How to Set Up “The Warned Self” to Protect Your Peace of Mind

In the first article in this series describing The Notified Self I mentioned that we do our best work when we are completely focused. In these moments we narrow in on the task at hand, allowing nothing to interrupt us.

One of the downfalls of entering this flow state on a regular basis is a kind of tunnel vision that prevents us from noticing early, external signs of trouble. In this article, I share how we can set up a system of warnings and alarms which can help us preserve our peace of mind while maintaining our productivity.

Some people compensate for the tunnel vision related to the flow state by compulsively checking for signs of trouble. Unfortunately, this isn’t a sustainable strategy. It’s impossible to do your best work while you are monitoring the outside world, worried about other stuff that might happen.

In the prior article in this series, I mentioned the example of the President of the United States. It’s probably impossible for him to personally scan all possible indicators of trouble. Instead, he must trust his advisers to bring important matters to him once they pick up early warning signs.

While we don’t have that luxury, we face a similar problem. We need a way to delegate the part of our attention that would, if we had lots of bandwidth usually, monitor and seek after abnormal events. What can we do instead?

We know that alarms help. In our daily lives, we use simple warning systems like smoke alarms, low battery indicators on our smartphones and flashing lights on our cars. All of them allow us to relax so that we don’t have to watch over the health of certain critical systems.

With these examples, let’s define a “warning” or an alarm as a pre-set, anticipatory signal that indicates a malfunction, deviation or abnormal condition. Unlike the Interruptions we discussed in the prior article, they are not triggered routinely at a certain time — only when something is in a broken, or almost-broken state.

The Warned Self”, therefore, is easy to imagine. It is defined as an end-state in which you can effectively ignore a huge chunk of your world. Instead of granting it some of your precious attention, it’s set up run on auto-pilot as something or someone else watches over it for potential problems.

In our mobile, internet-driven world, how do you go about constructing a personal warning system that would effectively deliver the perfect end-result we all want: The Warned Self?

Like The Interrupted Self, it would bring together all our platforms, devices and apps into a single coherent whole so that we are perfectly warned, all the time. When alarms are triggered, they would provide a blend of audible, visual or haptic indications which would be impossible to ignore.

Today, of course, we are far away from that ideal.

Most of us live with a haphazard collection of alarms set up by companies which aren’t coordinated with each other at all. Here is a story from the Appendix of The End of Information Technology: Introducing Hypersense and Information Technology by Kelly Fitzsimmons and Martin Geddes.

The refrigerator incident.
“Beep!” What was that? OK, back to work… “Beep!” Oh darn it all! Did 
you hear that beep?
We were all on retreat sitting around the dining table, and there was this wretched beep every few minutes. It was maddening. The result was a 45-minute frantic search of the house. Where was it coming from? Outside? Upstairs? Laundry room? We narrowed it down to the kitchen. The 
cooker? The microwave? Eventually, we got it: the fridge door was ever-so-slightly ajar, triggering the beep. Who knew fridges talked? 
As we calmed down from the irritation of the interruption, we realize that in the “sensorization” of everything we (humans) were the sense-making engine. We need to learn to translate the beeps. That’s fine when there are only a few beeps in your world. But as the world gets noisier, boy, that is not okay.
If voice was valuable data, what did it mean to relieve the user of the cognitive load of sense-making? How could we avoid the ‘tyranny of the beep’ (that afflicts environments like hospitals) when managing alerts and permissions?
That nasty “interruption” lead to a major finding — we live under the tyranny of the beep today. It’s so pervasive it’s almost unnoticeable and intolerable at the same time.

With the “the tyranny of the beep” and other challenges very much alive today, we cannot wait for new technology to emerge. How can we implement practices that would take us to The Warned Self?

Practice 1 — Limit current warnings
If you are a user of technology, your world is probably populated by alarms: some trivial, others important. When they are all turned on, it’s likely that you may experience what experts call an “alarm flood.” It’s a state in which warnings pop up out of nowhere, on multiple channels, overwhelming the user with their sheer number, just as the authors shared in the Refrigerator Incident above.

Therefore, your first task is to shut down alarms which are unnecessary whenever they reveal themselves. Chances are, they are spread out all over your life, mostly put there by well-intended designers. Don’t try to find them all at once, but maintain a certain vigilance that leads you to shut them down if they aren’t life-threatening. You should make note of their existence.

Practice 2 — Uncover critical conditions and create alarms
As you remove the ones you don’t need, notice new conditions you need to monitor. When you find them, stop for a moment to complete a quick analysis, asking yourself the following questions:
- Is there likely to be a serious consequence if the condition were to continue?
- Is this is a condition that is not likely to remedy itself?

Then, take a look at your current alarm set and decide if one more can be added without causing an alarm flood. If it can be included, follow these steps:

Step 1: Determine a metric and a threshold
Sometimes, alarms are easy to set up. The anti-theft device on your car is one example. It’s easy to install and easy to arm and monitor because someone else has done the hard work for you of inventing it and making it easy to operate.

However, often there is no easy alarm available and you must be creative. Take the example of Van Halen’s written demand that a bowl of M&M’s had to be provided backstage before their concert. What made the requirement unusual was that all the brown ones had to be removed.

What they never explained was the purpose behind this requirement. Known as “Article 126” in their contract, if an organizer failed to meet it, they would declare an emergency in which they would demand a detailed line check of the entire production.

Why? For Van Halen, if the organizer had not met this particular detail, it was a leading indicator of trouble: there were probably other more serious, potentially life-threatening mistakes being made.

Like the bowl of M&M’s, setting up a good metric can take some creativity.

Plus it requires a threshold. Would Van Halen trigger the alarm if the band found a single brown M&M in the bowl? Or was a certain percentage considered to be acceptable?

Whatever the rule you decide, it should be determined beforehand making your decision an easy one in the moment.

Step 2— Set up an alarm’s attributes
As you may recall from discussion of The Interrupted Self in the prior article, most of us need help to bring alerts and warnings to our attention. We must find ways to interrupt ourselves immediately when a critical Warning is triggered.

The problem is that the definition of “immediate” varies from one person to another and from one alert to the next. The design of a good warning must account for the following:
- the true severity of the underlying condition (e.g. does it require a response?)
- the channel of delivery
- how well it reveals an underlying root cause
- how unique the alarm is among other similar alerts
- how quickly it needs to be delivered in the first instance
- the frequency of recurrence if it’s ignored
- the information it delivers about next steps
- the time it allows you to respond before the situation escalates

(These are elements of what security experts field call an “Alarm Philosophy.”)

Bear in mind that when you set up an alarm it’s not a stand-alone interruption. Instead, it exists in a personally defined ecosystem and it must work alongside a number of other items.

Practice 3— Monitor your system
It’s annoying when an invisible software upgrade or change in company policy affects an alarm without your knowledge. In order to prevent a problem, you need to test your warning system to make sure it’s still working as intended. Set aside time to review it in its entirety so that it remains functional.

I remember when I had a rude surprise regarding my checking account — all of a sudden, it had a lower balance than I remembered. Upon further investigation, I discovered that my bank had changed its notification system and no longer sent automatic alerts. Now, I had to set my own threshold plus a new channel of delivery.

A good review would have uncovered the issue ahead of time.

The Warned Self and Time-Based Productivity
In my book, Perfect Time-Based Productivity, I describe the need to set up alarms for your entire task management system. Unfortunately, I don’t offer much by way of solutions. Due to a lack of automation at the time of writing, most of the warnings I mentioned were manual.

The time is coming, however, when we’ll be able to receive warnings related to our systems. For example, since writing my book, I have become a SkedPal user. This calendar optimizer tells me when it has rescheduled an important task via its dashboard of messages. It also flags me when my daily plan is infeasible by showing the number of tasks (in bright red letters) that cannot be scheduled.

Based on my experience with SkedPal and other apps, the next version of my book is going to be different. I’ll be able to share much more than I ever understood before, including information on other apps. (If you know of other task management systems that offer system alarms — not just task alarms — please let me know as I am hunting for breakthrough examples to highlight.)

What We Need from Developers

While the responsibility to accomplish The Warned Self lies in the user’s habits, not in automation, there are concrete ways developers can help. First, they need to understand the users’ requirements at a deep enough level so they can include alarms in task management and calendar apps.

If they do so they may realize that users also need all-inclusive dashboards that monitor warnings and alarms across multiple devices, apps and software. We are a long way from having this software available, but hopefully, this article will help because these are universal problems shared by billions. They require the right principles and perspectives to be effectively deployed.

My sense is that users want to make progress towards the perfectly Warned Self, but help is slow in coming.

In the next article, I’ll focus on The Informed Self, which is the third and final component of The Notified Self. It has to do with gathering data that’s not needed urgently even though it’s being made available in the background for easy retrieval.

An Invitation to Explore

If this topic is one that interests you, follow our progress on Twitter - @The NotifiedSelf. If you would like to explore other ways to participate, return to the first article in the series and scroll to the bottom of the article for some choices.

Thanks to my volunteer editors who helped me edit this article: Doug Toft, Tom Jansen, Joyce Kristjansson, and Jolene Brown.