Screenshot of an iPhone running Focus mode on iOS 16.

The iPhone’s Focus Mode is Almost the Perfect Holiday Detox Tool

Two Fridays ago, just before I went to Florida for a week-long vacation, I finished my pre-trip digital routine. I use the palm tree emoji to set my Slack status to “vacation” and snooze notifications until further notice. I turned on Gmail’s autoresponder. I deleted a bunch of apps from my phone that just distracted me from poolside bliss.

The last thing I did was grab my iPhone and create a new Focus mode. In case you didn’t know, Focus is a new iOS feature designed to let you quickly switch your phone from one context to another. You can set it to turn off your work apps on weekends, turn off notifications while you’re reading or sleeping, or just remind you of new emails between 9am and 5pm (not later). It’s really just an extension of Do Not Disturb, but it gives you more specific control and lets you set it differently for different situations.

My new focus mode is called “vacation mode”. The goal is simple: I want to make sure that people who need me can reach me, and if someone steals my credit card or my house burns down, I get an alert. Other than that, I want my phone to turn off and leave me alone. And, ideally, I also want it to actively prevent me from using it as much as possible.

Unfortunately, the reality of Focus is far from this idea. The only thing it really controls is your notifications: you can choose which specific people calls and messages go through and which specific apps are allowed to light up your phone. It’s a good idea; too much work. You have to manually scroll through all contacts and then alphabetically through all apps to select contacts to exclude from focus blocking. (The app does offer some AI-driven suggestions in the app selector, but I found them largely useless. No, the phone, vacation mode doesn’t require calendar notifications.)

This is where I ended up landing: I allowed calls from “All Contacts” and added the Messages, Reminders, WhatsApp, Home and My Banking apps to the list of allowed apps. I also turned off the toggle for “time-sensitive” notifications, because at least in my experience, the “time-sensitive” notifications I received weren’t anything time-sensitive. I also turned off all notification badges. It’s not a perfect setup, but it means I get all texts and calls from people I know and get alerts for important messages.

Turning on vacation mode greatly reduced the buzzing and lighting of my phone during the week. It’s great, I didn’t miss anything I really cared about. But all these notification focus modes block? They didn’t go. They’re just grouped on my lock screen with a swipe. So every time I pick up my phone, I find myself bombarded with them. When I picked up my phone to check the weather, it was like being sent back to the office, and all the news alerts, Slack updates, and non-essential email alerts reappeared—and then, oh well, I’ll just check out TikTok #1 two.

There’s this underlying tension that makes it difficult for Focus to get right. Apple certainly knows that showing you a bunch of stuff you don’t want is less of a problem than not showing you the really important stuff you need to see. As a result, the feature is permanently stuck in a cautious place. But if Apple really wants to help users take back control of their phones, it needs to make the Focus more aggressive. Most tools for doing this even already exist! Focus should integrate with Screen Time so I can say “When I’m in vacation mode, just let me use Twitter for 5 minutes a day” without having to change that setting separately. Focus should stop notifications altogether, not just hide them, like I did when I went to the notification settings page and turned them off. Focus mode currently allows you to hide an entire page of the home screen, but it should allow you to hide specific apps or widgets and even rearrange content as soon as you turn focus on.I don’t want to hide distractions a little on my phone while on vacation – I want them gone. All of these things should be part of a whole, not separate from each other. They shouldn’t be Rube Goldberg machines like they are now.

In iOS 16, Focus Mode gets some major improvements, including in apps.
Image: Apple

The good news is that this seems to be where Apple is headed. For example, in iOS 16 you’ll be able to set different lock screens for different Focus modes, and it’s working on improving the setup process and the suggestions you get along the way. The new software also allows you to opt out rather than opt in, so instead of saying “only these six apps can reach me” you can say “all but these six apps can reach me” . This will make getting started with Focus Mode much easier.

The real key to Focus’s future, though, lies in the new Focus Filter API, which enables developers to alter their applications based on the settings you enable or adjust in Focus mode. Apple’s own apps are a good guide: in iOS 16, I’ll be able to adjust vacation mode to hide my work events in the Calendar app, or mute my work emails in Mail, but still Content sent to my personal account. Apple has suggested to developers that they might want to use Focus filters to let people hide specific accounts, turn off their in-app alerts, or even completely change the layout of apps based on people’s behavior. (You can imagine, for example, a navigation or music app that might want to look different once you turn on the “driving” focus mode.) “Fundamentally, if your app can show different content based on context,” “You might be able to use a Focus filter to enhance the user experience,” Apple’s Teja Kondapalli told developers at the WWDC conference in June.

Sounds good, right? Maybe a year from now, I’ll be able to turn on vacation mode and have my Slack status change automatically, my autoresponder will fire up automatically, and all my notifications will disappear except the ones that really matter. However, there are two problems with this strategy. First, it assumes that developers will be willing to build less engaging versions of their apps with fewer notifications, badges, and incitement to pick up your phone. This is not going to happen. Second, it still leaves all the work in the hands of the user: you must configure the Focus filter individually for each application.

Ultimately, though, I do recommend setting up some focus modes. I have a few now, and one of them opens automatically when I open the Kindle app so I don’t get distracted by notifications while I’m reading. It’s neither powerful enough nor too complicated to use, but it’s a step in the right direction for me to actually control my phone. I’m back at work, but I’m still in vacation mode and my phone has no sound most of the time. I’ll probably keep it that way.

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