Notifications are a two-edged sword.
They’ve been around for a long time. Telephones have rung when someone calls since the beginning. Town criers, mentioned in the Bible, announced William of Normandy’s invasion of England in 1066. And roosters have heralded the coming dawn, since… well, since roosters have been around.
On the one hand, notifications let us be more responsive to changes in the world around us. We get an email from a client, ding! Someone updates the quarterly results slide deck, ding! Our car is going to be done charging, ding! The dryer finishes, ding!
On the other hand, notifications derail our train of thought. They distract our attention from the task at hand and the people in the room. They interrupt our focus. It can take 25 minutes to get that focus back after Duolingo lets us know our hearts are full again. Many apps and services are built on a business model of grabbing our attention and notifications are a key part of their strategy. Four out of five times, we use our phone because it asked us to. (For more on this war for our attention, check out the excellent Deep Work by Cal Newport.)
It’s a choice between productivity and connectivity. We have to strike a balance between staying informed and getting things done.
Fortunately, we’re in control. Whatever the app wants to do, we have the final say on what it may do. Here are some of the options you have on iOS.
- Disable notifications for an app entirely. Every app you install has to ask for your approval to show you notifications. It’s okay to say no! If you grant permission and an app starts sending too many notifications which you don’t find useful, you can always go into Settings > Notifications and revoke (or downgrade) its permissions.
- Deliver notifications quietly. Not all notifications have to play a sound, vibrate your phone, or show up on the Lock Screen when they come in. You can configure an app to deliver its notifications quietly. They’ll still show up in the Notification Center when you check it, so you can see recent activity, but you have to check on your schedule. They will no longer interrupt you.
- Control what notifications an app sends you. Some apps give you control over how you want to be notified and for what kind of events. You might want your banking app to alert you immediately if a suspicious charge is detected, but only send you an email when a new statement is available. This lets you customize the workflow according to what you need.
- Disable chatty conversations. Did you know you can turn off notifications for chatty friends and still let through notifications for the rest? On the details screen for the conversation, turn on Hide Alerts. The conversation will still be highlighted with a blue dot when new messages come in.
- Don’t install the app on your phone. Nothing says you have to install Facebook on your phone. Once or twice a day, spend a pomodoro catching up from your computer, then get back to life. Insidiously, some websites will ask your permission to send alerts to your phone without even having to install an app; choose wisely before you allow them to do so.
- Pause all notifications when you need to focus. When it’s time to tune out the world for a deep work block, you have options. Enable Do Not Disturb, put your phone in Airplane Mode, turn it off, or leave it in another room. You can review the notifications in Notification Center when you’re done.
Push notifications should help you be more productive. Sometimes, being connected is part of that productivity. We have to find the balance. A 2017 study showed that in addition to focused productivity apps, notifications from communication apps are the most useful to allow.
The next time you get a notification on your phone, ask yourself whether its message was something you needed to know right away. If not, swipe left and dial back its permissions. Only allow notifications that help you through the day.