Recovering Notification Junkie

How turning off notifications lead to compulsive checking

Before leaving for a much needed weekend getaway to Mexico recently, I did something I thought was pretty extreme before leaving the office. After typing up my vacation response, I changed my work email password. But before I could get it into my password manager or commit it to memory, I jotted it down to stash in a hidden and locked location in my work space. I logged out of work email out of all my devices and walked out of the office. One might ask why I needed to do this, and the answer is because as much as I told myself I wasn’t going to check work email while away, I knew also I couldn’t trust myself. While momentarily proud of myself, I realized I just took the first step:

Hello, my name is James, and I’m a compulsive checker.

There was a time that email was a welcomed activity my life. I remember a time when it was exciting to send email to the few friends I knew were on AOL, which was somewhat pointless since I’d just end up talking to them on the phone or see them the next day at school. It was the future, and we were cool techie kids sending messages for the sake of saying “I sent you an email!” and be excited with the “You’ve got Mail!” prompt logging on after school. Little did I know that later in life it would become something that I both dread but was a slave to. It became nothing more than an unmanageable addiction.

You’ve got mail!

It’s hard to know when exactly it started to go downhill. All I know is that with each notification came an increasing annoyance with every unwelcomed interruption. Perhaps it was when I started realizing my attention and focus was a precious finite resource, and real time notifications started giving me sharp pangs of anxiety every time I heard a chime or saw a pop-up. The solutiuon? I turned off almost all of my notifications on my devices, leaving only text messages. The goal was to shift from receiving notifications to to checking email and social media when I was ready to deal with them and not while I’m focusing. Great idea in theory, one that I felt was pretty obvious that most adults other than myself I’m sure already knew. What I wasn’t prepared to deal with the unintended dopamine cravings that constant notifications left me with. In what is nothing more than a screwed up paradox, a lack of notifications left me with feeling like I needed to be interrupted.

I never even realize it was a problem until I started paying attention to how anxious I’d be checking email for the sake of “clearing the decks”, and then be momentarily relieved nothing was there… only to do it all over again, and again, throughout the day. It happens standing in line at the grocery store, on the train, sneaking a glance at dinner. And it’s always just a quick peak, or a simple preview of what I have to deal with later, or tricking myself that I’m being super productive “keeping up with email” on the go. But what it really was for me is the non-stop rumination over stuff I couldn’t even address immediately because I’m trying to pay for groceries. It really was just being stressed because I can’t respond fast enough on my phone before my train stop. It really was just being completely checked out from the person in front of me because I couldn’t stop thinking about responding to what I just read.

It’s all second nature at this point for most of us — a norm in our world for the sake of keeping on top of things, but not realizing it’s really about that dopamine hit and the FOMO. There really isn’t much difference in the addiction traits of a hard narcotics and persistent checking — the only difference is no one is going to call you on it standing in the express checkout as they might if you busted out a mirror and razor to do a line before getting rung up.

For me, dealing with the persistent checking and constant worrying has been a bit harder than removing the trigger and interruptions. The realization that notifications and persistent checks were significant source of my everyday stresses and anxiety has been sobering, and accepting it’s simply has just become unsustainable. I didn’t want to be left at the end of the day far more stressed and exhausted than necessary. That’s when I knew I needed to do something different.

Over the summer, I’ve been trying different methods to “detox” from the compulsive checking. At the extreme end is intentionally blocking access and locking myself out (the equivalent of flushing the coke down the toilet), and on the less extreme end is simply making access harder and less gratifying. Where both helped deal with the cravings, what I felt has been most effective is creating a barrier that introduces a pause long enough to ask myself “I’m able to actually process and address whatever I find in there at this very place and moment?”. Giving myself just enough time to mentally ask that question has started to become enough to overcome the “just check, not a huge deal!”

Far from perfect, I am taking note of some benefits. I can notice a moment of calm and clarity when I start the day walking the dog and leaving the phone charging on the desk. I can notice feeling focused and accomplished once I’m past the first ten minutes into writing. I can notice feeling at peace when I accept there’s nothing I can do at this very moment and not letting it consume me. I can notice feeling less anxious giving myself permission to ignore my phone, emails, social media, knowing they’ll still all be there, and I’ll be far more productive, engaged, and mindful in dealing with them when I give myself the dedicated time to do it.

Mind you, the desire for compulsive actions is still strong, and I’m certainly not 100% effective at ignoring them. Transferring gratification from persistence checks to intention use of time is a gradual evolution. It’s going to take various iterations to stay the course like any addiction, even if it means I have to keep locking myself out of work off-hours. All I know is this last trip was a lot more relaxing than I can remember a vacation being. Perhaps that’s because I was actually really on vacation — not at work.

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