The Notifications Are Too Damn Many

How many notifications do you receive from apps in a day? How many of those are really important? More important than whatever you're doing at the time? OK, maybe you're an E.R. doctor on call. But if you aren't, consider turning off Facebook notifications off this Thanksgiving. The food pictures will still be there after dinner.

Apps are needy. They need your eyeballs on them as much as possible. Notifications are how they get you. It's really the only trick in the smartphone era. Push notifications are twisting beloved apps into nagging annoyances, and it's on us to manage them.

A Cautionary Tale

Recently, a friend who works for a tech startup was crashing at my house for a couple days while his converted San Francisco warehouse room was blasted for bedbugs. He brought an iPad, a Nexus 7 and a Windows laptop, in addition to his phone.

He was out and about in the evenings, which I usually use for solo creative writing while my roommates are out. So he had the phone with him. The PC was sleeping. But the two tablets were wide awake and vigilant, just waiting for something to happen somewhere in my friend's digital world.

I swear to you, he was getting more than a notification a minute on the iPad, the Nexus 7 or both. It ranged from iMessages to email to Facebook to calendar events to some kind of life-tracking, goal-setting app. They were all pinging and bonging and dinging across the room pretty much constantly, each with their own attention-destroying sound. It was profoundly awful. Add one more buzzing device, and that's my friend [REDACTED]'s life. Don't end up like [REDACTED].

Of course, it's easy to find other people's notifications annoying. For instance, the guy in my office whose phone plays the Simpsons theme song every 12 minutes is going to need another phone next time it happens. But when it's your own notifications, it's more complicated.

Protect Your Brain

Messages are like little rewards for your brain, so you're tempted to check them immediately to get little rush of self-validation. But the interruption just isn't worth it. Multitasking makes us worse at all the things we're doing, and these messages imposing the needs of others stress us out. We need some coping strategies.

After my four-day Digital Detox, I made a few sensible changes to my signal-to-noise ratio that really helped. I never had push notifications for email (how do people survive that?), but I still had way too many bells and whistles in my life, and I scaled them back successfully.

I turned off Twitter notifications for mentions, and I turned off sound and vibration for the rest of them. Then I went a step further and moved Twitter off the front screen of my phone. I stopped letting Twitter pull me in. Instead, I decide when to go there deliberately, do what I need to do, and leave.

But the most important thing you can do for yourself is go through each service and carefully decide which notifications, if any, you need. If your apps are sending notifications in the first place, you're damned if you do and damned if you don't. If you have them make sound, you're constantly interrupted and distracted. If you have them come in silently, you'll keep coming back to your phone to check, or wait a while and see 11 new messages and get stressed out.

If you want out of this cycle, you've got to comb through your settings and disable the notifications at the root of the problem -- except for those you honestly need. 

Many of us in the United States have some official downtime this week. It's a great chance to turn down the noise in our lives.