Like most Quantified Self enthusiasts, I was very excited when Apple introduced the screen time tracking feature in iOS 12. The real-time reports of how much time I spend on my iphone can potentially provide extremely useful insights into my productivity. While this function is currently limited in its capabilities, it has great potential for becoming an invaluable tool for self-tracking in the future. In this post, I discuss its current capabilities (from the self-tracking and personal development perspectives), limitations and how Apple could improve this function.

Screen Time provides you with a detailed report about how your device (iPhone, iPad or iPod touch) is used, including time spent using apps and visiting websites (by category), number of times you picked your device. You can also set limits on certain apps or restrict access to select websites. You can enable this feature by going to Settings > Screen Time and turning it on. It is also available as a home page widget. In fact, this is the first thing I see on my iPhone screen.

Screen Time Tracking Stats: The Good Stuff

The “at a glance” statistics show the total time you spent using your phone overall, comparison with your daily average, and a breakdown of usage by categories:

time tracking and measuring screen time

You can then see more detailed screen time tracking statistics by tapping on the widget. For now, you can see current statistics for today and historical records for last 7 days:

You can get a deeper drill down for individual apps, websites or categories. Currently, categories include:

  • Social Networking (this includes communication apps like WhatsApp and Skype)
  • Games (self-explanatory)
  • Entertainment
  • Creativity (e.g., Photos)
  • Productivity (e.g., Dropbox)
  • Education (e.g., Mimo, Coursera, etc)
  • Reading & Reference (e.g., Kindle)
  • Health & Fitness (e.g., Apple Health, rTracker)
  • Other

Other statistics include:

  • “pick-ups” (times you picked up your phone). This includes a total number of pick-ups, breakdown by hour, and average daily numbers. You can also see the first app or website you used after pickup (basically, the reason you picked up your phone).
  • notifications received. This includes a total number of notifications you received on your phone, breakdown by hour and daily and hourly averages. You can also see the app or website that sent you those notifications.

Screen Time Tracking: The Bad Stuff

While all of the stats above are great, tracking them on a regular basis would be difficult. Specifically, there are two major flaws that greatly limit the ability to use Screen Time for self-tracking purposes:

Inability to Export Screen Time Data (Directly or via API)

This is probably the most important feature that I would like to see. It is also the least likely to ever materialize, due to the privacy concerns. We are talking time spent on apps like Tinder and Grindr, websites like Pornhub and other sensitive activities. There is no way Apple will let third-party apps to access that info.

The only workaround I see is the ability to export/access data at the category level. Which brings us to the next point.

Inability to Customize Categories

The current categories in Screen Time are not flexible enough. To some people, Photos belong in the Creativity category (current default designation), but for me, looking at the photos and videos on my iPhone falls under the Entertainment. Using Skype to make business calls would be classified as Productivity, but Skype is currently tracked under Social Media category.

The ability to assign apps to categories based on your personal preferences would be extremely helpful. Creating your own custom categories would be great, too.

How to Use Currently Available Screen Time Tracking Stats

From the self-tracking and personal development perspective, the most important statistic would be the time associated with apps and categories. The app-specific time stats are more useful than category-based (because the categories can be inaccurate). As an example, I will use productivity tracking.

As a data scientist, I can measure my productivity in terms of lines of code written and time spent writing that code. When I am at my computer, I use R studio. Luckily, I can also write (and often run) R code on my iPhone using an awesome app “R compiler”. I can easily count the number of lines written in the app, but I would need to use Screen Time tracking function to see how much time I spent writing that code:

productivity metrics using iphone time tracking feature

Other examples of using Screen Time to measure and track productivity would include writing and blogging (if you write your posts in Notes or some other text editing app), learning (e.g., Mimo app to learn programming languages), reading (e.g., Kindle or Feedly), etc.

The pickup and notification stats could be potentially used to track your flow and focus. This works best if you have a certain time of the day set for a specific activity (e.g., learning Spanish or writing a blog post from 3 to 4 pm every day). You could then look at the number of pickups during that time period as a measure of distraction. Another way to use Screen Time pickup stats is to track a certain habit (tied to a specific app).

Unfortunately, the only way to track your Screen Time stats at this point would be to record them manually. I will have to wait for that API or data export functionality before I implement Screen Time in my daily self-tracking routine.

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