Distraction-free apps won't help you focus. Here’s what will. | Cult of Mac

Distraction-free apps won’t help you focus. Here’s what will.


Like a Vegas casino carpet, our devices overstimulate our brains. Distraction-free apps won't help.
Like a Vegas casino carpet, our devices overstimulate our brains.
Photo: Michael Winters/Flickr CC

“Distraction-free” apps are ridiculous. They don’t help at all. In fact, if you have trouble focusing on the task on hand, then the problem isn’t the app. The problem is you.

Removing clutter from an app’s interface won’t stop you from flipping to Twitter every five minutes. A carefully chosen font won’t stop you from whipping your iPhone from your pocket every time a question pops into your head.

The problem is not even distraction. The problem is overstimulation, and it’s going to take some effort for you to fix it.

“Distraction-free” doesn’t have the cachet it used to, but it’s still a thing. A quick DuckDuckGo search of Cult of Mac shows plenty of results where the author described an app as “distraction-free.” This usually means the app sports a “clean” user interface (and probably makes you tap deep into menus to actually get anything done).

Just this week, The Sweet Setup wrote about the “Distraction-Free iPhone.” The post recommends “taming” notifications and deleting all social media, email, streaming video, news, work messaging and web browsers from your phone. At that point, you may as well leave the thing at home.

We certainly spend plenty of time distracted by our iPhones. People seem to think it’s OK to check Instagram while you’re in the middle of a conversation with them. These are probably the same people who keep their AirPods or earbuds in their ears while talking to a checkout clerk. But the reason for our constant need to stare at a screen comes from within.

We are overstimulated — and we are addicted to that overstimulation.

Quick hits

The only way to stop being distracted by your iPhone is to stop using it so much. Did you ever take a weekend trip where you spent a lot of time with other people, or engaged in physical tasks like hiking or canoeing, so you hardly used your phone at all? Maybe you were camping outside of cellular coverage, and only took photos.

When I do this, I find that when I pull out my iPad when I get home Sunday evening, nothing seems important. I can’t see the point of checking my news app or catching up on Twitter.


Overstimulation comes from plenty of directions. We are reading Twitter, and we get a notification from WhatsApp. We check it, and follow the link in the message. That link reminds us we wanted to buy that thing on Amazon. And so it goes on.

The biggest distraction for me is when I pull out my iPhone to check the weather forecast, or snap a photo, and there’s a notification of the screen that sends me off down a rabbit hole. Five minutes later, I’m standing there in the street, wondering what I was going to do.

Whenever we use our phones, those quick info-hits are just like drug hits. We get a nice squirt of dopamine into our system, and we want more. It’s a genuine addiction. Here’s Trevor Haynes writing for Harvard University:

Although not as intense as hit of cocaine, positive social stimuli will similarly result in a release of dopamine, reinforcing whatever behavior preceded it. Cognitive neuroscientists have shown that rewarding social stimuli—laughing faces, positive recognition by our peers, messages from loved ones—activate the same dopaminergic reward pathways.

How to get off the iPhone drug

Kicking the iPhone habit is easy, and hard. It’s easy, because all you have to do is stop using your iPhone so much. If you reduce the stimulation, you reduce the need for getting another hit. And it’s hard, because of course we’re all addicted.

But it’s worth the effort of keeping it in your pants (or fanny pack). Our constant flitting from “task” to “task” shortens our attention span and reduces our ability to focus, says Chris Bailey, Ted talker and author of Hyperfocus. If you can reduce the stimulation, then you can increase your ability to focus.

You’ll be able to spend hours on tasks that previously bored you after a few minutes. These might be creative tasks, like producing music, or they may just be work tasks, which you’ll be able to get done more quickly if you don’t keep tweeting instead of working.

Enjoy boredom

Bailey recommends letting your mind wander. How? By boring it. Just stare at a clock. If you’re in a supermarket checkout queue, just wait, without Facebook or podcasts. If you’re on a train, look out the window. My favorite trick is to take a walk late at night, after the bustle of the day has died down.

It’s almost meditative, and my mind soon drifts. I have ideas for articles, for how to finish that song I’ve been working on — even for great new flavors of ice cream. And if you need to write something down, use a pen and notebook. In fact, leave your iPhone at home if you’re not yet strong enough to resist its temptations.

Don’t fall for distraction-free apps

The answer, then, is that you have some work ahead of you. You must resist the temptations of your iPhone, your Mac or any other quick hit of delicious instant information. Leave your phone in your pocket. Make a paper note. Use those “boring” everyday situations to let your mind rest.

Before long, you’ll be able to focus on anything you like (or don’t like), and you’ll be back in charge of your own brain. Like training your body to get fit, you’ll have to put in the time and effort, but the results are more than worth it. And whatever you do, don’t download any distraction-free wellness apps.


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