When the Apple Watch first came out, my initial reaction was basically disgust. Everywhere I looked, I saw people already Krazy Glued to their phones, missing the world around them to live instead in the small mini-Matrix in their pocket. Now, Apple was proposing to add additional distractions right on our wrist, making it even easier to ignore real life and stay focused on a screen instead. Not only was the Apple Watch not for me; it was a sad commentary on how tech was ruining our lives.

Yet I kept seeing more and more friends of mine falling victim to the Apple Watch. They insisted it was actually great, that I was the crazy one, that it was the next revolution in tech, that they loved how it kept them in touch with everyone even more easily, etc., etc., etc. I’ve heard this song before, and while I doubted I’d agree, it became equally obvious that the Apple Watch wasn’t going anywhere. In the interest of making sure I could stay not just with it, but also hip, I bought one a few weeks ago. I figured I’d play with it for a couple weeks and return it, getting a nice blog post out of it about how I was right and the Apple Watch made my life worse.

But what I’ve instead found something else: properly used, at least for me, the Apple Watch isn’t yet another distraction. Instead, it can allow me to stay informed, without constantly pulling me out of the moment. It’s actually freed me to leave my desk much more easily, without succumbing to staring at my phone instead. In other words, it’s had the exact opposite effect I anticipated.

The Problem with iPhone Notifications

Here’s my basic problem: I’m a manager. I have twelve direct reports spread across four disparate projects, plus I also provide management support to our Infrastructure project—you know, the one project at Khan Academy where even we have alerting and chatbots and whatnot to let you know when things have exploded. This means I have meetings constantly, and I’m pinged on Slack constantly, and I get an obscene volume of email. And each and every one of these constantly wants your attention, by default sending tons of notifications basically all over the place. Phone, computer, tablet, cyborg sitting next to you muttering about killing all humans, everywhere.

Some of these distractions I can easily disable while still doing my job. For example, since emails rarely require an immediate response, I turned off mail notifications completely, and only bother checking messages every hour or so. That’s socially acceptable, and keeps me available while also letting me get work done. I likewise killed notifications from tools like Trello, OneNote, Asana, and anything else that almost certainly could wait for a regularly scheduled check-in.

But Slack and meetings are trickier: while many Slack notifications can genuinely wait, many can’t, so I do need to actually read the notifications and make a decision on whether to respond. (I actually just ranted about this in detail if you’re bored.) My meetings likewise frequently shift radically during the day, so the fact I had been clear at 11 doesn’t mean I still am, nor does the fact I originally had an interview at 2 mean I still do.

I thus fell into this pattern where I’d get a buzz from Slack, take my phone out, read the alert, realize I had a pile of unread messages in some room or other, read through those, get distracted paging in context for the conversation, remember to recheck my calendar for any meeting changes, put the phone away, forget what I was doing, and then repeat. My spouse grumpily noticed that even on date nights, even when I was trying to stay in the moment and wasn’t honestly thinking about work, even when my phone was in Do Not Disturb mode and couldn’t have buzzed, I’d still sometimes mechanically take my phone out, look at the screen, and put it right back—just because I was so used to doing that motion during the day that it had become a habitual reflex.[1]

In this environment, adding the Watch seemed like a bad idea. I’d already cut down my notifications as far as I could; putting them on my wrist seemed like it’d make an existing problem even worse.

So I was quite surprised when exactly the opposite happened.

Enter Apple Watch

Here’s the thing: the Watch can’t actually do all that much—at least not in the way a smartphone can. It ultimately really does three things very well, and everything else very poorly:

  1. It’s a great way to track my jogs. That’s not why I bought it, but it turns out it’s great at it, and I use this feature a lot.
  2. It is indeed very good at giving you notifications, usually along with a small handful of possible response actions, if applicable.
  3. It is also quite good at taking certain kinds of very quick voice commands—basically the same subset Siri already handles well on the iPhone.

That’s it. Doing anything other than these is generally somewhere between painful and a genuine farce. Yeah, Todoist and other task lists exist on the Watch, but they fit maybe two to three things on the screen at once; you’d have to be a masochist to enjoy it. There’s a similar story with note-taking apps, like OneNote: yes, the app exists, and it honestly does the best it can with voice entry, but that gets old really quickly. Tools like Maps and Yelp are so limited that I’m forced to wonder why anyone bothered in the first place. And trying to read something long-form like an email on the Watch…I mean, yes, you technically can, but you’d have to be really desperate. Indeed, any use that requires reading or generating a substantial amount of information is either impossible or so difficult that I avoid it at all costs.

And…that weirdly turns out to be perfect. Fine; I can’t avoid real-time Slack and calendar notifications and do my job effectively, so they’re just going to be part of my life for now. But when I get them on the Watch, I glance down, make a snap decision on whether it requires me to do anything, and then either go back to doing what I was doing immediately (the overwhelming majority of the time), or, if the notification does require an immediate response, I walk back to my actual computer to handle it appropriately. In mere days, my habit of pulling my iPhone out of my pocket basically evaporated. Not only that; because I already try very hard to separate my work and personal devices, and because I was now responding to anything long-form on my work PC rather than my phone, I basically obliterated all of my media grazing habits overnight.[2]

The actual impact has been obvious to me: my work velocity increased, my iPhone battery lasts disturbingly longer, and I find myself much better able to focus whether we’re talking 1:1s with coworkers, or personal time with friends and family. Plus, I can now actually take a nice midday walk without having to stop every two minutes to check my phone. It’s honestly been an incredible win.

Mindful(ish) Notifications

I’ve been making a very deliberate effort for the last six months to pursue what I’ve been calling mindful computing—basically, trying to use technologies and develop habits that discourage distractions and that encourage and reward getting onto a computing device to do some specific action, and then putting the device away when you’re done.

I cannot quite say that the Apple Watch fits cleanly into this rubric. Indeed, as I noted, notifications are both one of the things it does best, and the explicit reason I ended up keeping it—and I don’t know that any person who would argue that seeking out a distraction-making device is a good example of mindful computing as I defined it.

But I do think that, properly used, the Apple Watch can be mindful-ish. If you are in a situation where you genuinely cannot fully avoid having some form of distracting notifications and still be effective, the Watch, specifically due to its incredibly limited abilities, can actually be an amazing compromise.

It’s one of the few recent technology purchases where I can say with a straight face that it meaningfully improved my quality of life. And while it didn’t do so in a fundamental way, and it may not be for everyone, I am surprisingly happy that I ended up ignoring my initial judgment and taking the plunge.

  1. There’s a valid question here of why these are on my phone this way in the first place; after all, if I’m at my PC, I could put the notifications there. And in truth, when I am sitting at my desk, I usually put my phone into Do Not Disturb mode for this exact reason. But one of the nice things about being remote is I can frequently attend meetings while taking a walk, or read through some emails or documents in the nearby park—but if I do that, then I do in fact need all these notifications on my phone in case I need to switch up my plans/head back to the house/get back to my laptop. ↩︎

  2. The unexpectedly positive impact of suddenly not reading reddit, Twitter, and the like anymore is a great topic for another day. ↩︎