How To

How to Use Focus to Limit Notifications in iOS 15 and macOS Monterey

Posted on September 20th, 2021 by

One of the blights of the modern world is the notifications we get on our devices. They can interrupt meetings, meals, and movies. It’s possible to pare down the notifications that you get, by turning off this feature for specific apps, but there are apps you may always want notifications from. You probably want to be notified when you receive phone calls, Face Time calls, messages, and when you get certain emails. If you’re at work, you may need to have notifications on if your company uses Slack, Microsoft Teams, or some other tool to communicate amongst employees.

You’ve long been able to use Do Not Disturb on your Mac, iPhone, or iPad to mute all notifications, and Apple is now rolling out Focus, an enhanced version of this feature that gives you a great deal more flexibility. Here’s how you can use Focus in iOS 15 and macOS Monterey (coming soon) to tailor your notifications according to what you’re doing.

The idea behind Focus

Apple understood that the all-or-nothing Do Not Disturb, while useful, was limiting for many people. When you turn on Do Not Disturb, you block almost all notifications on your device. You can allow some notifications: you can allow phone calls from favorites, or repeated calls (in case someone calls you more than once within three minutes, which could indicate urgency). But until now, those were your only options.

Focus is Apple’s way of understanding that in different contexts, you need different types of notifications. The notifications you need to react to at work are very different from those you want when you’re out for dinner. You need to be able to get notifications about work-related tasks during working hours, whereas when you’re relaxing you most likely want to turn off any apps that involve your job. When you’re exercising, you probably don’t want any notifications, though you may want to allow calls and messages from friends. And when you’re having family time, why not turn all notifications off, except, perhaps, calls or messages from your kids, telling you that it’s time to come pick them up?

If you have multiple Apple devices – an iPhone, Apple Watch, and a laptop, for example – it’s a hassle to have to turn Do Not Disturb on on each one, and remember to turn it off. So when you engage Focus, it can apply to all your devices.

How to use Focus

Focus settings are in Settings > Focus on the iPhone and iPad, and in System Preferences > Notifications & Focus on the Mac. To adjust these settings on Mac, click the Focus tab.

As you can see, I’ve already got a blanket Do Not Disturb setting scheduled for 10 pm to 9 am, and I’ve had this for years on my iPhone and iPad. Since I’ve checked Share across devices, at the bottom-left of the window, this now applies to all my devices. However, one limitation of Focus is that the sharing across device setting is all or nothing; you can’t have some settings apply to all devices, and others just to one or two devices.

By default, there are five Focus modes: Gaming, Mindfulness, Personal, Sleep, and Work; I’ve added my own Reading setting.

For each one, you can choose which people’s notifications reach you, or you can choose by app. Since I have fine-grained notifications for Mail and Face Time, and I only get messages from a handful of people, I’ve selected those three apps.

In Turn On Automatically, you can set this Focus to engage in three ways; tap Add Schedule or Automation in iOS or iPadOS, or click the + icon on macOS, then choose one of the following:

Time (iOS / iPadOS) or Add Time Based Automation macOS: If you want a Focus mode to activate at specific times, you can choose time periods and days.

Location or Add Location Based Automation: You can have Focus modes engage when you are at a certain location. Have your Personal Focus automatically turn on when you get home, or your Work focus engage when you get to the office.

App or Add App Based Automation: When you launch a specific app, your Focus mode engages. For example, if you want to not be bothered when you’re on Face Time or Zoom calls, set up a Focus mode for that. Or if you don’t want to be bothered when you’re working in a specific app, such as when you’re editing photos or coding, create a Focus mode just for that app.

One setting to check in the Options section on iOS or iPadOS, or at the bottom of the window on macOS, if you wish, is Share Focus Status (macOS) or Share (iOS / iPadOS). If this is enabled, when someone contacts you, using certain apps, they’ll get a reply saying that you’re busy.

How to activate Focus

With a number of preset Focus modes, you can choose which one to use when you want to not be nagged by notifications. On iOS or iPadOS, swipe down from the top right of your screen to display Control Center, then tap the Focus icon. You’ll see buttons to apply any of your Focus modes. Tap the button to turn on Focus, or tap the … button to see options to turn on the Focus mode for 1 hour, until this evening, or until you leave this location.

On Mac, click the Control Center icon in the menu bar, then click Focus, and choose one of the options. You can choose the basic, across-the-board Do Not Disturb, either until you turn it off, for one hour, or until this evening, or you can click one of your Focus modes to choose that.

When you click a Focus mode, you’ll be able to turn it on for one hour or until this evening. If you do the latter, you can, of course, turn it off later. You don’t have the location-based option for Focus modes on Macs, even on laptops.

Additional Focus features on iPhone and iPad

Focus works the same on iPhone and iPad, and, as I mentioned above, you can have your Focus settings sync to your other devices. You may want to do this to not be bothered when you’ve engaged a Focus mode, or you may want different settings for each of your devices.

On the iPhone and iPad, you have additional options:

Focus Status: If you turn this on, some apps can tell others that you’re busy. For now, this works in Messages, but other apps may be able to add this feature. You’ll also need to go to Settings > Messages, and enable Focus in the Allow Messages to Access section.

Home Screen: You can choose to hide notification badges and to set up a custom home screen on your iPhone or iPad when each Focus mode is enabled. For the former, tap Home Screen, then enable Hide Notification Badges. For the latter, tap Home Screen, then enable Custom Pages. You can then choose one of your home screens to be the only one visible when that Focus mode is engaged.

Lock Screen: Tap Lock Screen to be able to dim your device’s lock screen, or display silenced notifications on your lock screen.

It’s worth noting that your device may suggest turning on Focus modes. For example, if you’re playing a game on your iPhone or iPad, you may see a banner on your screen offering to engage the Gaming focus mode. Or, for my Reading Focus mode, I see this, when reading a book in the Kindle app:

Focus may seem a bit complicated at first, but as you get used to it, you’ll realize that it’s practical to limit notifications differently when you are doing different activities on your iPhone, iPad, or Mac. Take some time to consider how you can best use Focus, and don’t forget that you can tweak each of the Focus modes as you get used to the feature.

About Kirk McElhearn

Kirk McElhearn writes about Apple products and more on his blog Kirkville. He is co-host of the Intego Mac Podcast, as well as several other podcasts, and is a regular contributor to The Mac Security Blog, TidBITS, and several other websites and publications. Kirk has written more than two dozen books, including Take Control books about Apple's media apps, Scrivener, and LaunchBar. Follow him on Twitter at @mcelhearn. View all posts by Kirk McElhearn →