“Hey, get off your phone.”

Every entrepreneur has heard that phrase at some point along the way.

Thanks to our phones, entrepreneurs can do things that seemed like science fiction only a few years ago. But those same devices that help us run our businesses can also lead to distraction.

We check our phones with the best of intentions but quickly find ourselves going down the rabbit hole of distraction. Considering how often most people check their phones (about once every 15 minutes), all this checking can add up to quite a bit of time wasted. And for busy entrepreneurs, the problem is even more pronounced.

Luckily, there are ways to manage these distractions as a business owner. These four steps from my new book, Indistractable, offer research-backed ways to take control of the time you spend on your phone.

How to “hack back” your time as an entrepreneur

Tech products are designed to get us hooked. They use consumer psychology to “hack” our attention so we can’t live without them. But that doesn’t mean we can’t hack back.

There are four steps to managing distractions on your phone:

1.  Remove

2.  Replace

3.  Rearrange

4.  Reclaim

Let’s explore each one.

Step 1: Remove the apps that don’t serve your business

Your phone is full of external triggers—pings, dings, and rings that can lead to distraction. Many external triggers help you run your business more effectively, like a calendar reminder telling you it’s time to call a client, run payroll for your team, or interview a candidate. But many notifications are unhelpful and interrupt us at the worst times.

Start by asking yourself this question:

Which external triggers serve me, and which am I serving?

For each external trigger, consider whether it helps you spend time working toward your business goals—or not.

Which apps stay and go is up to you, but here’s a list of common sources of distraction you may want to consider removing from your phone:

  • News apps: Are news alerts and headlines really helping you run your business or are they pulling you off track? Consider only keeping the industry-specific alerts that you care about, which you can configure in apps like Apple News.
  • Facebook, Reddit, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, and other social apps: Are they helping your business grow and reach new customers? Or are they taking you away from it?
  • Candy Crush, Wordscapes, Slotmania, and other games: These apps are fun and can relieve stress, but do they really serve you? Do you feel better when you’re done playing, or do you feel worse?

Step 2: Replace the time and place you use work-related apps

Now that you’ve cleared out the obvious sources of distraction, you should be left with only the apps you really need for your business. However, there are also a group of apps that are helpful, but not all the time. 

For example, you may use LinkedIn to network with other entrepreneurs and source candidates but frequently find yourself mindlessly scrolling through your feed.

The solution is to replace the time you use the app. Instead of opening LinkedIn on your phone when it is likely to distract you, schedule time for it away from your phone.

In other words, turn it into work if it is actually work.

Set aside a specific block of time each day to check LinkedIn from your desktop instead of your phone to avoid getting distracted throughout the day.

In practice:

Replacing the time and place when you use a worthwhile app can go a long way towards helping you get the best out of it—without letting it get the best of you.

Step 3: Rearrange the apps that matter

Now, it’s time to rearrange the apps that are left. The goal is to declutter your phone’s display to reduce distraction and increase your ability to focus.

Tony Stubblebine, of Better Humans, recommends organizing your apps into three categories.

1. Primary tools

These are apps you use frequently to complete vital tasks. For example, your ride-sharing app, the app you use to get directions, and your calendar app might fall in this category.

2. Aspirations

“Aspirations” includes apps that make you better and that you’d like to use more often. This could include apps focused on meditation, healthy living, audiobooks, or language learning. For business owners, aspirations might include things like your podcast app that enables you to listen to business-related podcasts, LinkedIn Learning, and other educational apps.

3. Slot machines

The third category is what Stubblebine calls “slot machines.” Clearly, social media apps fall in this category, but so do your email and group chat apps, like Slack.
These services tend to suck people in with their “variable rewards.” The constant novelty inherent in these apps can be a magnetic pull many people find hard to ignore.

(For slot machine apps that help your business, like email, you can adjust the notifications to prevent them from consuming you. We’ll get to that in the next step.)

In practice:

  • Rearrange your apps so that only primary tools populate your home screen. 
  • Put aspirations on the second screen.
  • Move slot machine apps to the third screen, and nest them into folders.

Here’s what that looks like on my phone:


This way, apps on your home screen won’t distract you when you glance at your phone. You’re less likely to be tempted when your apps are tucked away.

Step 4: Reclaim your notification settings

The last step requires adjusting the permissions you grant the remaining apps on your phone so they don’t interrupt you when you’re working.

There are two main methods app makers use to hack your attention:

1.  Sound (an audible notification)

2.  Sight (a visual notification)

Audible notifications can be the most disruptive, especially since they can get your attention even when you’re not looking at your phone. Think carefully about the few things urgent enough to interrupt you, during an important meeting or while you do focused work. Is it crucial that you get a ping for every work email that comes through? Or only emails from certain people? Change the notification settings for each of your remaining apps accordingly.

Visual notifications can also be distracting. Take a few minutes to consider which apps should have the right to grab your attention with a push notification or badge on your screen. 

In practice:

  • You may want to remove permissions for push notifications from all non-business related apps but keep visual cues for email and group chat apps.

Managing distractions as a small business owner doesn’t have to be difficult. With these four steps, you can master your time while staying on top of what really matters—the business that exists outside your phone.

Courtney Ackerman is a researcher, consultant, and author. Nir Eyal is the author of Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. For more tools for managing distraction and living your best life, visit NirAndFar.com/Indistractable.

Nir Eyal Nir Eyal is the bestselling author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products and Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. He has taught at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and Hasso Plattner Institute of Design. His writing on technology, psychology, and business, appears in the Harvard Business Review, The Atlantic, TechCrunch, and Psychology Today.
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