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The One Feature Every Smartphone Needs: Vacation Mode

Rob Pegoraro
Contributing Editor
Yahoo Tech

(Photos by Rob Pegoraro/Yahoo Tech)

I hope you’ve spent a healthy chunk of August looking at one beach, lake, mountain, city vista, or another. But I have this sneaking suspicion that, instead, you’ve spent an unhealthy amount of the month looking at your phone.

How do I know? Because I’ve been doing the same thing, and I wish I were not. And it’s well past time that the miniature distraction machines we all carry in our pockets offered us a little help.

Shutting off your phone is like cutting off a limb

I already know what you’re thinking. The easiest solution to the problem of perpetual connectedness is to say, “shut off your damned phone.” It’s also the least helpful. Beyond allowing us to speak to people in other places, our phones now serve as our primary guides to the world around us. Their apps tell us where we are, what’s good nearby, and how to get there.

This help becomes even more essential when we’re in unfamiliar territory, as my friend Alex Howard noted in a Huffington Post essay about his attempts to go easy on his iPhone during a week’s sojourn in Maine.

The question becomes, how can you take advantage of all the benefits your phone offers while traveling, yet still manage to avoid being notified out of any sense of calm or relaxation? 

Howard wrote that he checked his work email twice all week, looked at  his home email only once a day, tweeted 26 times, shared 25 photos on Instagram, and posted 21 Facebook updates. That’s an amazing display of self-discipline, especially for somebody who picked “digiphile” as his Twitter handle.

I was able to lay off most social media on an overdue vacation two years ago. Now I fear I am no longer up to the task.

Not the mode we deserve, but the mode we need

Still, our phones could give us more help. They all offer airplane mode, most of them include power-saving modes, some even provide reduced-distraction driving modes — so why not build on those precedents and add a Don’t Bug Me I’m on Vacation mode?

Vacation mode would provide the same access to navigation and place-finding apps as ever — Google Maps, Yelp, and Foursquare need not fear it — but would filter out work emails and other noise.

By default, it would show social media updates only from people you’re close to, either geographically or emotionally. It would also limit those notifications to original content — no shared news stories on Facebook, no retweets on Twitter. Everything else would be deferred for your review when you get back home, if you care to look at it at all.

It would tame your inbox in the same fashion, showing messages from your important contacts as they arrive but hiding everything else. It might provide a summary each evening of that hidden correspondence, which you could opt out of as well.

I’m not sure if vacation mode should ration your social-media sharing — having your phone deny you permission to tweet could be annoying. But I’d like to think that less social input will naturally lead to less output.

Will any smartphones offer such a thing anytime soon? Google and Apple’s weak support for driving mode inspires little confidence. Unlike Windows Phone, neither mobile OS includes a mode that starts automatically when a phone connects to a car’s Bluetooth, leaving users stuck with manufacturer add-ons like Motorola’s and Samsung’s. And this is a feature that can save lives, a slightly more important goal than making them more tranquil.

And don’t even get me started about smartwatch notifications.

DIY vacation mode settings

Until the day smartphone manufacturers build in that hypothetical vacation mode, you’ll have to make do with a few tweaks to your favorite mobile apps. 

With Facebook, you can put your best friends on your “Close Friends” list, then see a News Feed featuring only them: Tap the “More” menu button, scroll down and tap “Close Friends.”

If you’ve turned on Facebook’s “Nearby Friends” feature — few of my mine have — that can give you a heads-up about their proximity. It’s in the same “More” menu, but higher up.  

With Twitter, you can cut down on the distractions by setting its iOS and Android apps to show only notifications from people you follow. Twitter’s Android app also lets you switch the notifications view to show only tweets mentioning you — no retweets, favorites or new followers.

In email, Google and Apple picked fundamentally different prioritization strategies. In Gmail and Google’s apps for it, you have to trust Google to identify priority messages for you — and you’ll have to train this feature about your preferences.

Apple’s “VIPs” feature, in which you designate important contacts and see only their messages by tapping “VIPs” from its list of mailboxes, requires no such trust of an algorithm. But you’ll need to remember to update that VIPs list.

The Lollipop version of Android adds a non-mail answer to iOS’s VIPs: “Priority Notifications” you can customize to include only calls and messages from your contacts — or just those marked as important with a star. Apple’s Do Not Disturb doesn’t match that flexibility, since it merely regulates whose calls get through.

Finally, you can control how much bandwidth your chattier apps get. In iOS, you can block them from using cellular data in the Settings app’s Cellular category. Android doesn’t let you confine an app to WiFi, but you can cut off background data access from any one app from the Settings app’s Data usage interface.

If after all that, you decide that vacation mode should really be everyday mode, who’s going to blame you?

Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.