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Jonathan Foote, Security Dad

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Stowing distracting MacOS apps (personal edition)

Stowing distracting Android apps

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Stowing distracting Android apps


In this post I’ll explain an effective approach to isolate attention-consuming apps on a Pixel 3A running Google Android 11.

Mobile app isolation

If my phone was a pirate ship...

I felt more control over my attention after making this change. In fact I soon found time to write this very text (my first post in five years!).

Stowing apps

The idea is to keep distracting apps installed, but make them harder to use. Stow away any app that is used compulsively (without thinking) or that is distracting. For me this includes all web browsers and email clients 🌐📬⛔️😵.

I can still get to these apps if I need them, but it is a PITA. So I am forced to stop-and-think if my interaction with them is intentional.

Design

I’m using a Pixel 3A with the latest version of Android 11 distributed by Google, but this should work for a variety of Android devices. Here is how I isolated my distracting apps:

Step 1: Move distracting apps to a separate User Account

Account picker

An account picker is available from the system pull-down menu when multiple user accounts are activated.

Move all apps that cause me to compulsively check my phone to a separate Android user account (Nexus docs). This includes all web browsers.

  1. Create a new Android user account. You can check the Nexus docs for a guide or just search for “user account” in Android Settings.

  2. Disable Google Smart Lock and fingerprint access for this account. These options can both be found via Android Settings.

  3. Put an excessively long, but memorable passcode on this account. Make it as close to the allowed limit (currently 16 characters) as possible.

  4. Install and configure distracting apps like web browsers, email clients and Slack.

Overall this has an effect of creating a momentary pause before I access the new account. This pause triggers me to decide if access is intentional or impulsive. It also makes operating within the account slightly more cumbersome, which encourages me not to use it for an extended period of time.

Step 2: Keep all work apps in an Android Work Profile in my default account

Work profile

Disabled Work Profile

  1. Configure an Android Work Profile for work apps within the default account. This can require MDM feature support, which thankfully my corporate IT department provides.

  2. Disable Smart Lock as a mini-barrier to compulsive checking of work messages.

Overall this allows me to keep both my default (non-distracting) account and Work Profile active while I work. I can turn off my work apps when I am not intentionally engaged with work. When my Work Profile is disabled, if someone at work needs me urgently they can call, text, or page me. I can then activate my Work Profile and join they fray.

Step 3: Remove distracting apps from my default account

  1. Disable Chrome and Gmail in my default account. I find the slot-machine effect of Gmail and look-up-random-stuff capability of Chrome super tempting. You can’t delete these apps, but disabling them works for these purposes.

  2. Remove all other distracting apps from this account including all browsers. I started with apps I knew I checked compulsively. Then each time I found myself compulsively checking an app, I removed it from my default account and added it to my distracting account.

  3. Keep access to this account as convenient as comfortable. I use both the fingerprint reader and Smart Lock presently. Sometimes I turn those off when I am travelling.

Overall this makes it easy to quickly take photos, keep notes, access books and music, and so on. It is important to remove all apps that I check compulsively or automatically to get the desired effect. I’ve found that the leftovers provide a nearly all the capability I expect from my smartphone. And all capabilities are available when you need them.

Disclaimer: This is a hack

This is an odd use of these features, so Android might change them in a way that breaks this approach. I figure taking huge amounts of your attention away from the products of Google and co. costs them money, so they are unlikely to invest significant resources in supporting features to do it.

Also tuning methods of interaction with digital devices is personal. The best fit for you depends on how you think and live. For me, this means periodically revisiting how I interact with devices and changing my approach to improve it. The approach here has worked well for me but YMMV.

Early results

I felt my thought patterns change immediately after making this change. Impulses to check email, Slack, news, and lookup superfluous info were naturally checked. My mind has felt clearer as a result.

No browser

No browser until I decide to switch users

Some activities, like browsing to a URL sent via SMS, are harder. This felt unexpectedly odd, like not getting to pop bubble wrap. It’s not always convenient, but by-and-large I’ve found delaying or skipping these cognitive redirections worthwhile.

Graph

rescuetime data for November 2020 mobile usage

I’ve used my “distracting” profile several times to get things done intentionally, but so far my mobile usage is down significantly. I plan to review my usage data in a few weeks to identify any patterns with more confidence.

Next up: laptops

Next, I am going to see if I can do something similar for my personal UI device, a MacBook. Finally I’ll see what I improvements I can make to interactions with my professional-use MacBook. I plan to continue to collect data on how these changes are affecting my digital interaction along the way.

Thanks for reading! If you have any feedback, questions or want to chat about this sort of thing feel free to drop me a line.