Six ways your phone can give your life structure instead of chaos

Whether you're scheduling work tasks or blocking out a three-hour midday nap, these apps can help.
a phone with the time displayed on its screen

Don't let time get away from you. Luke van Zyl/Unsplash

Disruption and altered ways of living have become the norm, and it can be difficult to find the structure and routine we once took for granted. But as with many modern problems, it’s something your smartphone can help with.

With the right selection of apps and techniques, you can make sure the hours don’t drift by, and commit to doing something productive, relaxing, educational, or useful with your 24 hours instead.

Set reminders in Siri and Google Assistant

Your smartphone’s assistant is only a voice command away, so make use of it. You can set reminders and timers to help structure your day in all kinds of ways: Get Siri or Google Assistant to tell you when it’s time to start making dinner, for example, or when you’ve completed an hour of work, or when you’ve been gaming for more than half an hour.

You can access Siri on an iPhone by pressing and holding the side button or the home button, depending on which one your device has. Just saying “hey Siri” will work too, as long as hands-free voice commands are supported—head to Siri & Search in Settings to check. On stock Android, launch Google Assistant with a swipe up from the bottom corner, or with a “hey Google” command (configure this by going to Apps & notifications, then Assistant, from Settings).

The voice commands you need are the same whatever type of phone you’ve got: Try “set a timer for 30 minutes,” or “remind me to make dinner at five,” for example, and Siri or Google Assistant will get right on it. It’s like having a real personal assistant to keep you on schedule.

Put your podcasts or music on a timer

a screenshot of the timer options in Pocket Casts
Keep the audio playing for a specific number of minutes with Pocket Casts. David Nield

Music and podcasts can provide a nice break from work—unless you actually work in podcasts—but time can quickly pass by while you’re enjoying audio on your phone. By setting timers inside your podcast and music apps, you can make sure they don’t consume larger chunks of the day.

For example, we like to set a podcast timer for half an hour so we know when lunch is over, and to set a nighttime playlist for 10 minutes to maximize the amount of quality shut-eye we get. You can, of course, adapt these to block out your time in whatever way you want.

Just about every podcast and music app in the business has a built-in timer feature, and you should be able to find it without too much digging around. In Pocket Casts for Android and iOS, for instance, just tap the ZZZ button and pick a time. If you have Spotify for Android or iOS, tap the three dots (top right) on the “now playing” screen, then choose Sleep timer.

Commit to an exercise routine

It doesn’t have to be exercise—any sort of break or activity will do—but a lot of smartphone apps will guide you through workouts that last a specific amount of time. You can use one or more of them to commit the same amount of time to the same activity every day.

You could try the 7 Minute Workout apps for Android or iOS—they’re made by different developers, but they have the same objective and split exercises into the same allotted time. Both apps give you a decent selection of free workouts, and you can pay if you want extra content.

Seven minutes is just a suggestion, though, as most exercise apps will give you workouts that last for a variety of durations. The same goes for meditation apps such as Headspace for Android or iOS ($13 a month after a free trial), where you can find mental exercises lasting 10, 15, and 20 minutes.

Split the day into chunks

a screenshot of a daily schedule on TimeTune
If you’re not up for a seven-mile run after breakfast, feel free to replace that 8 a.m. slot before work with “lie on the floor.” TimeTune

Make sure you’re not wasting any of your day and know exactly what you should be doing at any given point by mapping your day out in advance. A number of apps will do this for you—including Google Calendar and Apple Calendar—so have a look around and pick one that suits you. We’ll just highlight a couple here.

TimeTune for Android is one example: You can block out your time on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis, repeating activities (like a weekly shopping trip) where necessary. Everything can be color-coded, tagged, and logged, and the app also lets you switch quickly between different routines (for weekdays and weekends, perhaps). The app is free, but a $5 upgrade gets you extra features such as Google Calendar syncing and extra themes.

If you’re an iPhone user, Plan for iOS is definitely worth a look. It’s able to block out chunks of time and assign them to different categories (like kids or business), and attach locations. Plus, it syncs well with your existing Apple, Google, and Microsoft calendars. You can use the app for free or pay $4 a month for extra integration with other apps, as well as prioritized support.

Know what you need to do each day

A well-structured day is useless if you haven’t planned what you need to accomplish. Having a list of tasks to complete in a day (whether for work, your personal life, or to keep everything running smoothly at home) can go a long way to adding direction to your day.

There are a host of options, but we like Remember the Milk for Android and iOS a lot for its simplicity and ease-of-use. You can dive right in with minimum fuss, piling to-dos high based on categories, locations, days, times, and whatever else. It’s free to use, but for $40 a year you get access to extra features like subtasks and improved sharing features.

Another hugely popular to-do app that we’re big fans of is Todoist for Android and iOS. You can also use this one for free, or pay $3 a month to increase the maximum size of your lists and add extra tools like labels. Even without paying, Todoist does a fantastic job of keeping your pending tasks organized by day, date, category, or any other kind of criteria.

Limit your access to certain apps

Keeping your day structured and focused isn’t just about picking the right apps to use, it’s also about avoiding apps that suck up huge amounts of time without you realizing it. Fortunately, both iOS and Android now include built-in tools to make sure you’re not spending unhealthy amounts of time staring at your phone screen.

On iOS, the tool is called Screen Time: Get to it by tapping Screen Time in Settings. You’ll be able to see how much time you’re spending on your phone, in which apps, and if you want to place restrictions on this usage, just choose App Limits from the main menu.

When it comes to Android, find Digital Wellbeing on the Settings menu. As with iOS, you can see how you’re currently using your phone and which apps are taking up most of your time. To put restrictions on how long you can use each app every day, tap Dashboard, then the timer symbol next to any app. Overriding these restrictions isn’t difficult, but they might help a little.