Our laptops and smartphones hold a lot of appeal. After all, they’re how we check up on our friends, load up the latest game, or read through the knowledge collected on Wikipedia. There’s so much potential for entertainment and distraction.
With that in mind, we’ve got some tips, tools, and apps to help you limit how much time you spend staring at screens, whether it’s the little one in your hand or the larger one on your desk.
Google makes its own free screen time monitoring app called Digital Wellbeing, though it’s only available on Pixel phones for now. A wider rollout may happen soon, but until then, if you’re not using a Pixel, check out the third-party options we’ve listed in the final section below. Once Digital Wellbeing is installed, you can find the app as an entry on the Settings menu.
The opening splash screen shows how much of the current day you’ve spent on your phone and which apps you’ve used the most. If you’ve got a Snapchat obsession, it’ll show up here. Tap on the colored dial to see your screen time broken down by day and week, with the most-used apps for each time period listed underneath.
Digital Wellbeing offers two main ways to cut down on screen time. From the app’s overview page, the Dashboard will allow you to put time restrictions on any app on your phone—just tap the timer icon to the right of any entry and set a limit. These reset at midnight, and while they can be easily overridden or disabled, they might make you think twice about firing up Twitter for the 100th time in one morning.
Along with timers, Digital Wellbeing has another way to set app limits. Choose Apps & notifications from Settings, tap an app name, then choose Advanced and Time spent in app. Touch the App Timer button to set your limit for the day—anywhere from five minutes to 23 hours and 55 minutes.
There’s also Wind Down, which will help wean you off your phone at the end of the day. From Digital Wellbeing’s overview page, enable the feature via the toggle switch at the top, set start and end times (such as when you go to bed and when you wake up), and Wind Down will automatically turn the screen gray and limit notifications during those times.
To set which apps can and can’t disturb you, tap Do Not Disturb on the front page of the Digital Wellbeing app. It’s possible, for example, to only allow calls and text messages from your starred contacts to show up while you’re in Do Not Disturb mode, so certain people will always be able to reach you in an emergency.
Not to be outdone, Apple has a tool similar to Digital Wellbeing in the most recent version of iOS. It’s called Screen Time, and you can find it on the main Settings screen. Tap the Screen Time entry to see how much time you’ve been spending on your iPhone or iPad and which apps are primarily responsible.
To put limits on a particularly addictive set of apps, tap App Limits and then Add Limit. You’ll be asked to choose a category of app (or All Apps & Categories), then a time limit (from one minute to 23 hours and 59 minutes). Screen Time lets you select more than one category at a time, so you could choose both Social Networking and Entertainment, for example.
If you want to limit a specific app, you’ll need to tap on the summary of the day from Screen Time’s front menu, pick an app, then select Add Limit. Whether you’re putting limits on specific apps or general categories, you can set different time restrictions for different days via the Customize Days link.
Another option on the Screen Time page is Downtime. Select this, and iOS will prompt you to choose a time of day when you’d like only phone calls and any apps you’ve selected as Always Allowed (on the previous screen) to be available. All others will be grayed out on the home screen.
You can also use the Always Allowed list to specify exceptions to the “All Apps & Categories” link we mentioned earlier. In other words, you could limit your use of every app to an hour a day but make an exception for the Phone and Messages apps.
As on Android, it’s not particularly difficult to turn these features off after you’ve applied them—some willpower will be required—but the warnings and restrictions Screen Time puts in place should encourage you to spend less time staring at your phone’s display.
While Google and Apple only recently seem to have realized just how damaging too much screen time can be, other developers have been building tools similar to Digital Wellbeing and Screen Time for years. That means there’s a wide variety of apps available to help you cut down on the time you spend on your gadgets.
You’re going to have to use a third-party tool on Windows and macOS, as there are no built-in options yet—at least not for your own use. You can, however, set limits for your kids’ use of a desktop or laptop Windows machine by going to your Microsoft account page online, setting up a new family group with one or more children in it, and then setting times when your kids are allowed to use Windows.
It’s a similar story on macOS. You can’t actually put app or screen time limits on your own user account, but if you’ve got youngsters using the same computer, you can create separate accounts and limit them. To get started, open the Apple menu, choose System Preferences, and click Parental Controls.
If you’re looking to restrict your own use of apps and websites on a laptop or desktop, you’ve got several third-party choices. For Windows, Time Boss is a comprehensive and free option for controlling which apps can be run at which times, encouraging you to take a break when needed. If anything, the program gives you too many options. Cold Turkey is simpler, but only blocks websites for free—for CAD$25 (about $19), it’ll block apps too.
On macOS, we like Focus. You activate it from the menu bar, tell the application how long you want to remain distraction-free, and it does the rest. You can blacklist and whitelist certain sites and apps, get the program to run on a schedule, and more. It’ll cost you at least $19 to buy, but a free trial is available.
SelfControl is a decent and free option for macOS, but it’s a bit more rudimentary than Focus and concentrates solely on websites—you can’t use it to limit your use of other applications. Also for Apple machines, Clockify is worth a mention for being free, but it only tracks the time you’re spending in apps, so it’s up to you to impose limits.
A couple of cross-platform tools provide comprehensive app and website blocking on demand, forcing you to take a break from whatever it is you’re spending too much time on. Freedom gives you plenty of flexibility over what’s blocked and when, and works across Windows, macOS, Android, and iOS. There’s a free trial available and its price starts at $7 a month, but it’s worth noting the iOS version only blocks websites.
In a similar vein, FocusMe (from $7 a month, with a free trial available) helps you focus across Windows, macOS, and Android, but not iOS. With it, you can see how much time you spend in certain apps, force yourself to take a break at a certain time, cut off your access to apps and websites, and more.
Apple doesn’t really allow other apps to duplicate Screen Time functionality on iOS, which is why Freedom is limited there, but for Android, ZenScreen is one of the best alternatives to Digital Wellbeing we’ve found. For $5 a month after a free trial, it’ll break down your app usage by time, let you set limits on specific apps, remind you to take breaks during the day, and generally make your relationship with your phone a healthier one.