How to Organize Your Notifications to Accomplish the Perfectly “Notified Self”

What is The Notified Self? It’s an ideal end-state where you have complete control over your ecosystem of reminders, notifications, updates, and alerts on all devices and platforms.

But wait, there’s more! You are also gathering information and data that is critical to your decision-making.

If this sounds like a line from the Quantified Self (Q.S.) movement, it should. The only reason the Notified Self is possible is because QS has successfully directed your attention to hitherto invisible data gathered by new technologies. QS has always promised a better life but it’s been mostly focused on the point where data is being gathered, such as through wearable device that keeps track of your heart-rate, sleep times and steps taken.

The Notified Self focuses on the behavior change — using data in different ways to make your life better.

In this article, I describe how to use the concept of the Notified Self in real-time: to make immediate changes in your behavior. There is a way, without new technology, to take steps towards this ideal end-point. At the end of the article, I anticipate new technology that will grant you unprecedented control and coordination that will make a big everyday difference.

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Beyond the hype of the hottest app, operating system and mobile device lies the same thing that’s always been there — a human being trying to get life done on their terms. For thousands of years, this hasn’t changed.

However, you now have a productive potential within our grasp that your ancestors couldn’t even imagine. This possibility lies resident in the constellation of devices you use each day.

For example, you are using a device to read this article. Sitting nearby you probably have another device (or two or three) which is linked to the internet and therefore to each other. Altogether, they create a digital ecosystem you use to get your life done.

Or, is it more accurate to say that the ecosystem uses you?

As you read this article, notice the alerts, updates, and interruptions that take place from this ecosystem. Who decides to send them? Who turned on these channels to begin with? You bought each device, but what else did you do to shape these visual, audible and tactile messages?

If you are like most people, you didn’t do much. Your response has been one that’s defensive… to just tune most of them out. Or maybe all of them.

Perhaps you have gotten to the point where these pings, pop-ups and vibrations are no longer distracting you. They have become a wall of noise to be ignored, with no signal left whatsoever.

Against a background of failure which appears to be widespread, what else might be possible?

Morons R Us

A few years ago, I argued that it was all too easy nowadays to turn employees into morons: just scare them into checking their email frequently. In one client company, an executive unwittingly damaged company productivity by casually asking a single employee to reply to his future emails “within the hour.” The word spread, affecting the productivity of hundreds. They probably went on to experience the drop in IQ, loss of concentration and ADHD symptoms that scientists have detected.

Now imagine - how productive can you be if you actually respond to all of your notifications?

Apparently, ignoring them has an effect also. Studies have shown that the mere presence of a smartphone reduces performance on certain tasks and lowers conversation quality. Once it becomes activated by a push notification, it’s sure to have the same or worse effect.

How Did We Get Here?

The answer is obvious, but maybe not the cause. A ringing phone was perhaps the first notification most of us remember as kids. It was an audible interruption that forced a response, especially before the days of caller-ID and voicemail.

When email spread in the mid-1990’s many of us had programs that continued the need for sound, announcing “You’ve Got Mail!” In the very beginning, this triggered positive feelings.

Fast forward to the world you live in today and it becomes obvious that something has gone way out of control. Nowadays, we purchase new devices in the belief that they will improve our productivity. New apps promise the same, often bringing fresh channels of communication plus a slew of added notifications.

Their creators are keen to get our attention, making interruptive communication with the user a key feature. In fact, there is a growing panic among these developers as they fight for an diminishing fraction of user mindshare. Today, we have companies that specialize in nothing more than helping apps to do a better job of providing notifications.

It’s a stalemate. Developers try harder to get our attention. We work harder to tune them out. They waste their time and resources. We end up being less productive.

Is this where the story ends?

The Counter Attack
There are a few who have seen a far greater danger than any I have described so far. They have come from the opposite direction, focusing on the conditions humans need to produce their best work. The best-known author is probably Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. In his 1990 book Flow, The Psychology of the Optimal Experience, he shares that our highest quality, most fulfilling work takes place in the kind of focused attention that is now in short supply.

Early in 2016, Cal Newport published Deep Work, Rules for Focused Work in a Distracted World, also in response to the current assault on our attention. He argues that there is no way to make consistent progress in one’s career without actively reversing the moronic forces. “Beware of Facebook!” he warns in stern tones. He advocates the active creation of zones of quiet, challenging, uninterrupted work in line with the kind of deliberate practice advocated by Malcolm Gladwell and Anders Ericsson.

A few adherents to QS like Enrico Bertini have also jumped into the fray, pointing out the need to measure the amount of time doing high-quality work. Collecting this kind of retrospective data can make a big difference as Newport has shared on his blog. But QS could do so much more than just collect lag metrics. By then, it’s just too late.

Ideally, we should be able to do the opposite: use leading metrics collected from our digital ecosystem to act as a real-time guide, perhaps doing the following with the single click of a button:

  1. Letting us know when it’s time for us to enter periods of Deep Work/the Flow State/deliberative practice
  2. Laying out a checklist as we start to enter the state to ensure that interruptions are minimized
  3. Taking control of our ecosystem on demand or on a schedule, turning off all sources of interruption
  4. Advising others that we’re unavailable for anything but life-threatening emergencies
  5. Interrupting us to take a mental or health break
  6. Indicating when the allotted time for focused work has come to an end
  7. Giving us the choice of what to do next, including continuing what we were doing

This would take us a step closer to the Notified Self. With a minimum of fuss, our ecosystem should be serving us rather than the other way around.

How can we systematically create such real-time supports?

This is the point where young designers get excited. Each of the seven features above could be an idea for an app — indeed, some of them already exist. However, producing seven cool apps is not the same as gaining complete control of an ecosystem. For that, we need some design principles to work with, plus a new mindset.

Mrs. Landringham’s Super Powers

Viewers of the television show The West Wing may remember President Jeb Bartlet’s secretary. In the show, her name was Mrs. Landringham. She was the perfect secretary so that between the two of them, three core interactions occurred each day at the White House.

Interaction 1 — “What’s Next?” 
At the end of a task or meeting, The President would turn to her with this question. It’s the essence of what I call “Switching,” the skill of choosing the next action to complete, once a prior task is complete. (Along with the two practices to follow, it’s described in detail in my book, Perfect Time-Based Productivity.)

Interaction 2 — “Stop.”
While I can’t recall her being this blunt on the show, she interrupted the President many times to alert him to the fact that another commitment was due to begin. He’d always listen, even if he did not comply in the way she expected. Her job was to notify, not bully. It’s the action I call “Interrupting.”

Interaction 3 — “There’s Trouble Ahead.”
If the day’s plan was in jeopardy due to an unforeseen event, she’d never sit by and allow a disaster to happen. It was her duty to do what I call “Warning” — letting him know that his immediate schedule had a problem that needed to be fixed.

She also played the all-important role of gatekeeper, managing these interactions by controlling the number of interruptions and distractions. Obviously, we could all enjoy having a Mrs. Landringham in our lives employing the perfect array of Switching, Interrupting and Warning skills. However, that remains a pipe dream for most of us.

But help is coming. A quick glance at the early-2016 features of Fitbit, the Samsung Gear and the Apple Watch give some hope.

For example, a user can Switch skillfully by peering into the future laid out in their cloud-synced calendar. Each of these devices offers features that Interrupt the owner with pre-set alerts. Unfortunately, I don’t see where they offer any Warning-like features.. yet. Maybe they are planning to introduce a feature that warns the user of an impending heart failure!

These features represent a first step. But Csikszentmihalyi and Newport are clear that powerful periods of productivity don’t come lightly. They must be enforced by far more than the features I listed above — they require the no-nonsense heft of Mrs. Landringham-like authority and capability.

Also, the Q.S. movement needs her. It’s focus on monitoring and collecting data is not enough as some are pointing out. In order to achieve habitual behavior changes that stick the information being gathered by these new devices must help us Switch, Interrupt and Warn with ease.

How can we develop this capability without hiring another person?

Nurturing Your Own Mrs. Landringham
We must learn a new skill — how to develop our own Notified Self which will stand in for a super powered secretary.

As I mentioned, the Notified Self is an ideal: a vision of yourself in which you exert complete control over all incoming notifications (among other practices.) If you had it, you would be able to:
1. Enter the Flow State and do Deep Work at will.
2. Know what to do when you Switch tasks.
3. Allow a limited set of Interruptions.
4. Get the right Warnings at the perfect time.

And above all…

5. Enjoy the peace of mind knowing that all your alerts are real, where each one is performing an important job.

If you imagine some kind of mega-app or program that could achieve these objectives, we are thinking along the same lines. However, before you step that far into the future, take a moment to see what you can do today to achieve these five objectives without adding any new technology.

Step 1 — Turn Off All Notifications
Go into your devices and switch them all of, except the one you probably need the most — your phone’s ringing. This is “Cold Turkey” and will take you back to the days when you had a feature phone. As you take this step, notice that you are re-training your nervous system to return its attention to the audible, visual and tactile notification channels of your devices. (You are likely to need a Google search to discover how to do this for all your apps, operating systems, platforms and devices.)

Step 2 — Make a List of Necessary Notifications
As your minutes of silence turn into hours and days, write down the notifications you believe you cannot do without. I recommend you look for persistent needs rather than occasional wins. For example, if back in 2014 a pinging email helped you notice a critical email just in time to avert an emergency, don’t make the psychological error called a “Hasty Generalization.” (It’s the same as believing that one swallow makes a summer.) Instead, be smart and aware: the cumulative destruction caused by continuous email-related pings, pop-ups and vibrations probably far exceeds the benefit you gained from a single exceptional event. Set aside this list once it’s complete.

Step 3 — List the Most Likely Situations Where Interruptions Are Necessary
Start a new list of different locations you frequent and the corresponding actions you take while you are in them. Then, describe the notification that you would allow if you were being stingy. For example, your list may look like this:

Step 4 — Turn Back on the Notifications You Absolutely Need… One at a Time
Today, a few notifications can be customized across platforms so they only appear during certain time periods, with a distinct blend of sounds, vibrations and visuals. If your smartphone allows this feature, use it to the fullest so that each notification is distinct.

Also, don’t make the mistake of turning them all on at once!

Instead, take your time to get your attention re-accustomed to each one. Test to see how it works over the next few days. Be prepared to adjust it or delete it, understanding that your progress may occur in fits and starts.

Step 5 — Assign Each Device A Role
While it’s cool to be able to use any app on any device with perfect synchronization, you need to go further to achieve the Notified Self.

For example, for most people, their smartphone is the only device that travels with them all the time. It’s a great tool to deliver Interruptions.

However, it’s not a very useful for Switching, especially when you want to view lots of different options on your calendar or To-Do list. A tool like SkedPal, for example, is great for this purpose because you can optimize your calendar with the click of a button. While the iPhone version can reschedule your calendar, it doesn’t have the full functionality of the desktop version where you can run what-ifs and view all your tasks in different ways. (Disclaimer — I do work for the company that invented this app.)

In total, these five steps can help you make a quantum leap towards the Notified Self.

Case in Point
At the same time, I don’t mean to make these steps appear to be easy. Today, I find them infuriatingly difficult to implement.

For example, as a SkedPal Beta tester, I have been scheduling all my tasks in the program for over a year. It has helped me act in concert with my calendar in a way that I never imagined possible. (In my book I only described manual scheduling.)

Now, with SkedPal’s auto-scheduling power, the need to Switch, Interrupt and Warn has become an urgent need. It’s a bit like being promoted to the executive suite, only to discover that without a Mrs. Landringham outside your door, you are now in deep trouble. The program has expanded my capacity, but now I’m limited by the rest of my ecosystem, such that…

  • When an alarm goes off on my device(s), I struggle because it can mean one of many things — I never know which one.
  • I can’t customize interruptions and alerts the way I want.
  • I still haven’t developed the habit of traveling everywhere with my smartphone. Right now it’s in the bedroom where I can’t hear it.
  • Calendar notifications take place on my tablet, smartphone and laptop at the same time.
  • The desktop notification system I use for Google Calendar items is broken and the developer is in no rush to fix it.
  • The popups on my phone’s home screen have once again disappeared leaving me mystified.

It’s still a cluster of chaos, to put it mildly, that is limiting my productivity.

But, truth be told, this state of affairs is a great improvement. At least I now pay attention to my notifications and have cut out all the unnecessary ones. I hope. (Now and then I get a surprise notification.)

This is a work in progress with lots of frustrations, but they represent my best efforts to use the technology I can find. (Update — in the last week I found a couple of apps that I am going to try —Timerrific and Getnotibox.)

One Day — The Perfect App for the Notified Self
You probably have already started picturing the app we all really need. In this article I have hinted at some of its attributes: it must cross devices, platforms and OS’s plus interface with every app imaginable, even ones that pop-up in the future. It would make Switching, Interrupting and Warning a breeze as they would take place from a single dashboard that controls my entire digital ecosystem.

What other apps exist today?

One company that gets it is the inventor of the CanFocus button. It’s a physical device that looks a little like a mouse, allowing you to interrupt your interruptions on multiple devices and platforms. It enforces a very Mrs. Landringham-like digital silence.

A quick search of the Google Play store shows about 20 apps that give you some control over your notifications. https://goo.gl/w4rRnt. Apple iTunes also has a number of similar apps.

As I mentioned before, all the apps I have found focus on only a single feature. None of them provides the kind of complete control we all need that would vault us towards the Notified Self.

A recent article by @naveen predicts that if a company gets this right, it would transform our relationship to our phones. He argues that “Notifications are becoming the app itself” and he’s right. With proper coordination, you would never need to even look at your Calendar. You would just want to engage in Switching, Interrupting, and Warning.

An Invitation to Explore
Here at 2Time Labs, I have recently decided to focus on this problem for the next 12 months in our next iteration of our think-tank called the InnerLab. It’s a group of fewer than 12 people from different backgrounds which I pull together to tackle issues related to time-based productivity. This would be the 6th iteration; the last one focused on the question: “Can Time Be Managed?”

If being a part of such a focused discussion of The Notified Self interests you at all, you may want to apply to join in. I imagine we’ll get into topics like personal design rules, productivity principles, software requirements and habit formation. The purpose is not to develop software per se, but I welcome a few participants who may be interested in doing so. For more information, simply send me a DM to @TheNotifiedSelf with your email address, or contact me from my website. We will begin in July. (There’s no salary or cost.)

If joining the InnerLab is not your cup of tea, or it’s already started, stay in touch by following a Twitter account I just set up @TheNotifiedSelf. I’ll be using it to send out the latest InnerLab thinking plus any resources I think might be useful.

Also, I invite you to bookmark this article and add a comment below. I promise to reply.

Even if you read this article once and never return to it, I hope that it spurs you to take some actions to achieve your own version of the Notified Self. I believe we are just a few steps away from using our devices in a way that empowers us consistently, without turning them into a new problem.

So far, developers have been more focused on gaining our attention than managing it to be more productive. I hope articles like this one will help focus a few of them on not just measuring data, but using it to help us change our way in conscious, mindful ways.

== Afterward ==

This article focuses mostly on one aspect of the Notified Self — The Interrupted Self. The other two elements are addressed here — The Warned Self and The Informed Self. To be notified of future articles being developed, their availability, either “Like” this article on Medium or join my mailing list at 2Time Labs here.

Also, in earlier versions I neglected to acknowledge the team of editors who helped me perfect this article: Mervyn Extavour, Doug Toft, Tom Jansen. Thanks so much to them!