Why We’re Stuck In An Abusive Relationship With Our Phones

Chrys Bader
Dec 15, 2015 · 6 min read

You wake up in the morning and fumble around your bed to find your phone, cursing yourself because you forgot to plug it in. Thankfully, it still has 18%. You open the screen and plug your phone back into the charger and your nervous system. New emails have come in while you were asleep, some new Tinder matches, an alert from your bank and dozens of desperate Twitter notifications about people you don’t even know. It’s too much to process right now, so you lock your phone and squirrel away your future dopamine hits.

We’re constantly being peppered by notifications. On average, we get about 65 notifications each day*, roughly the same amount of sips of water we take daily. That’s one notification every 16 minutes during waking hours, and each is a chance to interrupt you and deplete your willpower.

When we’re interrupted at work, it takes an average of 25 minutes* to refocus on the task at hand. On top of that, we’re 3X more likely* to make mistakes on attention-demanding tasks when we’re being distracted by notifications. If we receive a new notification before having time to refocus, we can end up perpetually out of focus.

Just seeing a notification activates our prefrontal cortex to decide whether to act on it. It literally burns calories. Some notifications can be more tempting and require us to use more self control to resist. As a result, we’re depleting the willpower we could be using for the more important things in life. Studies show people with depleted willpower are more likely to give into cravings, act out of line with their ideals, and have less energy to do basic tasks*.

We’re Abusing Ourselves

You get up to take a shower, thoughts dart around like lasers in a Star Wars battle scene. You think about your worries, your hopes, your day ahead, the Tinderella that hasn’t swiped back yet. By the time you turn off the shower and step out, you haven’t solved any of your burning issues, but you see your phone beside the sink, and that seems like a much better idea than continuing with the discomfort of your deep shower thoughts. You pick it up and start catching up on the less important notifications as you mindlessly run a toothbrush over your teeth.

The funny thing is, even if we are given the option to see less notifications each day, we won’t take it. Snowball, an Android smart-notification platform, learned this early on. Their initial offering filtered out some notifications entirely, meaning the user would never be able to see the filtered ones. This actually caused some people to stop using Snowball, because they felt they might be missing out on something.

In addition to FOMO, notifications also have an addictive property. Every buzz comes packaged with the hope that it could be something special—a classic instance of the psychology of variable rewards. We’re so attached to notifications that we even feel phantom vibrations in our pockets —we literally itch for it.

“If someone receives a single notification of value from an app, they’re unlikely to disable notifications for that app.” — Anish Acharya, founder and CEO of Snowball

We’re less willing to turn off notifications because we’re addicted to the dopamine hits.

We’re Stuck By Design

As your day unfolds, you feel a dull ache of anticipation in your belly, just barely brushing the very edge of your consciousness. You occasionally wonder why you’re so anxious all the time. A notification buzzes your phone and interrupts your train of thought — it’s a text from a friend. Your mind is transported back to the weekend as your friend revels in their tequila hangover. You put your phone back down and continue what you were doing, and the anxiety slowly creeps back in.

Technology products are typically driven by two key metrics: time spent and daily active users — essentially a measure of how much attention they are capturing. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella sent a company-wide email last year stating “the true scarce commodity is increasingly human attention.” Companies are consciously and viciously competing against each other for your attention, because if they don’t capture enough, they die. This rings especially true for ad-driven products.

In Hooked, Nir Eyal writes, “Companies leverage two basic pulleys of human behavior to increase the likelihood of an action occurring: the ease of performing an action and the psychological motivation to do so.” Companies are yanking both of these levers and proving to be an effective channel to capture attention, boasting a 10–40% click-through-rate depending on the type of app (as a benchmark, marketing emails see 3–5% CTR).

Thus, developers have no incentive to send less notifications. The more notifications they send, the higher the likelihood they’ll send that one useful notification that will keep users engaged. Developers are putting more effort into making sure people turn on notifications than preventing them from turning them off — favoring short-term gain over long-term cost.

Instead of measuring Time Spent, Tristan Harris, a former colleague of mine, urges developers to measure Time Well Spent. You should watch his TED talk.

It’s also non-trivial to build a smart notification system in-house. At Secret, we had some of the best engineers in the world and still couldn’t prioritize building an elaborate smart notification system. We did what we could to reduce notification volume, but there were always other fires that demanded more attention and resources. If the platforms provided more intelligent APIs, we would have absolutely tried them.

The Platforms Turn a Blind Eye

Your morning latté has kicked your digestive system into gear and it’s time to visit that special place. That place where you can morally license yourself to satisfy your craving for the treasures that wait behind the lock screen. You meet your biological needs, but ten minutes later you’re still feeding your emotional needs. Your legs have fallen asleep, and your butt is getting cold, and the physical discomfort cues the end of another great bathroom episode.

In 2012, Scott Forstall announced at WWDC that Apple has sent over 1.5 trillion notifications — over 7 billion per day. That was three years ago, not including Android. Today, if you solely extrapolate from app growth in the store, it could be 9.3 billion per day and even more if you factor in the user-growth of individual apps like Facebook and Twitter.

Apple and Android’s notification platforms were originally designed in a world of much lower volume. Any advancements have come in the form of giving users more control with things like do-no-disturb, but no advancements have been made on the developer-side. Until the platforms make it easier for developers to deliver smarter notifications, there will be little incentive to do so beyond self-motivated efforts.

The platforms have the context, resources, and technology to manage our attention better. They know when we’re driving, in a meeting, or sleeping. They know which notifications we’re opening, and which we’re not. With all of this information, they could help developers deliver fewer, high value notifications that reduce distractions, drive better engagement and help us be more productive. A stealth startup, Projector, is supposedly working on a notification platform with this approach.

Sleep On It

When you get home, you tuck yourself in in and snuggle up with your device. Your final sweet moments to get whatever dopamine hits remain today. As the screen shines into your face, your eyes shine back. Shit, it’s getting late, I’d better lock my screen and save this for tomorrow.

We’re all to blame for this addiction. The platforms are the government that need to do more to incentivize developers to act in the interest of the users. The developers are the dealers just trying to make a living and not thinking about the long-term consequences. And we’re the addicts, who must use what little willpower we have left to change our relationship with our phones.

Personally, I have do-not-disturb enabled nearly 24/7 and my quality of life and focus have increased dramatically. In fact, while writing this I received over 1,000 notifications — none of which interrupted me. I look at my iOS notifications list when I want to get caught up, and that’s that. Today, our attention is mostly in the control of developers operating on laissez-faire platforms. But, until that changes, we each have the power to take back control of how and when we have information delivered to us.

Follow me on Twitter @chrysb.

Further Reading:

❤ Special thanks to Anish Acharya, Keith P, Marko D, and others whose thoughts helped make this article richer.

Chrys Bader

Written by

I chase sparks and build fires. Previously: Co-Founder of Secret, Director of Product at Splice, Product at Google and YouTube. YCombinator S’08.