the zone. Basically, you set specific phone notifications based on what you’re doing. To set your own Focus, go to your iPhone’s Control Center, choose “Focus,” and then choose from an existing Focus or a custom Focus, which you can DIY by tapping the + in the screen’s upper right corner. You could set up a Work Focus to prevent unnecessary distractions from 9-5, then switch to a Personal Focus when you’re spending time with friends and family and don’t want to be sucked into work. You can also create and customize your own Focus tool for other activities, so you’ll only get notifications from apps you designate beforehand whenever that specific Focus tool is activated. Some people convert their phone to a grayscale to keep their focus.

My biggest problem area is picking up my phone when I’m supposed to be working on a writing deadline. I’ve tried muting more active text threads, but it’s harder to ignore spam calls from unmarked numbers, other text messages, and social media notifications. Putting my phone on silent or Do Not Disturb doesn’t feel right, either, because I want to know when the babysitter texts me an update or my husband asks me for my coffee order. 

Thankfully, Work Focus allowed me to customize these details. I set mine to receive text notifications from people I would welcome interruptions from — my husband, a few relatives, and two close friends. I allow calls from everyone because my kids are in school and I have a loved one in the hospital, and I don’t want to miss those calls even if I’m working. Calendar, which reminds me of upcoming meetings, is the only app I allow notifications from during my Work Focus. Everything else can wait.

Because my work schedule is different every day (one perk of being a freelancer!) I opted to manually turn on my Focus tool rather than setting a recurring time. The week I used the tool, I definitely noticed an uptick in my productivity. At first, it felt like fewer people were bothering me — my phone hardly dinged when I was working! I quickly realized it was my Work Focus filtering the notifications. Setting specific times to check my phone, such as my lunch break, was a lot easier when I knew I would hear from the people I wanted to hear from before that. 

For several days, I worked from breakfast to lunch and again from lunch and dinner without mindlessly scrolling on my phone. (That’s a major achievement for someone who normally spends 30-60 minutes per workday on social media.) By the end of the day, I felt more accomplished than usual, because I stayed on task — plus, I didn’t feel drained by the mindless social media scrolls that usually hold my attention hostage. With the extra five hours in my week, I was also able to finish all the work I had been assigned that week during a stressful time in my personal life. Even better, I was less stressed, which meant I could enjoy time with my family and friends when I’d usually be fretting about how to finish everything.

Of course, Focus isn’t a totally foolproof system; you need some motivation to stay on task, because you can still pick up your phone anytime and do what you want. For me, the Work Focus was a simple-but-effective way to build a sustainable habit of reorienting my attention to what matters to me and breaking the cycle of picking up my phone when I should be doing something else.