Technomindfulness: The Art of Silence

How I changed my behavior and my relationship to notifications

Nate Cooper
Apr 3, 2018 · 7 min read

For the past several weeks I have been conducting an experiment on the relationship between myself and my phone. It is not a new device or anything super fancy. (It’s an iPhone 8 I believe). Each day, I prep my phone to manage how I want it to interrupt my day. I do this by adjusting my notification settings. You see, notifications are simply that: Interruptions.

The State of Things

Picture this: You are sitting with a friend at coffee or lunch when their wrist watch buzzes. They are getting a phone call. When I was a child, this kind of scenario was the stuff of science fiction. Now it is an everyday annoyance. “I don’t need to respond to that now,” your colleague will say while her wrist vibrates. She taps the face of the watch but narrowly misses the dismiss button only to end up mashing the face of the watch repeatedly. We allow technology to interrupt our personal space.

It is interesting to notice when sitting down to a meal that we can judge the importance of the interaction by the placement of our phones. If the phone is face up, this meeting may be worth interrupting. We want to be sure we can catch that important message. We’ll stop talking to “just respond to this one message/call/email” etc. If we place our smartphone face down in front of us, we are signaling to our friend or colleague our intention to pay close attention to them. When meeting with someone very important they may keep their phone hidden. This is what they call in poker playing your cards close to your vest.

Picture this: You are sitting with a friend at coffee or lunch when their wrist watch buzzes. They are getting a phone call.

Performative as it may be in public, our management of phone culture when we are on our own is incredibly personal. The hitch of it is that we often do not think of it as such. If we choose to leave our phone on a default setting, we are inviting interruptions into our day. For most of us, getting distractions (notifications) from our meetings is a regular and accepted occurrence. There are some spaces such as in a movie theater or concert where there are announcements to silence your phones. Aside from these environments, many of us do not think much of our notifications and how they affect our behavior.

Changing Behavior

For the past several weeks, I have gone through experiments with trying to find a balance for my notifications and my personal space. I do not want to just turn the phone notifications on or off. On a work day, it is important to be able to tell quickly when an important message has come in. So turning the phone completely off during the day wouldn’t work. My experiment has been to determine how to stay notified while not getting distracted.

Many of us do not think much of our notifications and how they affect our behavior.

With notifications on, I noticed a tendency to get brought out of the moment. I would look at my phone to check the time and then see a notification and suddenly disappear for five minutes. Of course many times, the notification could have waited until I was finished with the task at hand but my brain did not think that. In their essence that is the point of notifications, to get your to respond.

Devices rule our mindspace.

Before I monitored my settings closely, notifications were pulling me into a mindless state where I was not choosing an action intentionally but being pulled into it instinctively. As a former cigarette smoker, I came to recognize this dependence as a kind of tacit addiction. Still my phone was not cigarettes. Cutting cigarettes out of my life are a net positive with nearly no downside. The same cannot be said for technology. There are many practical and important reasons to use a phone and I can not easily dispatch with my devices the way I did with cigarette smoking. For work especially, I knew I could not easy turn off notifications fully without suffering consequences. I work for myself and I need to be able to see when someone – a client or colleague is contacting me.

Nine times out of ten when I check the face of my phone all I see is my wallpaper and the time.

What I ended up doing was to selectively turned off lock screen notifications on my phone. This means that nine times out of ten when I check the face of my phone all I see is my wallpaper and the time. No notifications. I have badge icons notifications still on so that when I unlock my device, I can see when I have a text message or email. I also have some persistent notifications pop up when the phone is unlocked so that I can get a preview of that message before I open the app. This allows me the flexibility of checking my messages intentionally while not letting them interrupt my activities.

Some Experiments

I am fairly tech savvy and yet, I was surprised that I learned quite a lot during my experiment while trying to manage my device. Here are some things I learned.

  1. I had way more notifications turned on than I realized. I went through a process over a few days of letting my notifications pop up to try to decide which ones felt important and which ones I did not care about. For instance I had LinkedIn notifications on even though I do not use that app often. I had thought that I might like to receive the occasional message from a colleague every so often. But LinkedIn often sends notifications just to alert me to read news articles I do not care about. I found that in a typical day I would get 15–20 notifications from LinkedIn alone. The amount of attention it required was just too much to bear. That one was fairly easy. Text messages were harder.
  2. Sound and vibration notifications stay on even when I turn off lock screen notifications. Most notably this happens with text messaging. Even though I have text message notifications on the lock screen turned off, I will still hear a sound (or get a buzz when on silent) whenever a message comes in. Sometimes I find this acceptable because (in theory at least) a text message is the highest priority messaging system on my phone. For times I do not want texts though, I switch to airplane mode. But I found that even that was no guarantee of silencing my phone.
  3. Surprisingly, turning on airplane mode does not immediately silence my phone. I often use airplane mode on airplanes, of course, and when I do I often will connect to the wifi on the plane when available. But off the plane, without thinking about it, my wifi was suddenly enabled even when I turned on airplane mode. So, shockingly, notifications were coming through even when I thought I had turned them off completely. This is the time when apps you forgot you had often sneak past. Just this morning I was interrupted when my weather app wanted to tell me it was unexpectedly snowing in April in New York.

In an Ideal World

Now someone will say I can tweak these settings in my phone, by for instance turning off sounds but leaving on badge app notifications. One can to a fine degree tune the settings in notifications, however, it is an incredibly manual process. One frustration I have is that updating notifications is something that one must do on an app by app basis. Some days, for instance, when I’m working I’d like to leave on email and text notifications and turn off Facebook messenger notifications. If you have a cacophony of apps, manually tweaking the settings for every situation you are in is not very easy or quick to do.

The notification system on my phone is fairly black and white. It is either all on or all off. You can fine tune by app, but then you have to keep it like that at all times even though your activities shift throughout the day.

The notification system on my phone is fairly black and white. It is either all on or all off.

One thing that I think would be great would be if we could save presets that allowed us to customize multiple app notificationsettings for certain times of the day and certain situations. Think of having a preset for notifications at the gym, when having a coffee meeting with a colleague, or when you are trying to go nose-down into a work sprint.

In an ideal world our devices work to help us improve towards our better behaviors.

For better and worse devices are in our daily lives. It is on us to manage them. In an ideal world our devices work to help us improve towards our better behaviors. But we need not rely solely on the device to do so. We can take control of when and how devices interrupt our personal and professional spaces. My hope for the future, is that we start to understand our tech as much as our tech understands us.

Some of my thoughts on this topic have been informed by the work of Tristan Harris and his project the Center for Humane Tech.

When writing about my process I thought of the name technomindfulness as a way of becoming more aware of technology’s influence over our sense of awareness. After writing this I googled the term and found this interesting post with some suggestions about how to regain some mindfulness while using technology.

Nate Cooper

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Author • entrepreneur • teacher —

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