Breaking Up is Hard to Do: A Story About a Girl and Her Notifications

I don’t remember a time when my cell phone wasn’t buzzing, beeping, or blinking to tell me something awaited my attention. My favorite flip phone blinked green — or pink if I was feeling fancy. My Blackberry blinked red. The lights were intentionally subtle, but enough to grab my attention and convince me to drop everything. As my phone became an increasingly integral part of my life, so did my notifications.

I was surprised and taken aback when my husband suggested I turn them off. Everyone I knew got notifications — for everything. Each email, text message, news alert, tweet, like, weather warning… they all flashed on the screen, asking for attention, awaiting action. A life without notifications was not one I knew, nor was it one I wanted to know.

“I’d get fired if I didn’t check my notifications,” I said. “It’s my job to be available.” I was convinced both of these statements were true.

“It’s your choice,” he corrected.

While his words struck me, I wasn’t convinced. I couldn’t remember a job that didn’t require being available, at least what felt like, always. If I wasn’t in the office or at my desk, I was merely an email or chat or text message away, and I prided myself on always responding. I even had managers laud my efforts and credit promotions to my unwavering availability.

Little did I realize, the attachment to my phone and the several pings and buzzes and prompts it produced was also costing me my sanity.

“I like catching up so I know how to prioritize my day,” I’d argue when I was caught checking emails when I went to the bathroom at night or when I woke up clutching my phone, in fear I’d missed something important.

I’d spend dinners with family and friends nodding, half listening, mostly thinking about how many messages were waiting for me. And oh how important they must be! I’d make excuses to go to the bathroom to respond to emails even though they weren’t urgent. I had anxiety when I went to events, worrying that the Wi-Fi wouldn’t work.

Yes, part of the problem was the job and society’s ever growing expectation that cell phones mean people are available at all times. But the bigger problem was me.

Fast forward to last summer, when I quit my job in large part due to burnout. I didn’t have a new job, I was only managing one email address, and nothing required immediate attention. But I still had notifications — tons of them. I decided it was time to try living notification-free.

I proudly announced that I’d turned my email notifications off. And Gchat. And Instagram. The only notifications left standing were text messages. I felt empowered and free.

But two days in, I quit.

I hated not knowing. I hated that I had to go into each app separately, wait for the messages to load, and then filter through them. I hated that my constant checking of each app was draining my battery. It wasn’t for me.

My newfound freedom (aka unemployment) made me feel like I’d made enough positive changes to leave my notifications be. I was present with friends and family, I often left my apartment without my phone, I occasionally woke up and had a conversation with my husband before checking Instagram… I felt good.

Then I got busy. After several months trying to find my footing as a freelancer, I had a full plate of work — and then some. I also had five inboxes to manage. My eye started twitching, I woke up clutching my phone again… I felt like I was drowning — and my notifications constantly reminded me how much work I needed to do.

I needed to reassess how I was working, and I needed to do it stat.

One afternoon, I sat staring at my computer screen, watching the number of emails my inboxes grow. My phone would buzz, then light up as a notification flashed on my screen, then the amount of emails on my computer would tick up. I looked at my phone, back at my computer, then back at my phone. Oh look, a text message! This had to stop.

In a moment of panic, I turned off my phone. I closed all of my windows and tabs on my computer, put in my headphones, and slowly began tackling my work, one to-do at a time.

That day, I was more productive than I’d ever been. I didn’t break to respond to text messages, I didn’t procrastinate by responding to personal emails, and at no point did I forget what I was doing or need to reset. I just worked.

When I turned my phone back on, it had its own version of a panic attack. It blinked incessantly, overwhelmed by notification overload. It froze, then rebooted, and then I gave it the same power I’d just given myself: room to breathe. I turned off my email notifications. I turned off vibrate. I turned off every notification excluding text messages and Slack. I reinstated my Do Not Disturb hours.

In the following week, I watched myself slowly unwind. My eye twitch disappeared, my shoulders moved steadily away from my ears, my anxiety decreased, my productivity increased, joy for my work increased. I started leaving my phone at home often, rarely looking at it on the weekends, and leaving it in my bag entirely during the workday, only checking it on short walks or before making a call. I started smiling at people on the street and scheming new creative projects. I liked it.

“I don’t get notifications anymore,” I boasted.

“Oh,” my husband responded excitedly. “What made you decide to do that?”

“It’s too distracting with so many inboxes,” I said, knowing that at some point I would need to say thank you, and credit him. “And someone extremely wise once told me it’s my choice to check in. And I like that.”

He smiled, then laughed.

Since then, I’ve bought an alarm clock and started sleeping without my phone in the room. I also stopped checking my email after 9 p.m. and often don’t respond to emails until I get to work (I’m admittedly still guilty of checking them before then). And guess what? I haven’t missed anything important, gotten fired, or experienced any other negative consequences.

Instead, I’ve gained a new perspective on productivity, quality time, and actual R&R — which for me, no longer includes responding to personal emails.

But this is just my story. Everyone is different and everyone’s needs are different. And there are jobs that require being available and responding to emails in the evenings and on weekends. I’m certainly not saying I’ll never do those things again.

What I am saying is that my husband was right: It is a choice. And choosing to let go has made me a happier person, better wife and friend, more efficient worker, and even more creative.

Once again, life has shown me that while letting go can be frightening, and hard, in the end it’s often worth it.