Toning down the Apple Watch: Tips and feature requests to avoid being overwhelmed

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Toning down the Apple Watch: Tips and feature requests to avoid being overwhelmed

Two years ago, I published this article about trying to find a healthy balance with Apple Watch notifications.

Some are useful because they reach you when your iPhone isn’t around. Others let you decide you can respond to something later without getting distracted with your phone. Most have no benefit and risk making you more distracted by your watch or numb to notifications altogether. Apple Watch alerts from iPhone are all on by default currently. You can turn them off app-by-app, but you’ll need to repeat this for every new app download.

I think notifications on Apple Watch should be off by default even if they’re on for the iPhone app. With the current default, Apple should at least include a toggle to disable watch notifications and turn them back on individually. A new system could be much more sophisticated, allowing watch alerts for certain contacts and specific type of alerts from apps. In the meantime, reversing the current behavior or adding an off toggle for all apps would help.

Voicing an idea in April 2021 was far too late to influence the new watchOS in June, but nothing changed with watchOS 9 last year either. Resurfacing this now certainly won’t change watchOS 10, but I do hope the idea has been considered over the last couple years. My original pitch and other advice follows.

Apple Watch is at the top of its class, but it isn’t a perfect product. The hardware and design is space age compared to the competition, and the software experience meets Apple’s mark. It’s also very personal because you wear it. Apple has known this from the start, so it designs personalization into the product. From watch colors and materials to strap choices and watch faces, it’s easy to make the Apple Watch uniquely yours.

How you use the Apple Watch is even more personal. The tech enthusiast in me wants to find a use for every Apple Watch feature, but this can create an overwhelming experience if you’re not intentional about your approach. It’s possible to want to reduce your reliance on the iPhone through the Apple Watch, only to find yourself even more annoyed by interruptions on your wrist.

Identifying utility from the Apple Watch while toning it down when the watch becomes too much has been something I’ve been working through recently. I’ll share where I’ve landed as well as a few feature requests for managing the experience for the better.

Start simple

My first suggestion applies regardless of how long you’ve been an Apple Watch user: Start simple and build up. The Apple Watch becomes more capable with every software update and hardware revision. This is great for finding your use in the product, but more features inevitably adds to the complexity.

This can be a number of things when considering how you use the Apple Watch. From managing apps and alerts to changing watch behaviors, getting a handle on these can go a long way. The first step is spending some time in the Watch app on iPhone and discovering the preferences mentioned in this article.

Let’s start with three app tips:

  • Install new apps manually
  • Remove apps you’ve installed but never use
  • Remove built-in apps you won’t need

Opting out of having every possible app from your iPhone appear on your watch can reduce distraction and improve clarity for what you want to get out of your Apple Watch.

I currently have six apps from the App Store on my Apple Watch: Messenger, Things, Fantastical, Broadcast, Pillow, and Tempo. Each app brings a function to my Apple Watch that isn’t included by default without becoming tap targets I’ll never need.

Apple also lets you remove some of the built-in watch apps that are pre-installed like Cycles and Noise. I would argue that Stocks and News could are apps and complications I’ll never want on my watch, but there are a number of built-in apps that can’t be removed or hidden.

Buzz off

Apple Watch does a reasonable job at setup by asking you if you want to install all apps or manage later. The process for managing alerts isn’t nearly as simple. Manually managing which apps can notify you and how on your Apple Watch goes a long way in avoiding an overwhelming experience. Here’s how I use alerts:

  • Notifications Indicator (the red dot) is turned off
  • Mirror iPhone alerts from apps is turned off for all but five apps
  • Alerts for each built-in app is set to off aside from a few like Messages, Phone, and Reminders

The red dot indicator icon on the watch face lost its meaning for me as soon as I realized I usually have an alert in Notification Center. If I don’t see the alert in real time on my wrist, I’ll probably see it on Notification Center on my iPhone instead.

I’m a bit surprised that there’s no easy toggle for turning off mirroring app notifications for iPhone apps that do not have Apple Watch apps. This process requires toggling alert mirroring off for each app you install on your iPhone even if you want five out of 60 apps to mirror notifications.

Where’d the time go?

There are a few apps that will take over your watch face to present you with a quick glance at its data instead. This is true for any audio that comes through the Now Playing app as well as navigation with Maps. I recognize the utility of having audio controls and navigation guidance prioritized over the watch face when the data is relevant, but I also enjoy always seeing my watch face when I glance or raise my wrist. Here are some settings I prefer:

  • Turn off auto-launch audio apps
  • Turn off Driving with CarPlay alerts in Maps
  • Turn off Raise to Speak for Siri

These three settings limit the number of times an app experience or an accidental Siri will takeover my watch face. The Now Playing app can be launched from the status indicator on the watch face if needed, and alerts from Maps are redundant when driving with CarPlay. I’m also super comfortable with “Hey Siri” for invoking Siri hands-free on the Apple Watch. I prefer this to accidental interruptions from Siri thinking it heard a command when I raise my wrist.

Defining purpose

When Apple Watch was brand new, it was common to try everything before finding the product’s purpose for you. This is still true for brand-new watch customers, but I think it’s important to eventually define a purpose for the Apple Watch. This helps you narrow down the feature set that applies to you while toning down or tuning out the features that get in your away.

This is especially true with the health and fitness features on the Apple Watch. These are often features that are brand new to you through the watch and have no equivalent on the iPhone. This means they require separate consideration and decision making from how you manage features and alerts on your phone.

For example, I value stand reminders on the Apple Watch, but other fitness notifications can be overwhelming for me. This changes from time to time, but currently I have stand reminders and special challenges turned on, but alerts for daily coaching, goal completions, and activity sharing notifications turned off. I also disable Breathe app and Noise app notifications. I can always revisit this configuration in the future if a feature or new need changes my mind.

Meanwhile, I turn on and keep alerts active for heart rate notifications because these are rare but informative.


I’ve also toned down my Apple Watch by doing these steps:

  • Choose one simple watch face with just the time shown, then adding data like temperature and date when I realize I miss those
  • Actively use Do Not Disturb and Theater Mode from Control Center to pause notifications and turn off the watch screen
  • Set Siri voice feedback to “Control with silent mode” versus the default “always” or alternative “headphones only”

Only after getting a grip on these controls for finding constraint have I become comfortable with my Apple Watch again. I’ve actually gone from days away from my watch to returning to enabling cellular data and leaving my iPhone in the car occasionally.


Lastly, I have two feature requests that I do not pitch lightly. Both of these features are critical for me avoiding the feeling that the Apple Watch is too much again.

Add a toggle in Control Center for enabling and disabling the always-on display (Theater Mode is a workaround but admittedly a hack). Apple could also associate the gesture of covering your watch face with your hand with toggling always-on mode. Currently this silences your watch if it’s muted and an alert goes off, but it would be more practical for a lot of people if it toggled always-on display mode back and forth.

Use a VIP or Favorites system for call and message alerts on Apple Watch. For example, if a close friend or family member texts me, I want the alert on my wrist. If a friend I casually chat with regularly messages me, I’ll just see it on the iPhone. You can mute individual threads, but you can’t opt out of message alerts and instead give notification privileges to assigned contacts. Related: I wrote in 2015 that I missed the ability to assign custom alert tones to specific contacts when wearing an Apple Watch over just using an iPhone. I would amend this in 2021 to request the ability to create custom tap alerts for specific contacts instead. You can create custom vibration alerts on iPhone thanks to the Taptic Engine which originated from the Apple Watch, but this feature isn’t on the Apple Watch yet.

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