The ding of an incoming email used to give me a panic attack. Who was it? What did they want? Did I need to drop everything and answer them?

Of course I did. They expected it. I was providing good customer service by dropping all my work, interrupting my flow, and telling them the thing they wanted to know, even if they could have figured it out on their own.

Then, I’d turn my attention back to my interrupted task and — ding! — they’d fired off a reply to my reply, starting the cycle all over again.

At the time, I was working from home, trying to be a one-woman editing and entrepreneurial machine. My short-term solution was to put my dinging device in another room while I worked. But clearly, this wasn’t sustainable. And my productivity was suffering.

I thought the problem was me: I just needed to get better at multitasking. I needed to be calmer about getting interrupted, so that my chest wouldn’t tighten and my breath wouldn’t catch every time I heard that distinctive ding.

The true problem, though, was that I was trying to do the impossible. Humans cannot, in fact, multitask.

Emails should be seen and not heard.

The best we can do is rapid task-switching for anything cognitively demanding. But research has shown there’s a mental price to be paid for each shift in attention, and it’s expensive.

Since I can’t download a patch to fix my notification anxiety and interruption-induced rapid task switching, I knew I had to remove the trigger: the notifications themselves.


Turning off your phone, or even all your notifications, isn’t always an option. There’s lots of stuff you do want to know about as soon as it happens. Someone I love is in the hospital? By all that is holy, yes, interrupt me. A cardmember sale at Old Navy? Please hang onto that little nugget of information until later.

Today, I mostly work with my phone on vibrate or silent, especially when I’m in the office. (Shall we talk about the coworker with the annoying ringtone? You know who I mean. Don’t be that person.) When I work from home on side projects, I don’t always silence my phone, but I have greatly decreased the number of things that ding, vibrate, flutter, and flash.

Shutting off or modifying the following eight notification types has greatly upped my productivity, helped ease my notification anxiety, and reduced my interruption-induced rapid task switching


1. Email notifications on the phone

My accounts, both personal and work, are Gmail-based. I’ve experimented with high-priority alerts, no alerts at all, and low-priority alerts. By far, my favorite alert setting is what Android calls visual-only. This means that when I actively take the time to check my phone alerts, there is a visual representation of what’s come into my inbox. I can quickly scan it for anything of immediate importance and then dismiss the alert, all without opening the app. There’s no noise prompting me to look, which fits my mantra that emails should be seen and not heard.

I’ve also experimented with turning off email notifications altogether. For some accounts, this is a must. My work email, for instance, receives email constantly. I don’t need an alert to know that inbox will always be filling up. I also need to be able to disconnect from my office job on evenings and weekends.

Turning off notifications on my other accounts — my personal email, and the one I had for my side hustle — has yielded mixed results. It was certainly more relaxing — I turned off the notifications long enough to feel like I was getting a vacation — but I also missed some stuff that I wished I hadn’t. So I switched them back to low-priority, visual-only notifications.

2. Email notifications on my computer

Gmail and Outlook have options that will generate a subtle pop-up every time a new email appears in your inbox, no matter what screen you’re on. Turn them off right now.

The last thing you need is to split your focus for the few seconds it takes to read the pop-up, because refocusing on the interrupted task will take you at least as long as it took to read the notification.

Multiply this one interruption by the number of emails you get in a day, and the result is an unacceptable misuse of time and brainspace. Check your email when you decide it’s time to check your email. Do not check your email while you do everything and anything else.

3. Fun time-wasting apps

At any given time, I have one to three games on my phone. Sometimes I’m in a waiting room for 30 minutes and need something to do. Sometimes I just want to solve a puzzle. Sometimes I want to unwind by doing a little virtual dragon slaying. But there is never a time when I want a pop-up notification — silent or chirping — alerting me to the fact that for a limited time I can buy an upgrade for $29.99.

My games get their alerts silenced. No notifications whatsoever — no sound, no visual. My guildmates want me to jump online right now to help them slay the titan? I’m sorry, but that is not as important as my flow. In fact, the obstacles between you and a productive flow state are their own monsters to slay.

4. Daily apps

There are only four things that make noise on my phone: phone calls, text messages, the alarm clock, and calendar appointment reminders.

Those items can shout at me to get my attention. Everyone else has to raise their hand and wait their turn, even if it’s something I use all the time

I’m currently trying to establish a meditation habit — if you haven’t noticed, I have some anxiety, and I could do with being more centered. But as much as I’m enjoying my burgeoning Headspace practice, you better believe that I would delete the app in a fit of rage if it dinged to remind me to be calm.

Instead, it silently flashes a daily visual reminder to “get some headspace.” When I see it, I take a deep breath and tell myself I’ll do it later.

5. Apps I don’t use daily

For me, these are shopping and rideshare apps.

Am I glad I have Uber downloaded so I never again have to stand on a sidewalk at 2:00 a.m. using up data, shivering, hoping I can remember my PayPal password so we can get a ride home before my drunk friend gets herself in a fight with some random who just bummed a cigarette off her? Yes. Yes, I am. But I don’t need Uber every night. And I don’t need to order express pickup from Panera for lunch every day. So no, I don’t want to see any notifications from them.

I don’t immediately turn off notifications when I download a new app. But the first time that app tries to interrupt me, I go into settings, hit ‘Notifications,’ then shut it down. (Except my bank accounts. Unauthorized purchase on my credit card? Yes, notify me!)

6. Social media apps

I don’t need a notification every time someone friends me or likes my post. I’ll see it when I go into the app at a later time. But a tag? Sure, I want a silent notification so I can review that (and probably remove the tag, because that was a seriously unflattering picture).

Maybe you, too, get on social media when you want to, not when the rest of the world demands to interact with you. If that’s the case, you’ll either want to disable phone notifications or create a visual-only, silent notification. Go back to ‘Settings,’ then ‘Notifications’. By tapping on Facebook, for example, I can then tap on each kind of alert-generating action — when someone friends me, DMs me, tags me, etc. — and I can choose for that specific action what sort of notification my phone is going to give me.

Side note: If you haven’t already stopped Facebook, Twitter, etc. from sending you emails every time someone merely farts in the general direction of your media presence, take this moment, go into the social media platform’s settings page, and turn off anything that says “send email” or “send text” under notifications.

7. Apps that try to sell you stuff

No. Just — why? — no. Just no. Turn it off now. You don’t need a ding or even a visual notification to be parted from your money.

Even if it’s a sale notification. Just no.

Your attention span is worth more than a discount on yoga pants.

8. Web pages that want to send me notifications

This is my newest pet peeve: I’ll go to a website, usually a product site or a news site, and I’ll get a pop-up window stating that this site “wants to share notifications.” I’ll be asked to choose “allow” or “block.” Because my lovely, syncing Chrome account stretches across many devices, what this means is that I am allowing the product site to push notifications to my phone.

Oh, hell no.

Now every time I get that option, I click “block” with great gusto.


My productivity is still a work in progress. But making these changes to downplay the number of dings in my life has greatly improved my focus and anxiety.

Now, I can sit at my desk at home and set my phone on the desk or a nearby surface. I don’t have to exile it to another room. I trust my settings enough to let me get work done without unimportant interruption.