What the Apple Watch Means for The Age of Notifications
Steven Levy
2318

It Can Wait. Really.

The real solution to notification overload


Beeping iPads! Buzzing phones! Zapping watches! Soon, apparently, we won’t be able to complete a thought without being interrupted by some “intelligent” piece of technology.

The solution, according to Steven Levy, is yet more technology:

a great artificial intelligence effort to comb through our information, assess the urgency and relevance, and use a deep knowledge of who we are and what we think is important to deliver the right notifications at the right time. . . .
the automated intake of our information will allow us to “know by wire,” as super-smart systems learn how to parcel things out in the least annoying and most useful fashion. They will curate better than any human can.

First of all, I’m skeptical. So is Levy, apparently; just a few paragraphs up, he writes, “the idea of One Feed to Rule Them All is ultimately a pipe dream.” The same factors that make it impossible for one company to create a perfectly prioritized feed make it impossible for one company to create a perfectly prioritized stream of notifications.

More importantly, there’s a much simpler and better solution to notification overload:

Turn them off.

This is a complete list of the things on my phone that are allowed to autonomously make a sound or vibration (and even then, only during the daytime):

  • The phone app
  • Google Voice
  • My two text message apps
  • Google Calendar

That’s it. There’s a slightly longer list of things that are allowed to put things in the notification tray (the one you swipe down from the top in Android), but that’s non-intrusive. Even before I deleted my email apps, I turned off their notifications. I even figured out how to kill the notification badges that told me how many new messages I had.

As I’ve written before, we all know that our phones are too distracting. They take away our control over our own lives, and they do it by taking advantage of our behavioral fallacies. We know we don’t want to check our email every fifteen minutes; we think that we have the will power to avoid checking our email every fifteen minutes; but we don’t, and so we check our email every fifteen minutes. Notifications just make things worse, since they’re harder to ignore than the voice in your head that says, “Maybe you got new email …”

The solution is the one that Odysseus figured out thousands of years ago: pre-commit yourself to ignore the temptation. In his case, he had his sailors tie him to the mast of his ship so he couldn’t dive into the water after the Sirens. But he also ordered his sailors to plug their ears with beeswax so they couldn’t hear the Sirens’ song. If you’re not prepared to delete your email apps, just turn off the notifications, and you can check your email on (something closer to) your schedule — not a schedule dictated by the hundreds of people and companies who email you.

What goes for email goes for the dozens of other, less important apps that want to notify you. Do you really need to know: when your latest project in Hay Day is complete? when The New York Times (or Vox, or BuzzFeed, or whatever) publishes a new story you might be interested in? when your friend posts another video to Facebook? when someone mentions you in a Slack channel? Sure, all of these notifications provide some sort of value; if you want to maximize your output in Hay Day, then it helps to know when your projects complete. But does the value of the notification outweigh the cost of being distracted in the middle of productive work — or, worse, when you’re spending time with friends or family?

In some cases, the answer will be yes — if, say, you’re a journalist and you use your Twitter feed to interact with sources. If you really need Slack, then let it nag you. But in most cases, I suspect the answer is no. So here’s a suggestion: go and turn off every single notification on your phone. Go a day without them (or a week, if possible). If you’re really working, and you really need constant collaboration, use a real computer. (You’ll be more productive, too.) Then, after that day, decide which ones you really need, and only turn those on.

In my case, the only things that made the cut were calendar reminders and communications that other people expect to be synchronous or near-synchronous — phone and messaging. (One could certainly go further and turn those notifications off, too; after all, just because someone calls you, you don’t have to pick up the phone.) Again, this is the time for the obligatory observation that I’m not a Luddite: I use my phone to get rides from strangers, connect to web conferences, control my home security system, board planes, order lunch at my kids’ favorite taco place, pay for coffee, authenticate myself, pay for parking, and track my ski runs, among other things. But I know when I need to do all those things. Eliminating unnecessary notifications makes me less distracted and more productive.

For some people, perhaps being distracted is the point. Maybe you enjoy the momentary surge of excitement — maybe it’s something good this time! — although, like anything else involving dopamine, it gets duller and duller as you get used to it. But if, like Steven Levy, you find yourself wishing your phone weren’t so annoying sometimes, it’s time to take control of the relationship.


James Kwak is, among other things, an associate professor at the University of Connecticut School of Law. Find more at Twitter, Medium, The Baseline Scenario,The Atlantic, or jameskwak.net.