How the Apple Watch can help battle your iPhone addiction

Apple Watch with no notifications
Apple Watch with no notifications (Image credit: iMore)

Smartphone usage has gotten completely out of hand, though I doubt that's breaking news to anyone. Whether you're sitting at home with your significant other or you're out with friends, you'll see smartphones popping up almost everywhere you look. The time we should spend talking and communicating with one another is instead spent behind glowing screens filled with Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, RSS feeds, and YouTube.

I don't think we mean to get as engrossed as we do, but it happens. I'm guilty of it myself. My iPhone buzzes or beeps and instinct tells me to reach for it. I only intend to respond to a single message, but Twitter grabs my attention, or an incoming email pulls me further down the rabbit hole. It's over; I've checked out of the conversation happening around me.

Putting the smackdown on iPhone notifications

About a year ago I decided to make a conscious effort to seriously limit the amount of time I was spending with technology outside of work hours. I started by whittling down notifications — every device of mine now has its own notification scheme.

My iPad serves two extremes for me: a workhorse for uninterrupted writing while on the go, and a leisure device when lounging around the house. For this reason, my iPad lives in Do Not Disturb mode. I couldn't think of a legitimate reason to receive notifications on my iPad, so I don't.

My iPhone buzzes or beeps, and instinct tells me to reach for it.

My iPhone came next. The first thing I did was strictly limit Lock screen access. Only six apps have access to my Lock screen: Passbook, Fantastical, Todoist, Phone, Messages, and Slack. I based these choices on what is most important during the work day and after. The rest can wait.

To better triage Mail, I've made good use of VIP contacts. I've left badges on for all email, but only VIP contacts play an audible sound. This way I know if I need to check my inbox quickly to see if something needs my attention. Since Messages don't have a VIP system just yet, I've made good use of Do Not Disturb for individual threads and differentiating text tones for important contacts.

Most other apps on my iPhone only have the ability to show a banner while my iPhone is in use. Other than that, I rely on app icon badges. I like these two options because they're the least obtrusive; when I have a few spare minutes to check notifications, badges and banners get my attention, but they don't interrupt what I'm doing.

I've made slight changes to notifications on both of my Macs — mainly to block out social media noise. If I'm on a computer, I'm most likely working; as such, messages via Skype, iMessage, Slack, and any other services are fair game. In general, though, I pay much less attention to Mac notifications as a whole when I'm focused. It's never been as big of a problem as iOS notifications are for me.

The breaking point

Since I toned down notifications across my devices, it's been easier to pay more attention to the people around me. As my phone usage lowered, it was much more obvious that I wasn't the only person battling this problem. The first time it hit me was at a family gathering last year: I had been using Do Not Disturb during these kinds of things and setting my iPhone down somewhere, so as not to tempt myself. One particular evening after dinner, we all migrated to the living room. It quickly got very quiet, and I noticed that I was the only person not on my iPhone. After a few minutes of silence, I relented and grabbed my own iPhone. Mission not accomplished.

Unfortunately, this was the first of many incidents. I started to realize that smartphone addiction doesn't limit itself to tech enthusiasts: It extends to almost anyone with a smartphone at their disposal. That isn't to say I don't have a handful of friends and family members who don't have this problem; they're just few and far between these days.

Battling technology... with technology

I was very skeptical of the Apple Watch when it was announced — largely because of these public habits. I had a very brief excursion with a Pebble, but only wore it for a single day before leaving it on my desk to collect dust. Notifications were obtrusive, almost nothing was customizable, and I found it to be more distracting than it was useful.

To my surprise, the Apple Watch has been a delightfully different experience. While my tweaked notification system has been immensely helpful in social situations, it can't prevent me from getting sucked in once I do unlock my iPhone for something important. As much as I try not to, it still happens from time to time. That's where Apple Watch comes in.

It only took a few days to realize how much it was helping me stay off my iPhone. I decided to try and use my Apple Watch as the foremost frontline for notifications. I immediately went into settings and turned off notifications that weren't necessary. I have sounds disabled altogether on my Apple Watch but leave the haptics on at their highest setting.

Life is about interacting with people and the world around us. Technology should only ever play the supporting role.

The haptic system in the Apple Watch is hands down one of its best features. While I notice them, no one else around me does: It's a vastly different experience. They're also not harsh enough to prevent me from ignoring them if I choose to. It allows me to keep my iPhone in a purse or pocket where it won't distract me, or more importantly, anyone else around me. I haven't taken my iPhone off vibrate in weeks, and that's a new experience for me.

My partner also purchased an Apple Watch and immediately found herself having an easier time triaging what really needs her attention as opposed to what just wants it. I've seen her daily stress level plummet, and that makes both of us happy. We're also spending a lot more time talking to each other in the evenings and are both much less concerned with our smartphones. If something really important happens, Apple Watch lets us know. Everything else waits.

Technology is meant to enhance our everyday lives, not take them over. The Apple Watch has quickly brought me back to reality, and I don't think that's an accident. Apple's ad campaign for Apple Watch confirms Apple's intentions: Life is about interacting with people and the world around us. Technology should only ever play the supporting role. The Apple Watch isn't another gadget to connect you to your iPhone, it's meant to help you disconnect.

I'm starting my work days earlier because I'm less concerned with unnecessary notifications. Since I'm less distracted throughout the day, I find myself forgetting less and triaging more. That leaves my nights truly free to do what I'd like without feeling like I should be doing something else. Whether that's enjoying a long visit with my mom, playing a game of cards with my partner, or crushing candies on my iPad, I finally feel like it's my time, and that's a feeling I haven't experienced in a while — and that makes the Apple Watch worth it for me.

While it's helped me tune back into the real world, how someone chooses to utilize the Apple Watch can result in vastly different experiences. So what about you? How do you use your Apple Watch on a day to day basis? Has it helped you disconnect from your iPhone? I'd love to hear about your experiences in the comments below!

iMore senior editor from 2011 to 2015.

20 Comments
  • I have to agree with these observations. I too bought the Apple Watch primarily for it's fitness features and that has a been a bit of a let down. However, what has really surprised me is that it allows me to control my communications in ways I never imagined. Instead of my iPhone controlling me, I'm now able to see who's trying to reach me at a glance and decide what to do with it.
  • Nice read Ally. I'm looking forward to mine.. June 21 - July 8th! ugg.. Hurry up Apple! :D
  • Me too. The wait is so long lol.
  • Yes, it's true: I am less preoccupied with the iPhone. I can leave it near my Mac/in my office or elsewhere in the house and not worry I'll miss something important. But the best thing is that I don't have to pull it out when I'm working with clients or in public--I just look at my wrist. (The first time I took a call on my watch was strange but cool!) Another great thing is not pulling it out at the gym or doing roadwork. Just adjust volume or change tracks from my wrist. Awesome. One bit of advice when you first get the watch: be patient with the learning curve and new habits. I've noticed it's taking time to learn all the features and ways to take advantage of the watch--even when I've read about a feature, it still takes time before I remember to use it. It'll probably be another few months before I'm as proficient and efficient with it as I am with the iPhone.
  • Great article. I can't tell you how I use my Apple Watch, since it won't come for another 9 days minimum, but I can tell you what I plan to use it for. Fitness Tracking is job 1, since I am a type 2 diabetic. I'll also use that 2 GB of space set aside on the Apple Watch for music, since I like to listen to music while I mow the lawn. I currently use an iPod Shuffle, but I won't need that anymore. The Apple Watch has an iPod Shuffle built in (using bluetooth headphones, of course)! I know I'll also love Glances, and Messages notifications. I'd use Apple Pay also, but its not accepted many places around me. I use it at McDonalds, but that is about it. Like Ally, I won't have lots of notifications going to my Apple Watch, nor will I use lots of 3rd party apps. I know I'll use Weather Underground's Apple Watch app, and possibly Rdio, if they have one. ESPN will also be a must. That's the only three I can think of, for now. I certainly can't wait to get it!
  • There is no way that a tiny little watch will ever replace my iPhone 6 Plus or my iPad Air, its just another extension of the two, I don't see it necessary to spend 350 bucks on a watch that you really don't need but it is appealing.
  • Did you bother reading the article? I said none of those things. Sent from the iMore App
  • I've had a similar experience. I travel for work occasionally, and my traveling companion on the last trip noticed that my hands were always free...instead of pulling my phone out constantly to make sure I didn't miss a message (in a noisy airport or street, where iPhone isn't loud enough for me to hear), I had everything I needed on my wrist, including boarding passes! I feel like this is the first piece of technology I've owned that hasn't changed my habits for the worse...I'm utilizing the technology to make my life better, not busier. I love that I can pat my 5 year old on the back and hold my 3 year old's hand while they go to sleep, and if I don't like the music on my iPhone dock across the room, I can fast forward without disturbing either of them.
  • I enjoyed your article. I actually dismissed getting the watch at first since I categorized it as being nothing more than a notification sponge/presenter, if that makes sense. I do see your mentality of forcing oneself to stay off your phone by letting the watch present the most dire notifications. You were spot on that once you're on your phone, the little red corner dots take over your curiosity. Since these would not be present on the watch, I can see how it would help people become distracted less. The next question becomes, if one purpose of the watch is to only show the important notifications, what other strong purpose should it have?
  • Glances are immensely useful. I never launch weather apps or other quick informative type apps. The watch is great for those. And again it mitigates the potential of me getting sucked in by other things. Sent from the iMore App
  • Just curious what was obtrusive about the notifications on the Pebble watch? Getting notifications without having to pull out my phone every time is the only reason I have a Pebble at all.
  • But now you are addicted to your smartwatch. Posted via the iMore App for Android
  • Not at all. I only bother to look at it when something important happens. Otherwise it functions as a mere watch and fitness tracker. Sent from the iMore App
  • Nice article. I like the focus on the bigger picture around us and how technology like the Apple Watch can help in that aspect.
  • This has been my favorite Apple Watch article so far! Trust me I've read A LOT while researching and then waiting, still waiting for my Apple Watch.
  • So let me get this straight, Apple sells an addictive product, and they sell the cure for it? Reminds me of the plot of Mission Impossible 2 where the terrorists planned to unleash a deadly disease on the world so they could make money selling the cure for it. Interesting... Posted via the iMore App for Android
  • I've had a very similar experience to Ally. I spent a lot of money on an iPhone 6 Plus when it came out and used it a lot, that is until I got the Apple Watch, and my iPhone usage dropped about 75%. Now it mostly sits in my belt case as an expensive dumb communications hub for the watch.
    The Apple Watch to my surprise is helping me live a more active life, socially, physically and time wise. I already had a phone and didn't want to get an Apple Watch thinking it was something I didn't need. Turns out though it's really the phone I don't need.
  • Personally, my Watch experience has vascillated between not noticing it at all (ie fading into the background, in a good way) and every few days, living out an Apple commercial. I find it especially useful when my hands are full. At a BBQ last weekend, I was playing DJ while getting an avalanche of texts from my wife - all while pouring charcoal, enjoying a drink, eating powder-covered chips, etc. Having said that, I hope Watch OS 2.0 makes it easier to use hands-free! Tilt to scroll, less dependence on tapping "Reply" and "Send", etc.
  • I feel like I've always found it pretty easy to ignore notifications especially when I'm trying to do something specific. But even then my iPhone use has diminished as it's not always in my hand, lap, or lying around in front of me. With the watch I just get notified when anythings going on, and I when I get on my phone it's because I have some free time and want to mess around with web browsing etc. not because I see it sitting around and get on for no reason. Sent from the iMore App
  • Nice work Ally
    you mentioned the haptic feature, It's sooooo good, nobody else knows, put a price on that!!!!!
    One of the biggest things for me is NOT pulling my iPhone out every times it vibrates or bleeps, I had previously muted most of the notifications but some still come through like SMS from your carries or calendar reminders, simply glancing at the watch is so much better. After 2 weeks I’m still learning what you should do with the watch and what you can’t, it’ll be interesting to see where it goes in 12-18 months