This is “What’s on Your Home Screen?” a Q&A column from OneZero. We want to understand more about how people use their smartphones—those life-consuming devices we dump hours into every day—to pave a path toward a better future. Or at least a more reflective one. We’ll add new entries regularly, and each will feature a new interview with a notable person about the apps they use, how they’re organized, and whether those red bubbles drive them nuts.
Farhad Manjoo has written about technology for years and currently serves as an opinion columnist at the New York Times. In November, he advised readers to “slow down and be mindful” as they interact with new devices and the companies that control them: sober guidance from a man who knows how to practice discipline with his own gadgets and apps.
Or so you’d think. Here’s the thing: Farhad’s iPhone home screen is a disaster. A mess! It’s glutted with apps, notification bubbles (153 unread messages, according to the screenshot he sent), and the promise, via a series of dots positioned just above the bottom dock, of 16 pages filled with more. Honestly, it made me feel a little sick.
“The number of unread messages, it’s basically been 153 on my phone for a long time. I just think of 153 as zero.”
So we talked it out. I learned that Farhad thinks of himself as a “searcher,” not an “organizer.” He has a very deliberate way of interacting with his iPhone, even if what’s on his home screen looks like a jumbled mess.
What follows is our chat, edited for length and clarity.
OneZero: I don’t need to tell you that tech mindfulness is a big topic right now. So, I want to talk to people and have a conversation about how they use their screens.
Farhad Manjoo: The first caveat, I should say, is I don’t use my home screen very much. I use the search bar more than the home screen. There’s a lot of apps that I don’t use that are all on the front page. And then there are apps that I do use that are elsewhere, but I don’t know where they are. But I can get them from search. Twitter is not here. I use a meditation app called Insight Timer—that isn’t here. Reddit is one I look at often. It isn’t here. All of those I get from swiping down and typing or from the Suggested Apps feature.
I feel like my home screen is not that useful.
When I first looked at your home screen, I thought, wow, 153 unread messages, 222 missed calls. You have 163 Todoist items. I’m seeing this thing, and it’s like chaos.
The number of unread messages, it’s basically been 153 on my phone for a long time. I just think of 153 as zero. You get a lot of messages from Uber, or Lyft, or DoorDash. It’s like security codes. I look at the notifications, and the phone thinks they’re unread, but I get enough information from the notification. I don’t want to go through and “unread” them.
I never look at those notification count things. They all require some kind of context and mean different things on different apps. On your email app, it’s unread messages. On Todoist, it’s things that are on your to-do list in total. But when I look at Todoist, I want things that are on my list today. I don’t know if there’s a way to change that, but that whole 163, it doesn’t really count to me. I ignore those numbers.
So why do you have them enabled at all?
They’re default on my system, and I haven’t turned them off. It doesn’t bother me. I don’t even know what the one on the phone app is—is that net missed calls?
[It seems like Farhad checks his phone app here.]
Oh, it’s voicemails. Yeah, I never look at voicemails. People send me voicemails, and I don’t look at them.
I’m very distracted and bothered by my phone, and I disable notifications on most of my apps. Would you describe yourself as distracted by or disturbed by your phone? Maybe you are disturbed if you’re on Reddit a lot.
I would describe it this way: I think my phone can be a source of great distraction for me. Over the past year or so, I’ve developed mechanisms for ignoring my phone. I use my phone a lot, but a lot of the time, it’s defensible. I use my phone for work during the day. The problems I have are when it’s distracting me when my kids are around or my family’s around. In those moments, I’ve gotten good at not looking at it. I’m more aware of the problem. I think about it more often.
I really like the new iOS feature where you can turn off the notifications in the notifications. When that feature was enabled, it really helped me prune notifications down to the most important ones. Generally, I feel less distracted and bothered by my phone than I was a year ago.
Are there apps on this first screen that you deliberately put front and center, always on this main home screen? You have 16 different pages of apps on your iPhone.
Yeah. I have a huge problem—I get and try a lot of apps, just because I like figuring out new things. I feel like the iPhone has a very bad app organizational thing. I wish there was some easier way to rearrange apps because the manual way you physically drag apps to folders, it’s too much work for me.
“I think of it like geology. You have this old record of how you used your phone a long time ago buried in here somewhere.”
I put the Photos app on the front page, I put Spotify on the front page, the New York Times, Alexa. Ulysses is this writing app I use a lot, and Bear is a notes app I use a lot, so those are on the front page.
A lot of these apps, I don’t use often. I think of it like geology. You have this old record of how you used your phone a long time ago buried in here somewhere.
So the search function is the key to the whole thing. When did you start using that? How did that come about?
There was a time when iOS didn’t have a search function. At that time, I was more diligent about managing apps on the screen. But ever since they’ve had search, which was probably, like, five years ago, I’ve been using search almost exclusively.
I used to use Twitter several hours a day. It would be like the main battery hog. But it would never be on my home screen. It’s always been something I get from search. Many of my most-used apps are like that. I do that even with apps on my home screen. I search for Spotify all the time.
Siri Suggestions, where you swipe down on the home screen and it shows you which apps to use, is pretty good at showing me what I want without typing. I kind of wish the home screen was just Siri Suggestions.
Just a couple of specific things: Have you ever written an article on Ulysses that you filed?
I write everything in Ulysses.
You write your articles on your phone?
I use Ulysses on my desktop also, but I do often write on my phone. It’s right there. I love it, it’s great. It’s one of the best writing programs I’ve ever used.
It is a recipe managing app. I cook a lot, and it’s a way to find recipes online. It syncs across desktop and phone. It’s not the best-looking app. There may be other apps that do this, but it’s pretty good.
Anything else you want to add?
Having this conversation with you is going to make me want to reorganize my home screen. Ultimately, that will be a waste of time.
You’re probably right. I didn’t understand your screen at first, and now I get it completely. It’s intentional.
There’s two types of people: There are “organizers” and “searchers.” Organizing seems like too much work for me. I prefer to search.
I think I’m more of a searcher, and I’m trying to pose as an organizer. I’m going to try to change it up.