How to Tame the Apple Watch - Wall Street Journal

Two weeks ago, I had a breakfast meeting. Right around my second piece of bacon, my wrist vibrated. I looked down to see my editor had sent back comments about my column. For the rest of the meal, my attention wasn't on the words coming out of the person across from me, but on the few words I'd seen on my watch.

If you allow it, the Apple AAPL 0.32 % Watch will constantly pull you out of the real world and suck you into your digital one. With constant chimes, vibrations and pop up alerts it can become a high-tech shackle, chaining you by the wrist to your email and text messages, your Facebook FB -0.11 % and Twitter TWTR 0.70 % feed.

If you let it, that is. After wearing the Apple Watch on my wrist for the last three weeks, I've learned how to tame it. It now rarely interrupts my life in a way that makes me want to slice it off with a pruning shear. In fact, when I take it off now, I feel naked without it.

Apple's software still needs deeper intelligence and controls for it to block all but the things we really care about. But for now, there are steps you can take to turn it from an accessory of distraction into a tool of genuine usefulness.

A Notification Intervention

If you have an iPhone but don't plan to get an Apple Watch, take Apple's unremovable Watch app and hide it in a folder right now. If you are getting one, make room on your homescreen for your new best friend.

The very first thing I did was use it to limit notifications going to my wrist. In the Notifications menu, I turned off alerts for almost all third-party apps, even for ones I keep popping on my phone, such as Twitter and Facebook. (During Apple Watch setup, Apple mirrors your phone notifications in the watch settings, so you'll have to tweak them.)

Of course, what you enable will be personal preference, but after one liked-photo Instagram notification and an alert for my next round of "Trivia Crack," I was ready to put a muzzle on the majority of them.

Within Apple's own apps, I did a lot of fine-tuning. The calendar app, for instance, now only pings my wrist for upcoming event reminders—not new invitations or invitee responses. After a week or so, I also turned off the Activity app's hourly "stand up" reminders, which I was ignoring anyway.

The whole setup is monotonous, especially turning off each and every app notification, but it'll save you from nonstop pestering in the long run.

The VIP List

Email seems to be a smartwatch's most difficult challenge. Many of us get hundreds of messages a day—some from bosses, others from Nigerian princes. I set up my watch to be like a club bouncer, only allowing in emails from those I have deemed VIPs.

Within the iPhone's Mail app, you can add specific contacts to a VIP list. Then, when you go to the Apple Watch iPhone app, under the Notifications menu, you can set it to only notify you if one of your VIPs emails.

These are Apple's deepest controls for email but they still aren't enough. Unlike Gmail or, Apple doesn't provide an intelligent, automatic email filtering system, deciding what is important and what is just marketing spam. VIP allows you to create a manual list, but I still wish it could send through other important emails, like an alert saying a package delivery was delayed, or the latest email in a continuing thread with a non-VIP. I just want the Watch to know when a new message is important.

Also, it's a shame VIP doesn't work across other apps, not even Apple's own iMessage. On the Watch, you create a list of 12 friends' phone numbers that are easily accessible—wouldn't it make sense to have a setting that only allows message notifications from that elite set?

You Don't Need an App for That

My colleagues and I will continue to look out for the killer Apple Watch app, but for now I've flat out killed most of the third-party apps on my Watch.

I've found most to be distracting, sluggish and not all that useful. (WSJ, Starbucks SBUX 4.17 % and CityMapper—a subway schedule app—are the exceptions.) I don't need the OneDrive app, at least not until I want to show vacation photos to a mouse. I certainly don't need one weather app for every day the week. For all of these to work, your phone must be close by anyway—it makes sense just to grab the bigger screen.

Even if some apps end up being very useful, switch off the setting in the iPhone app that automatically puts any compatible app from your phone onto your watch. Also, when it comes to glances, the small cards you can flip through when you swipe up from the bottom of the screen, best to disable any nonessential ones. I kept getting distracted by them on my way to checking the truly vital ones like weather, calendar—and battery life. Besides, many of the glances are slow to load.

My New Friend, Willpower

The most helpful thing I've learned about taming the Apple Watch came from deep within my own personal settings menu. Around week two, I found the willpower to turn off notifications altogether when spending time with real people.

It isn't always easy to remember—or to actually do it—but turning on Do Not Disturb when sitting down to a meeting or lunch with a friend is now a must for me.

I also frequently turn off the red indicator on the watch face, which says if new unseen notifications await you. I used to love the blinking red light on my BlackBerry BB -0.40 % but on my wrist, it became an addiction. I simply turn it off in the Apple Watch iPhone app whenever I'm in a situation when I know I'll keep looking for it.

And that's what I've learned over the past few weeks. As angry as I've wanted to be at the Apple Watch for interrupting my life, it's on me to limit its distractions. As technology becomes an extension of our bodies, we need to find our own controls; we need to resist burying ourselves in the digital world and stay present in the real one.

There's simply never going to be an option for that in the settings menu.

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Write to Joanna Stern at and follow her on Twitter @JoannaStern.


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