Shortcuts and Focus Modes

After showing off my current Homescreen setup a couple folks sent me texts and emails asking for more detail.

Magic Phone

A quick recap of my use cases (that haven't changed since my first post:)

Ideally I want a "magic phone:" I pick it up, I press one button that does the task I need, then I put the phone down. I am trying to minimize getting sucked into the engaging "infinite pools" of attention-draining apps (as useful as they are!)

At home I typically open my phone to answer one of two questions: "what event is coming up next?" and "what do I have left to do in my day?"

At work I'm answering the same questions, but it's more of a second screen to my work computer… unless I'm taking it along with an analog notebook on a focus session or meeting.

My Setup

Some hidden assumptions of my particular phone and usage:

  • I don't have email on my phone.
  • I don't have games on my phone.
  • I've disabled nearly all Notification Badges, even in the App Library.
  • I have carefully groomed all notifications to those that prompt useful action. No sales notifications, sales updates, social media likes. What's left: family messaging, event notifications, and task reminders.

When I wake up I try to restrict my phone usage until I have finished "first things first." As an ally I have a Focus Mode1 called Morning. Morning helps me stay focused on my quiet time and workout, and hides the other things that I don't need to be worrying about yet.


After my morning routine I enter my normal day with my normal "non-focus" Homescreen2. This Homescreen's major feature is a widget Shortcut3 launcher.

Homescreen launcher menu

This shortcut3 is simple: You can organize shortcuts into folders since iOS14, so I have a collection of "Spaces" shortcuts and the launcher merely gets the list of Shortcuts from that folder and presents it.

spaces launcher menu

If I reorder the shortcuts in the folder or rename them… the launcher still works perfectly.


Most of the Shortcuts3 in Spaces are pretty straightforward: launch an app with an action. A couple of them use DataJar to store and retrieve preferences. A good example is the Workout shortcut, which answers the question "what workout should I do today?" without getting me distracted. One button.

Most of the "Spaces" in the launcher follow that same pattern: automating the little daily decisions so I can simply answer the question "what am I doing today?" Another similar one: Navigating.

Almost every time I get in my car:

  • I go find Google Maps.
  • I type in my home address manually.
  • I start the Directions
  • I open Messages.
  • I type in a manually created text to my wife letting her know where I am and where I'm headed.

So now I have one button that does all of this:

navigate shortcut
  1. I select my own contact card. I have all my important locations as fields on my Contact Card.
  2. I present a menu to choose from the names of the Street Addresses.
  3. I open Google Maps from my Current Location to the Chosen Item
  4. I can start the Driving Directions.
  5. I present an alert "Notify Your Wife?"
  6. If I choose "Yes," it sends a preformatted text to Sarah letting her know how long it'll take me to arrive and where I'm headed.

This is the "Magic Button" at its best: One button, and I can put my phone down.

For the odd moments where I find myself doing some day-job work away from my desk I have a Shortcut for tracking time:

deep shortcuts
  1. I prompt for "intention," much like my Headspace script on Mac.
  2. I start a Timery Timer on a Project labeled Deep using my input.
  3. I start the Deep Focus Mode[^focus]
  4. I list out the work days:
  5. If the current day is a workday: Open Things to my Anytime list filtered to work, else just open to my Anytime list unfiltered (weekend tasks!)

Once again… taking the small thoughts and actions out of the picture so that I can just act.

Layout brings consistency

I prefer using the main launcher on the Homescreen because that means that I can "change" the UI in different Focus Modes1 by changing Homescreens. For instance, I have a "Deep" mode and the only thing I want to do in that mode is focus… I don't need to see the list of things I can do, just how much time do I have and what am I supposed to be doing.

Homescreen deep

Do, or do not.

These techniques are just tools. If you subscribe to my objective: minimizing phone usage while still getting the benefits of a supercomputer in your pocket, they could be beneficial to you, but you shouldn't copy me outright.

Take some time to reflect on the major tasks and questions you have when you grab your phone. Not what app you are using, but what do you want to do. Then see if there are some ways to cut some steps out of what you currently do. This is automating your user experience.

A lot of this stuff is overkill for most iPhone users. I wager that most users will get the most benefit out of simply auditing their notifications. By reducing the noise of all the "new update!" or "play my game!" spam, they could start using their phone as a tool. For years I treated my phone as a pet to be soothed every time it buzzed, carefully grooming the angry red circles off its Homescreens to keep it happy and well fed with attention.

Now it's a meaningful tool that serves me. I am not going back.

  1. Focus Modes are an extension of the existing Do Not Disturb. A Focus Mode by default blocks all app notifications and contacts except what you specifically choose. 

    Focus Modes give some useful tools:

    • enter Focus Modes manually or Shortcuts, or Personal Automations
    • set Custom Homescreens for each Focus Mode (except Driving).
    • trigger Shortcuts through Personal Automations when entering and leaving Focus Modes.

    iOS 15: How to Create a Focus - macrumors

  2. The longer I use my phone to accomplish a task, the more likely I'm going to use my phone mindlessly for a looong time. iOS Widgets help me accomplish my goal: getting what I need out of my phone without having to dive through applications with the possibility of being distracted. 

    I like widgets with big information panels that answer my questions:

    iOS 15: How to Use Home Screen Widgets - macrumors

  3. Shortcuts is Apple's approved cross-platform automation system for iOS. By using Shortcuts actions I can access an application's functionality without having to go digging for it through my folders and in the application. 

    iOS Shortcuts: The Ultimate Guide for Resources, Examples, Libraries, Triggers, and More - thesweetsetup

  • 2022-06-08 11:31:29 -0500
    Rename articles

  • 2022-02-01 11:31:58 -0600
    Fix broken URL

  • 2022-01-26 10:48:52 -0600
    Update footnotes

  • 2022-01-26 10:44:13 -0600
    New Post: Focus Modes and Shortcuts