Focus modes were built to let people choose which apps were available at any given moment, effectively blocking them from view and controlling which notifications could punch through. It was marketed as a way for people to be more intentional about how they use their iPhones and iPads. And I thought it was a waste of time.
Not only were they overly complicated to set up and use, but Focus modes never really seemed to do what they were supposed to. Sure, you could set up different Home screens and whatnot, but why bother?
And then Focus filters arrived with iOS 16 and changed everything. And I think they can make healthy changes to your digital life, too.
So much more than Focus modes
So what are Focus Filters exactly?
In short, Focus Filters do what Focus modes should have done all along by not just hiding entire apps from view, but dipping inside them and controlling what kinds of data those apps do and do not display.
What does that mean? It means all kinds of things. You can have your calendar app only display work calendars when you're actually working, for example. The same goes for your email, too. And that's just the start. If the app you use has been updated to add support for Focus Filters, you can tailor your entire iPhone and iPad experience to match your needs. And at any given moment, too.
How I'm using Focus Filters to be more present
As someone who works from home and freelance, it's very easy to find yourself working all the time. Not necessarily sitting at a keyboard and bashing out words, but working in the general sense. Checking emails, keeping tabs on what's going on in the Apple world, that kind of thing. If I'm not careful I find myself doing that all the time — in the evenings and, most problematic, during the weekends.
While there's a school of thought that I should just be a big grown-up and control myself, I've proven pretty categorically that I can't do that. Enter Focus Filters.
I was skeptical about what Focus Filters could offer mainly because Focus modes were so, well, "meh." But after using them for a few months I can say that they've changed my weekends. Changing my life might be a bit much, but it's a start!
It's all surprisingly simple, but the key is that it's also automatic.
On Saturday morning my weekend Focus mode kicks in, bringing the new Focus filters with it. That means that my iPhone's wallpaper changes to a photo of my wife and kids and my Apple Watch Ultra does the same — yes, this works on the Apple Watch as well.
The same Focus mode reorganizes my Home screen to remove most work-related apps and replaces them with the apps I need to keep track of sports scores and whatnot. My work widgets are jettisoned at the same time.
Next, those Focus Filters kick in. And this is where the magic happens.
Focusing on the right things
Fantastical, my calendaring app of choice, ditches all of my work calendars and only displays my personal ones. I can get them back if I need to, but at a glance, they don't exist. I still see when the family appointments are, but I don't see when Apple's next event is. Perfect.
It's the same with the Mail app. My personal email remains, but my (too many) work email accounts no longer show up, and I don't get any notifications for them either. Again, all that email is there if I need to dip in, but I'm no longer bashed over the head by it.
Messages is another example of where Focus Filters work their magic. At the weekend, only friends and family appear in the entire app. The number of chat conversations that disappear instantly reminds me that I probably don't have enough friends, but that's another problem for another day.
Back over in the world of third-party apps, Drafts also supports Focus Filters. That means that now, at the weekend, I don't see any of the notes I made through the week because they're tagged just so. I dip into Drafts all the time to take quick notes and reminders — it's brilliant not being confronted with work stuff when I don't need it.
By the time all of that is done, my devices are completely different to what they were the Friday before. And unlike the sledgehammer that is Focus modes, Focus Filters still gives me access to the apps I need all week round without showing me the content that I don't need. That's a huge difference.
A new approach to your devices
All of this brings me back to why I think Focus Filters could be an important change to the way we all interact with our devices. They've changed my game. And they can change yours, too.
As I said earlier, I've been guilty of working too much. And working when I shouldn't. As a result, I haven't always been as present as I should have been.
If, like me, you wish that you could switch off from distractions at the times when that truly matters — when you're with your loved ones — Focus Filters could be the tool you've been waiting for. It isn't a silver bullet, and the workaholics amongst us will still find work when they want it. But Focus Filters ensure that work doesn't jump out at you every time you touch your iPhone. It isn't always present.
Now sure, not touching your iPhone in the first place would be better, I get that. But we live in a world where that just isn't possible. We use these things for everything, and that isn't necessarily a bad thing. But we need ways to make them work for us, not against us.
With Focus Filters, I think I might finally have found a way to do that. And I think that you could do that too.
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Oliver Haslam has written about Apple and the wider technology business for more than a decade with bylines on How-To Geek, PC Mag, iDownloadBlog, and many more. He has also been published in print for Macworld, including cover stories. At iMore, Oliver is involved in daily news coverage and, not being short of opinions, has been known to 'explain' those thoughts in more detail, too.
Having grown up using PCs and spending far too much money on graphics card and flashy RAM, Oliver switched to the Mac with a G5 iMac and hasn't looked back. Since then he's seen the growth of the smartphone world, backed by iPhone, and new product categories come and go. Current expertise includes iOS, macOS, streaming services, and pretty much anything that has a battery or plugs into a wall. Oliver also covers mobile gaming for iMore, with Apple Arcade a particular focus. He's been gaming since the Atari 2600 days and still struggles to comprehend the fact he can play console quality titles on his pocket computer.