The iPhone’s focus mode is almost the perfect holiday detox tool

Two Fridays ago, right before I left for a week’s vacation to Florida, I went through my pre-trip digital routine. I set my Slack status to “Vacation” with a palm tree emoji and paused notifications until further notice. I’ve turned on Gmail’s auto-reply. 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 turn off your work apps on weekends, turn off notifications while you’re reading or sleeping, or just notify you of new emails from 9am to 5pm and not a moment later. It’s really just an extension of Do Not Disturb, but it gives you more specific control and allows you to have different setups for different situations.

My new focus mode was called “Vacation Mode.” The goal was simple: I wanted to make sure that people who needed me could reach me and that I would be notified 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 the Focus falls far short of this idea. The only thing it really controls are your notifications: you can choose specific people whose calls and messages come 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 your contacts and then all your apps, in alphabetical order, to select which ones you want to exclude from the Focus block. (The app offers some AI-powered suggestions in the app chooser, but I found them basically useless. No, Phone, Vacation Mode doesn’t require calendar notifications.)

Here’s where I finally 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’ve also turned off the switch for “Time Sensitive” notifications because, at least in my experience, there’s nothing remotely time sensitive about the “Time Sensitive” notifications I get. I’ve also turned off all notification flags. It wasn’t a perfect setup, but it meant I got all my texts and calls from people I know and was notified of important things.

Turning on vacation mode drastically reduced the phone’s buzzing and lighting over the course of a week. It was amazing and I didn’t miss anything I actually cared about. But all these notifications block focus mode? They weren’t gone. They were just grouped together on my lock screen, one little swipe away. And so, every time I picked up my phone, I was 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 popping up again — and then, oh fine, I’m just going to watch TikTok for one second.

It’s this underlying tension that makes Focus difficult 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 really important thing you needed to see. As a result, the function becomes permanently stuck in a place with careful caution. But if Apple really wants to help users take back control of their phones, it needs to make the Focus much more aggressive. Most of the tools to do that already exist! Focus should be integrated with Screen Time so I can say “while I’m in vacation mode, let me only use Twitter for five minutes a day” instead of having to change that setting separately. Instead of just hiding notifications, Focus should stop them completely, as if I had gone into the notification settings page and turned them off. Focus mode currently lets you hide entire pages on the home screen, 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 separated from each other. And they shouldn’t feel like the Rube Goldberg machine they are at the moment.

Screenshots of iPhones running Focus Mode on iOS 16.

In iOS 16, focus mode gets some big improvements, including in apps.
Image: Apple

The good news is that it looks like that’s where Apple is headed. In iOS 16, for example, you’ll be able to set up different lock screens for different focus modes, and it’s working to improve both the setup process and the recommendations you get along the way. The new software also lets you opt out of things instead of choosing, so instead of saying “only these six apps can reach me,” you can say “everything but these six apps can reach me.” It will make getting started with focus modes much easier.

However, the real key to the future of Focus is the new Focus filter API, which gives developers the ability to change their apps in response to settings you’ve enabled or adjusted in Focus modes. Apple’s own apps are a good guide to what that might look like: in iOS 16, I’ll be able to adjust vacation mode to hide my work events in the Calendar app or turn off my work email in Mail, but still have things 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 notifications in the app, or even completely change the layout of the app depending on what a person is doing. (For example, imagine a navigation or music app that might look different as soon as you turn on “Run” focus mode.) “Basically, if your app can show different content based on context,” Apple’s Teja Kondapalli said to developers during a WWDC session in June, “you might be able to use Focus filters to improve the user experience.”

Sounds good, right? Maybe in a year I’ll be able to turn on vacation mode and have my Slack status automatically change, the auto-reply automatically activate, and all my notifications disappear except for the ones that really matter. However, there are two problems with this strategy. First, it assumes that developers will build less engaging versions of their app with fewer notifications and badges and calls to pick up your phone. That will not happen. And two, it still puts all the work in the hands of the users: you have to configure the Focus filters for each app individually.

Ultimately though, I recommend doing the work of setting up a few focus modes. I have a couple of them now, including one that automatically turns on when I open the Kindle app so I’m not 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 towards 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 silent. And I can keep it that way.

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