My Apple Watch (and iOS notifications) workflow

I’ve been asked a few times how I use my Apple Watch. I’m no expert in the matter, but I have a system that works for me, which is also closely intertwined with how I approach iOS notifications. This is that system.

TL;DR

  1. Watch mainly as a fitness & health aggregator;
  2. Watch as iPhone’s signal (as in worthiness) gatekeeper;
  3. Silent iOS notifications (texts, calls, apps;)
  4. No Lock Screen iOS notifications (but for a few exceptions;)
  5. Extremely conservative with allowing apps to send notifications.

The Watch

I love the Apple Watch. It’s one of the best and most useful devices I own to the point I consider an iPhone-only experience lacking and frustrating. I upgraded to a Series 3 non-LTE from a Series 0 this summer and it was totally worth it. I wear it every day—often while sleeping. The battery, speed, and its fitness / health tracking accuracy are phenomenal. Personally, the auxiliary LTE capabilities didn’t register as a priority. Looking back, I am content with my choice.

I use three faces, two Modular (every day and traveling) and one Chronograph (formal.) My every day Modular face comprises of time / date, Calendar, Activity, Strava, and Swarm complications. My traveling face uses the fantastic App in the Air complication, as well as two instances of the world clock (time zones I either travel to/from or care about) and time / date. My formal Chronograph face uses no complications.

Clockwise from top left: Every day Modular face, Strava inactive, Strava active workout, Overcast, Workout, traveling Modular face.

Clockwise from top left: Every day Modular face, Strava inactive, Strava active workout, Overcast, Workout, traveling Modular face.

I don’t install every available iOS app on the Watch. I try to filter for the ones I need either as complications or of which I can safely deduce that I will extract some marginal utility in my every day life, given the constraints of the platform and the nearby availability of my phone. The question I ask myself is, “Is it worth it?” The answer is mostly no.

I wear the Watch upside down, 1 always in silent mode, and use the Dock with a Favorites ordering (think of it as a macOS dock) with six apps I frequent the most: Overcast, Now Playing, Workout, Remote, Gymaholic, Pillow. No need for recently used apps since I can always access the most recent one by double pressing the crown.

I aggregate all my health, fitness, 2 and location data with Gyroscope which relies on the excellent HealthKit and Health app as back-end data sources. I often go for long walks which I (usually) log with the stock Workout app. I use the same app for my running workouts. 3 I like how it integrates with the Now Playing app. I track my CrossFit workouts via the stock Workout app, too, either as Cross Training or HIIT types. However, I’m open to alternatives or a CrossFit-dedicated app (which, to this day, I don’t know if it exists.) When I hit the gym, I use Gymaholic. I log all my cycling with Strava.

I’ve connected the following apps and services with Gyroscope and / or HealthKit: Strava (cycling,) Runkeeper (runs,) Instagram (shared photos,) Foursquare / Swarm (location history,) a EufyLife smart scale (weight,) MyFitnessPal (calories & food intake,) Cardiogram (passive heart rate analysis,) Pillow (sleep analysis,) and Slopes (skiing.) Ever since upgrading to the S3 I try to complete the three activity rings in the Activity app. I don’t always do, but it’s a good rule of thumb for being active throughout the day (or periodically standing from my chair.) I recommend adjusting your daily Move goal to something realistic and trying to achieve it.

In conjunction with my also beloved AirPods and Marco Arment’s Overcast app, I like to control podcast playback via the Watch. I would appreciate being able to also control the sound volume but frankly it’s not a big deal breaker. I often answer calls on the AirPods via the Watch or send a text via Siri’s help—especially while cycling Siri is of tremendous assistance. Moreover, being an Apple Music subscriber makes music playback on the Watch a bliss. Other apps I use on the Watch are 1Password (with a few 2FA logins I might need in the rare occasion I’m not using one of my Macs,) App in the Air, Cardiogram, Duo (the MIT and Broad Institute VPNs require accepting 2FA push notifications,) Evernote, FocusList (great pomodoro app,) Gymaholic, Overcast, Pillow, Slops, Strava, Swarm, Things, Tripit, Uber, 4 WSJ, and Slack (I allow notifications for a single low-volume but of high importance Slack group I’m member of.) I don’t have any other messaging apps installed, personal or professional, nor do I receive other notifications. More on mirroring below.

The notifications

The Watch is my signal gatekeeper (see point #2 in the TL;DR) and iOS is the first line of defense. In iOS I only allow notifications for the following apps:

  1. Phone calls and iMessages;
  2. Utility apps I often explicitly solicit an action from and they provide necessary follow-up information (think: Calendar, banking apps, Uber’s “your car is approaching,” or Duo 2FA authorizations;)
  3. A small minority of messaging apps;
  4. My to-do app of choice (Things;)
  5. Two news apps (of which one with low volume notifications gets mirrored on the Watch;)
  6. Work-related apps (for instance, when I worked in Congress I used Cloakroom for the voting bells, House floor announcements, and more.)

Accordingly, the iOS rules are:

  1. All notifications are silent (I don’t have my iPhone on silent because I like the keyboard clicks and in order to achieve this with phone calls I bought
    a silent ringtone—best \$1 I’ve ever spent;) 5
  2. No notifications on the Lock Screen (not even for iMessages or—God save us—news, unless for a handful of exceptions: an aggressively more limited subset of the utility apps in point #2 above;)
  3. No email notifications (no banners, Notification Center, or Lock Screen) unless for members of Mail.app’s VIP list (whom have banner and Lock Screen privileges;)
  4. Types of notifications:
    1. Some apps can only register for banners;
    2. Some apps can only register for badges;
    3. Some apps can only register for History with or without banners (i.e., need to visit the Notification Center;)
    4. Some apps may additionally vibrate the phone.
  5. The vast majority of apps can’t register at all for notifications. (Tweetbot, Instagram, &c.) 6

As such:

  • My iPhone Lock Screen only lights up for VIP emails, phone calls (can’t disable calls anyway,) and the few apps that fall within rule #2 above. (In the rare circumstance I’m not wearing the Watch I can still get ahold of of important stuff.)
  • My Watch notifies me with Haptic Feedback vibrations (remember: it’s always on silent) for iMessages, 7 emails from VIPs, flight status changes (App in the Air & select airline apps,) Calendar, banking apps, Uber et al., Uber Eats et al., Things reminders, and the Wall Street Journal notifications (which don’t vibrate anyway so I see at will not at nudge.)
  • Important: As long as I’m wearing the Watch, the iPhone Lock Screen will not light up (since it knows I’m wearing the Watch and forwards the notifications there.) Ergo, more privacy (say your iPhone is sitting on a table.)

The rules and the system at large may seem byzantine, arcane, and complex, however they produce eloquently uncomplicated results.

Wherever I might be and whatever I might be doing, from work to dinner to reading a book at home, I never disturb my peace nor the one of those around me with abrupt chimes or having my iPhone’s lock screen precipitously light up. If I’m working I want to be productive, if I’m having dinner with you I want to be with you, if I’m reading a book I want to immerse myself into the book—whatever the case may be, I don’t want to check my phone for frivolous things.

The “Is it worth it?” funnel questioning the importance and necessity of incoming solicitations for attention (“from the things I’ve allowed to interrupt me is it something I need to see now or can it wait?”) which acts as a signal gatekeeper defends me from noise and guarantees that I only need be interrupted for something or someone truly important.

The health and fitness tracking—the most accurate I’ve seen in a consumer device often even surpassing pro devices’ abilities—is exceptionally easy to organize and get hooked by. It keeps me in check, while the active (i.e., workout) and passive metrics make me improve and help me know myself. What gets measured, gets managed. What gets managed, gets better.

Great technology gets out of the way to help us realize our ideas, goals, and tasks. My Watch workflow is no Carousel but it does its job quietly, with no complaints, and discreetly appeals for my attention only when it knows I need to.

(And I don’t even have to turn my phone gray or eye roll at Manjoo columns.)


  1. iMore’s Serenity Caldwell made a compelling case which I experimented with and really liked.
  2. Heart rate, steps, sleep, weight, body fat, food intake, workouts.
  3. I’m also experimenting with Runkeeper because I think Gyroscope can’t pull the GPS data from the stock Workout app.
  4. And yet, ordering an Uber or ‘my usual Starbucks order’ via Amazon’s Alexa is much more fun.
  5. What is weird, however, is that you can set a silent ringtone for text messages by default. But not for calls, unless you pay.
  6. Facebook app is not even installed.
  7. One reason they don’t lighten up the iPhone Lock Screen while wearing the Watch is privacy.

posted: January 20, 2018
under: Apple

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