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How to set up Focus modes on your iPhone (and say goodbye to distractions)

Hands holding iPhone

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If you’re like me, you can’t stand when your iPhone constantly alerts you about pointless notifications. And for the longest time, you wondered how to make your phone only notify you of the things you deem essential and stay silent for the others.

In 2021, Apple released many new features in iOS 15, one of them being my favorite thing about my iPhone: Focus. Focus allows iPhone users to create “modes” on their phones to customize which notifications are the most important and when they should alert you.

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To maximize the benefits of a Focus mode, you’ll need to customize it to suit your needs. I’ll show you how to do that and let you in on how I use the feature on my iPhone. 

How to use your iPhone’s Focus feature

What you need: To set up this feature, you’ll need an iPhone that can run iOS 15 or later. If you’re using a Mac, MacBook, or iPad that runs macOS Monterey, iPadOS 15, or later, the steps are the same. This should take about 10 to 20 minutes. 

To access the Focus modes on your iPhone, you can just open your settings app. Then, you’ll see the Focus tab in the second group of settings.

Screenshot of iPhone settings with Focus settings circled

Screenshot by Jada Jones/ZDNET

In the Focus tab, you’ll find some premade Focus modes that you can customize — Sleep, Personal, and Work. If you want more Focus modes, you can create one by clicking the plus in the top right corner.

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Once you decide to create a Focus mode, you can pick from a list of modes, like Driving, Gaming, or Reading, or you can create a custom name and pick an icon that matches your Focus vibe.

From there, you can customize the Focus mode by allowing notifications from certain apps and people or by silencing notifications from certain apps and people when you have that specific Focus mode turned on.

I like for my Focus modes to allow notifications from certain people and apps because the list of notifications I want to receive is much shorter than those I don’t want.

Screenshot of iPhone Focus settings

Screenshot by Jada Jones/ZDNET

You can create a schedule for your Focus modes by manually setting times you want a Focus mode to turn on or off automatically. Or you can use Smart Activation, which allows your phone to turn on a Focus mode depending on your location or what apps you’re using.

You can turn on Share Across Devices and Focus Status when you set up your Focus mode. By sharing on your other devices, the Focus modes you set up on one Apple device will be shared across your other devices if they’re all registered with the same Apple ID. 

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With Focus Status, you can notify other people of when you have your Focus mode on, which will silence their notifications on your device. For example, if you have messages silenced from one of your contacts while in Personal Focus mode, it will show up in their iMessage app that you have notifications silenced. 

But beware — if you have silenced notifications from someone and they send you a message, their iPhone will give them an option to “Notify Anyway.” If they click on it, you will be notified of their message. For some of my Focus modes, I have this feature turned off because there is usually a reason why I didn’t want to be notified of someone’s text. 

If they choose not to notify you anyway or if you have the Focus Status turned off, their message will still appear in your Notification Center, but your phone will not ring or vibrate.

Here’s how I Focus 

I was born in 2001, so I’m definitely a member of Generation Z, and I’m always on my phone. But I do get overwhelmed by notifications. Because I check my phone frequently throughout the day, I always get around to the notifications I want quietly delivered to my Notification Center. By doing this, I regained control over my phone since I no longer feel obligated to check a notification as soon as it comes in.

My iPhone has four Focus modes: Do Not Disturb, Chill, Work, and Sleep. I keep the four of them on a schedule so that as soon as one turns off, another one is set to turn on. At 11:45 p.m. on weekday nights, my Sleep Focus mode turns on. It dims my phone’s display and reminds me that it’s time to wind down and get ready for bed.

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At 8:30 a.m. on weekday mornings, my Work Focus mode turns on to prepare me to start the workday. I have notifications on for Slack and Outlook, so if I’m not next to my laptop, I’m still aware of an important message. At 5:15 p.m., it turns off and reminds me it’s time to wrap up whatever I’m doing at work. 

I work with people in different time zones and getting email and Slack notifications can be overwhelming when I’m trying to unplug from the workday. This Work Focus helped me set a boundary between my phone, sanity, and work obligations.

Screenshot of Jada Jones's Work Focus

Screenshot by Jada Jones/ZDNET

Do Not Disturb turns on by the end of the evening at 8:00 p.m. No apps deliver notifications, and Focus helps me stay focused on evening activities like cleaning, watching a movie, hanging out with family, or having dinner with limited distractions. 

How does the ZDNET team Focus? 

Allison Murray, a staff writer here at ZDNET, says her most useful Focus mode is the Work Focus she set up on her iPhone. She says her Work Focus mode silences all call, text, and social media notifications to keep her workday distraction-free. She says the Work Focus mode is so beneficial that sometimes she forgets she even has a phone when this Focus is turned on.

Sabrina Ortiz, one of our associate editors, always has her Do Not Disturb Focus mode on unless she’s expecting a call. She says she told her friends and family that if they need her, to call twice in a row, so the call bypasses her Do Not Disturb settings. 


Can I turn a Focus mode on or off without opening Settings?

Yes, you can. Swipe down on the right side of your screen to open your Control Center. On the left side of the screen, you’ll see where you can view which Focus mode is currently turned on. If you tap on it, you can turn a different Focus mode on, turn your current Focus mode off, or click the + at the bottom of the screen to create a new Focus mode.

Do Focus modes silence my alarms?

No. None of your Focus settings will affect your alarms, timers, or reminders in the Health or Reminders app. As long as your reminders and alarms are set to the right date and time and your ringer is loud enough, you will hear them. If you have a sleep schedule set up in the Health app, your Sleep Focus mode will automatically sync with your bedtime and wake up time.

Who can see my Focus Status?

Apple never disclosed exactly which apps display your Focus Status. But we do know that your contacts can see when you have your iMessage notifications silenced. If you open a contact’s contact card, you can turn off your Focus Status to that person specifically. 

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