I am currently reading an excellent book called Stolen Focus by Johann Hari. Hari writes about the topic of focus: what it means to be focused, why our ability to focus has been declining over recent years, and what we can do about it. I am only halfway through the book, but I have found it both fascinating and worrying, and it’s got me thinking about the ways that I can cut back on technological distractions. Below are some of the strategies I’ve tried to reduce the unfulfilling time I spend on screens.

Deleting Snapchat

The first step I can remember taking towards reducing digital distractions was deleting Snapchat towards the end of high school. I had used Snapchat for the previous four years, and it served as my primary method of communication with my friends. However, the immediacy of of the platform was really harful for me. I was able to see what people were up to at any moment, using both their stories and the maps. That, in combination with the garbage content that fills the stories screen, was enough to get me to delete the app. It had an immediate effect on my mental health, and I have never regretted the decision.

Deleting apps in favor of websites

One of the steps I took in my first year of college was deleting the Youtube, LinkedIn, and Instagram apps from my phone. I still wanted to be on these platforms, but a less useable interface and more log-in friction helped me to limit my time spent on them. This worked very well for each of these platforms, especially combined with the fact that I always use private browsing, which doesn’t remember my log-in information.

Apple Notification Settings

Recently, I have been experimenting with the notification settings on my iPhone. Apple allows relatively fine-grain control over what apps can give notifications, what those notifications can look and sound like, and when they can appear. Over the last couple months, I’ve been racheting down the notifications my phone can give me. I started by removing the vibrations and tones from many apps, and preventing most notifications from showing up on the lock screen. These changes made me realize how little value many notifications provide, so I ended up removing some entirely.

Most recently, I adjusted the settings so that the only notifications that can show up on my lock screen are text messages, and only phone calls can make my phone vibrate. These changes came after a realization that when I’m in conversation and my phone buzzes in my pocket, part of my attention wanders to what the message could be. It’s nearly always unimportant, and I figure that if someone needs to, they can always call me.

Screen Time Limits

One experiment that was more or less a failure for me was Apple’s screen time limits. These should prevent you from spending more than the allotted amount of daily time on an app, but in practice, they work better as a form of parental control. Almost every time the time limit came up for me when watching Youtube or browsing Instagram, I would simply dismiss it and continue scrolling. The only app I’ve found this to be helpful for is Strava, where I have a ten-minute daily limit set up. Because Strava is so non-addictive compared to other social platforms, the limit serves as more of a gentle reminder that I should be doing something else with my time.

These screen time limits can definitely be useful, but they don’t fit my needs, mostly because I don’t want to rely on someone else to keep the code that locks the screen time settings.

Password managers

In an effort to further limit my useage of Instagram, I had my laptop’s password manager generate a random password for my account, which I have not memorized. Because I don’t know the password, this prevents me from logging on using my phone, and so I won’t spend half an hour scrolling through reels in bed. I can now only use Instagram on my laptop, which I don’t do often, so this allows me to continue using the platform to keep up with friends, but without falling victim to the algorithm. This is sort of an unconventional step, but I’ve found it works very well.

Youtube personalization settings

In the last six months, Youtube has absolutely been my worst time sink. I’d get sucked in for hours on end, convincing myself that I was learning something, but really just wasting a lot of time. I thought that this problem had to be solved by pure will, because I still wanted to be able to use Youtube to look up tutorials for school and work, and to enjoy high-quality, long-form entertainment. I also couldn’t use the same tricks I had used above, because I use my Google account everywhere, for all sorts of things.

However, last week my friend told me that you can completely remove personalization from Youtube, along with all your previous watch history. This would mean that Youtube would have nothing to recommend to me except for the channels I was subscribed to. I tried it out, and it’s been amazing. Over the last week, I’ve spent so much more time reading because of this change alone.


I’ve found these tricks very helpful in limiting my screentime, although it took a lot of experimenting to find strategies that worked. Maybe you’ll find one of them helpful yourself!

I do think that the manipulative design of free platforms like Instagram, Youtube, and Snapchat is concerning, so I am going to continue to explore ways I can limit my exposure to them, while tapping into the benefits they offer. If you want to learn more about the topic, I would absolutely recommend Stolen Focus.