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Do the things you do throughout the day on your iPhone bring you happiness? Or do they negatively affect your ability to focus and your mood, or flat-out waste your time? Walk with me on this one.

Why Limit App Use on Your iPhone?

Take a second to consider how you use your iPhone. What prompts to to pick it up? Do you feel like much of the time you spend on your phone throughout the day is well-spent? There’s no right or wrong answer here, and there’s no one-size-fits-all advice to dish out. We’re not about to go on some “phone = bad” rant if that’s what you were thinking.

Old man yells at cloud (Grandpa Simpson meme)
The Simpsons / Disney

Social media apps often get a bad rap. They’re designed to keep you engaged, providing an endlessly scrolling feed of engaging content. To be cynical for a moment: the longer you scroll, the more adverts you see, the more money can be made. These feeds pump the most engaging content into your eyeballs, and that includes content that is designed to elicit negative responses.

Scrolling endlessly is a bad use of your time. The formula preys on your fear of missing out, of wanting to be included in the conversation. At the same time, much of the content on social media could be described as toxic. You might find yourself scrolling for 20 minutes only to be angrier and less fulfilled than you were to begin with. There’s a good chance that you’ll repeat this pattern several times a day.

The good news is that you might only need a little push to form healthier habits. It’s easy to get sidetracked and forget how long you’ve been scrolling so a small reminder might just do the trick. This can be enough to snap you out of it and get back to the task at hand.

Another thing to consider is that not all of your wasted time needs to be spent on arduous tasks. Video games are a distraction, but they’re also fun. Playing guitar or piano isn’t necessarily productive, but it can be both rewarding and satisfying. Going for a walk won’t pay the bills, but it’s good for your mental and physical health.

Use Screen Time to Identify Which Apps to Limit

You’ve probably already got a pretty good idea of which apps you should limit, but sometimes seeing the numbers can help you take that first step. If you’ve enabled Screen Time on your iPhone then your device tracks your usage to show you how much time you spend on your devices and which activities take up most of your time.

Use the Screen Time feature to see an overview of your iPhone usage

If you haven’t already enabled Screen Time, you’ll need to wait for your iPhone to learn your routine, so this advice probably won’t be too helpful.

Head to Settings > Screen Time on your iPhone to see a daily average of how long you spend on your iPhone each day. From here, tap on the “See all App & Website Activity” button to get the full breakdown. Choose between week and day views, and scroll left and right to move backward and forward in time to see your usage.

The data is divided into three sections:

  • Most Used: The apps you use most often, and how long you spend doing so. Tap “Show Categories” to switch between categories of apps and individual apps.
  • Pick-Ups: The apps you first use after you pick it up. This could be from tapping a notification or simply because you unlocked your iPhone specifically to use Reddit or a similar app.
  • Notifications: The average number of notifications you’ve received and the apps that sent them.

You can tap on “Show More” beneath each of these sections to get a good overview. You can also tap on apps to see a daily average of how long you spend on these apps.

Many of these apps will be essentials like Safari, Messages, note-taking apps, work-related apps, and so on. Others will be social media apps, some might be games, and there will probably be a few news apps thrown in there too. You’ll also see websites appear as separate entries.

See which apps send the most notifications using Screen Time on iPhone

This can help you understand just how much time you’re spending on certain apps, which apps you reflexively use when you first pick up your phone, and which apps are bombarding you with notifications to get your attention. You can use this information to single out apps that you’d like to limit.

How to Set App Limits on iPhone

Setting an app limit means defining how long per day you want to spend using that app. You’ll get notifications as you use an app that you only have so long left, which can act as little reminders to “bank” time for later if you want to avoid going over your target.

App limits are not hard limits. You can ignore limits and simply keep using the app, but you could also head to Settings and disable any limits you have imposed. It’s not about “saving you from yourself” but rather being more conscious of the time you spend on your device and what you do with it.

You can set app limits by heading to Settings > Screen Time > App Limits. Enable the “App Limits” toggle then tap “Add Limit” to nominate an app. Use the dial to set the total number of minutes (or hours) you want to spend using that app each day, then hit “Done” to save it.

Setting an app limit on iPhone

You can also set limits directly from the Screen Time menu by tapping on an app and then using the “Add Limit” button at the bottom of the screen. Remove limits by revisiting these menus, tapping the limit, and choosing “Delete Limit” at the bottom of the screen.

A notification warning you that you have 5 minutes left

When you reach an app limit, you’ll see a screen notifying you that your time is up. On the home screen, the app icon will appear dulled with an hourglass symbol alongside it.

App icons will change when you hit your time limit

Tap “OK” to close the app, or hit “Ignore Limit” to see some options for extending your time.

Options for ignoring your self-imposed time limit

Use Shortcuts to Set App Timers

If a total daily limit in minutes seems a bit much, you can use timers to be more mindful of the time you spend within apps. This is as simple as setting a timer when you open a particular app, something you can do with a feature called Automations that’s built-in Shortcuts app.

If you don’t have Shortcuts, download it from the App Store. Launch the app then tap on the “Automation” tab at the bottom of the screen. Now tap on the plus “+” icon in the top-right corner to create a new automation.

Create a new automation in Shortcuts for iPhone

Pick “App” from the list of triggers and then tap “Choose” and nominate an app. Make sure that “Run Immediately” is enabled and “Notify When Run” is disabled.

Pick and app and customize your automation trigger

On the next screen, you’ll be able to choose what action to take when the app is launched. Search for “Timer” and pick “Start Timer” from the list. You can now define how long you want the timer to be (by defining the “Duration” input) in seconds, minutes, or hours.

Set a timer and pick a duration for your new automation

Hit “Done” to save your automation. It will be listed on the “Automations” tab alongside any others you have created. You can delete it by swiping left on it.

Now every time you launch the app in question a timer will be set. This will happen every time you launch Instagram, so if you exit the app for a second and then return to it, a new timer will be set. The timer will persist whether or not you’re still using the app.

You can clean this process up a bit by creating a Shortcut that only contains the “Cancel current timer” action, and then creating a new automation that triggers this shortcut when the nominated app is closed.

Clean up the automation by creating another one

Use Downtime to Set Broader Limits on iPhone Use

Under Settings > Screen Time you’ll find Downtime, a mode that sets broad limits on all but an allow-list of apps. You can use it to help cut down on your temptation to open Slack or Trello when you’re supposed to be relaxing, but it can also work to help limit apps that might make it more difficult to sleep.

Enable Downtime schedule in Screen Time settings

You can use the scheduler in the Downtime setting to automate when this mode engages. Now head back to Settings > Screen Time > Always Allowed and set up your allow-list of apps. You can also green-light contacts here if you want.

Ditch the Notifications

It’s a lot harder to get distracted if you don’t know what you’re missing out on, which is why apps so often send you tempting notifications. You can use the Screen Time menu to see which apps send the most notifications.

Head to Settings > Notifications to change settings on a per-app basis. You can also swipe left on notifications that appear on your lock screen and tap “Options” followed by “View Settings” to make changes.

Change your notifications settings on iPhone

Fewer notifications mean fewer pick-ups, and it can also have positive knock-on effects for your battery life.

Get Rid of Apps That Don’t Do Anything For You

Perhaps the hardest part of all is deciding to stop using an app and remove it from your device altogether. Consider which apps consistently leave you feeling unfulfilled despite the time you spend on them. This doesn’t have to be limited to social media apps, either.

Delete an app if you decide it's no longer worth your attention

Mobile games can be insidious in the way that they encourage daily check-ins and bonuses. How many games do you play a day purely out of habit? How many games are you playing to maintain your streak? Do you enjoy them?

An often-repeated tale involves playing a game like Wordle daily to build up a streak, only to miss a day and never play the game again. Would removing these games from your routine be harmful? Or would you make more time for things you would rather be doing (like playing better games, perhaps ones found on Apple Arcade)?

Stay the Course

You are the master of your destiny when it comes to limiting experiences that aren’t enriching your life. You can always ignore limits or download apps again, and that’s fine. Ultimately, this process is only of benefit to you if you want to cut down on certain types of apps and remove distractions from your day. It still requires willpower and it’s certainly not meant to be a punishment.

You should also be using Focus mode on your iPhone if you want to temporarily hide distractions (like email, phone calls, and other “essential” services). You can also block distracting websites on your computer using a variety of tricks.

Requires willpower — sure you could just use Safari to avoid the limits, or just ignore your limits altogether, but there’s a reason you’re reading this right?