Earlier this week, I checked my Facebook for the first time in a few days. I had 14 notifications. Only one of them had anything to do with my profile at all (a friend had responded to a comment I made last week.) The rest were notifications about posts in groups I had joined, or apartments for rent, or simply notifications letting me know that one of my friends had added a photo or updated their status.
This notification creep is relatively new—thankfully, I didn't get any of these notifications pushed to my phone's lock screen, because I've turned off almost all of mine.
As our attention is increasingly fragmented and split among dozens of apps, the apps have compensated by getting more demanding of your time. Notifications are no longer used to notify you of anything—they’re used by apps to scream over each other in hopes that you’ll click them.
Facebook appears to be increasingly sending meaningless notifications to people who use the site less and less in hopes of enticing them back to it. Other apps are even more egregious: Duolingo, for example, uses notifications to shame you if you haven’t used the app in a few days.
In iOS 12, Apple attempts to solve this by stacking notifications from the same app on top of each other. This is helpful for making things like getting multiple text messages from the same person seem less alarming by taking up less real estate. For other apps, I find it more annoying, because the lock screen becomes even less useful—I have a bunch of notifications from various apps, but no idea what any of them are about until I actually check.
I have a solution for this: Turn off your push notifications. Or most of them, anyway.
Both Android and iOS allow you to turn off notifications on an app-by-app basis, and I suggest you should try turning off notifications for most apps (iOS 12's new notifications system does give you more advanced customization options, which is a very welcome change.)
A few months ago, my friend saw me glance at my phone and was horrified by how many notifications I had. Most of them were emails—I’ve signed up for lots of rarely useful newsletters and listservs—but there’s also Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, text messages, sports score alerts and updates, breaking news alerts, and lots of other crap. I was getting so many notifications that I wasn’t actually reading any of them. And so I began to cull them.
First to go was Twitter, a platform where literally anyone on Earth can pick a fight with you at any time of day and deliver it directly to your phone’s lock screen. After an errant mention ruined my dinner or morning one too many times, I turned them off.
Next was Facebook and Instagram, which are, for the most part, not time sensitive. I turned them off and now check those apps whenever I feel like it rather than when they demand I do. I liked the silence so much that, after turning off notifications for those two apps, I decided to turn them off for almost everything else.
The big one, for me, was email—both work and personal. I turned these off not because I wanted to ignore email, but because I was getting so many of them that I ended up ignoring the notifications anyway.
My phone use is now intentional—I use my phone rather than wait for it to tell me what to do or what to pay attention to
The science about how often the average person looks at their phone per day is all over the place, but any way you slice it, it’s a horrifying number; Apple says the average iPhone is unlocked 80 times per day, while other research puts it between 46 unlocks and “2,617 touches” per day. I suspect that I check my phone more often than the vast majority of people.
And so the reason I felt comfortable disabling basically every type of notification (and the reason I have rarely turned my phone off of “silent” for the last five years), is that I know what notifications are likely to be time-sensitive and which ones are not. I check my email every 10 minutes anyway—I don’t need to have a boxes constantly popping up on my lock screen while I’m at the gym or walking down the street. Likewise, I don’t want or need a bunch of random apps begging for my attention when I am likely to check the things I need to anyway.
There are exceptions. I don’t disable notifications for chat apps or text messages, because if a phone isn’t for talking to your friends and family, then what’s the point of it, anyway? And I have been experimenting with keeping notifications for some breaking news apps that are respectful of what’s actually worth a push notification.
Like I said, none of these changes have significantly changed how much I use my phone, but they have definitely changed the ways in which I use it. My phone use is now intentional—I use my phone rather than wait for it to tell me what to do or what to pay attention to. In that sense, it's more like a computer: I intentionally check email, I intentionally check social media, and I can now actually read an article or book or play a game without being constantly bombarded with popups.
Apps have learned that the best way to get your attention is to blast notifications at you all day, every day. The best way to take your attention back is to get rid of them altogether.