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The iPhone’s Focus mode (almost) kept me off my phone on vacation

The iPhone’s Focus mode (almost) kept me off my phone on vacation

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How Apple kinda, sorta, almost helped me control my phone

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Screenshots of iPhones running Focus mode.
Focus can help you tame notifications — but not much else yet.
Image: Apple

Two Fridays ago, just before I left for a week-long vacation to Florida, I went through my pretrip digital routine. I set my Slack status to “Vacationing” with a palm tree emoji and paused notifications until further notice. I turned on Gmail’s auto-responder. I deleted a bunch of apps from my phone that would only serve to distract me from poolside bliss.

The last thing I did was pick up my iPhone and create a new Focus mode. Focus, in case you didn’t know, is a new-ish iOS feature designed to let you quickly switch your phone from one context to another. You can set it to shut up your work apps on the weekends, turn off notifications while you’re reading or sleeping, or only alert you to new emails from 9AM to 5PM and not a moment after. It’s really just an extension of Do Not Disturb, but it gives you more specific control and lets you have different setups for different situations.

My new Focus mode was called “Vacation Mode.” The goal was simple: I wanted to make sure people who needed me could reach me and that I’d be alerted if someone stole my credit card or my house burned down. Short of that, I wanted my phone to shut up and leave me alone. And, ideally, I also wanted it to actively prevent me from using it whenever possible.

Unfortunately, the reality of Focus falls well short of this idea. The only thing it really controls is your notifications: you can choose specific people whose calls and messages get through and the specific apps that are allowed to light up your phone. This is a good idea; it’s just too much work. You have to manually scroll through all of your contacts and then all of your apps, in alphabetical order, to pick which ones to exclude from the Focus blockade. (The app does offer some AI-powered suggestions in the app picker, but I found them basically useless. No, phone, Vacation Mode does not require calendar notifications.) 

Unfortunately, the only thing Focus really controls is your notifications

Here’s where I eventually landed: I allowed phone calls from “All Contacts” and added Messages, Reminders, WhatsApp, Home, and my banking apps to the list of allowed apps. I also turned off the toggle for “Time Sensitive” notifications because, at least in my experience, there’s nothing remotely time-sensitive about the “Time Sensitive” notifications I get. I turned off all notification badges, too. It wasn’t a perfect setup, but it meant I’d get all my texts and calls from people I know and be alerted to crucial stuff. 

Turning on Vacation Mode drastically reduced my phone’s buzzing and lighting up over the course of a week. It was wonderful, and I didn’t miss anything I actually cared about. But all those notifications Focus mode blocks? They weren’t gone. They were just grouped on my lock screen, one tiny swipe away. And so, every time I picked up my phone, I found myself bombarded by them anyway. When I picked up my phone to check the weather, it was like being transported back to the office, with all the news alerts and Slack updates and unimportant email alerts reappearing — and then, oh fine, I’ll just look at TikTok for a second.

There’s this underlying tension that makes Focus hard to get right. Apple surely knows that showing you a bunch of stuff you don’t want is less of a problem than failing to show you the one truly important thing you needed to see. As a result, the feature is permanently stuck in a place of careful caution. But if Apple really wants to help users take back control of their phones, it needs to make Focus much more aggressive. Most of the tools to do so even already exist! Focus should integrate with Screen Time so that I could say “while I’m in Vacation Mode, only let me use Twitter five minutes a day” instead of having to change that setting separately. Rather than just hiding notifications, Focus should stop them entirely, as if I’d gone into the Notifications settings page and toggled them off. Focus mode currently lets you hide entire pages of your homescreen, but it should let you hide specific apps or widgets or even just rearrange things as soon as you turn on Focus. I don’t just want distractions slightly hidden on my phone while I’m on vacation — I want them gone. All these things should be part of a whole, not partitioned off from each other. And they shouldn’t feel like the Rube Goldberg machine they currently are.

Screenshots of iPhones running Focus modes on iOS 16.
In iOS 16, Focus mode gets some big improvements, including within apps.
Image: Apple

The good news is that it looks like this is where Apple is headed. In iOS 16, for instance, you’ll be able to set up different lock screens for different Focus modes, and it’s working on improving both the setup process and the recommendations you get along the way. The new software also allows you to opt out of things rather than opting in, so instead of saying “only these six apps can reach me,” you can say “everything but these six apps can reach me.” That’ll make getting started with Focus modes a lot easier.

The real key to the future of Focus, though, is the new Focus filter API, which gives developers the ability to change their apps in response to settings you’ve enabled or tweaked in Focus modes. Apple’s own apps are a good guide for what that might look like: in iOS 16, I’ll be able to tweak Vacation Mode to hide my work events in the Calendar app or silence my work email in Mail but still get stuff sent to my personal account. Apple has suggested to developers that they might want to use Focus filters to let people hide specific accounts, turn off their in-app alerts, or even completely change the layout of the app depending on what a person is doing. (You can imagine, for instance, a navigation or music app that might want to look different as soon as you turn on the “Driving” Focus mode.) “Fundamentally, if your app can surface different content based on context,” Apple’s Teja Kondapalli told developers during a WWDC session in June, “you may be able to employ Focus filters to enhance user experience.” 

Developers are getting more features for Focus — but why would they use them?

Sounds great, right? Maybe in a year, I’ll be able to turn on Vacation Mode and have my Slack status automatically change, my auto-responder automatically engage, and all my notifications go away except the ones that really matter. There are two problems with this strategy, though. One, it assumes developers will willingly build less engaging versions of their app with fewer notifications and badges and incitements to pick up your phone. That’s not going to happen. And two, it still puts all the work in users’ hands: you’ll have to configure the Focus filters for each app individually.

Ultimately, though, I do recommend doing the work to set up a few Focus modes. I have a couple of them now, including one that automatically turns on whenever I open the Kindle app so I don’t get distracted by notifications when I’m reading. The feature is both not powerful enough and too complicated to use, but it’s a step in the right direction toward giving me actual control over my phone. I’m back at work, but I’m still in Vacation Mode, and my phone is still mostly quiet. And I might keep it that way.

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