Notifications Are Evil

Notifications Are Evil

What’s your maximum NPH? How many notifications are you exposed to every hour? Let’s take a second to think critically about these constant requests for your attention: What do they mean? Who is making them? Why are they there? Before I wrote the Information Diet, I audited myself and found I was receiving upwards of 10 notifications per hour: one every six minutes.

First, let’s define notification. In the context of our discussion, a notification is something that comes from a service that the service deems worthy of your attention: The scarlet box at the top of every Google page notifying you of things happening in Google+. The messages you get from Twitter telling you that you have a new message. The email icon that shows up in your system tray telling you that you have a new email. Facebook letting you know what you’re missing out on Facebook. Your sister’s latest move in Words with Friends.

Why do we have them? Why, suddenly, are our phones a symphonic cacophony of distraction, constantly beckoning for our attention? Is it because there’s that much important stuff going on in my life?

Of course not. We’re getting so many notifications because the companies that now power the web are engaged in a war with one another to capture our attention. They call it “user engagement” and everybody wants it, so everybody’s coming up with as many new ways as possible to capture our attention so that at its base, we can view more advertisements. These notifications are not meaningful requests for your immediate attention, they’re things designed to get you to lose half your day to the service that created them. That’s evil.

For me, the evilest thing that Google has ever done is put that red box on the search-results page. Every Google search now says to me: “we know you’re in the middle of searching for something, but we think that you might instead like to immediately know that somebody that you don’t know has followed you on Google+, so we’ve made a bright red box — the most eye catching and animated thing on the page, just so you know.” Google’s not doing this because Google+ has actual, relevant information that requires my immediate attention. If they were interested in that, they’d give me actual control over what goes into that red box, or give me the ability to shut it off entirely. No — they’re doing this because they want me to use Google+ more, so that they can say that they boosted “user engagement on Google+” on their next earnings call.

Besides being disrespectful to your attention, notifications like this do something else that’s much more nefarious: they train you to be a passive consumer of information rather than an active one. If we don’t control the notifications we’re receiving, we’re forced to react to them: from Google’s big red box, to Living Social’s notification for a deal on backwaxing. Left at the default, we create an economy of sensational notifications, with the brightest minds of our generation trying to figure out how to get us to click on the next command for our attention. Can you imagine what would happen if they were instead focused on providing us content worthy of it?

Do yourself a favor: kill the notifications off. Don’t participate in the notification economy. Change your relationship from passive to active. Instead of relying on Facebook to command your attention, schedule a meeting with it. If Facebook’s important to you, put 15 minutes on your calendar for it and make that the time that you check Facebook. Kill everything you can with a number by it. Eliminate anything you can that makes a noise that might tempt you into giving your attention away. Here are some tools to help.

The only non-renewable resource you truly have is your time. Next time you’re asked to “pay” attention to something, remember that’s what you’re doing: you’re paying. Thank you for yours.

This post is about the economics of our attention. For more on how this is actually a large-scale social issue, watch this video

Notifications Are Evil [The Information Diet]

Author Clay Johnson believes that, much like junk food leads to obesity and health problems, junk information is killing our productivity, efficiency, and worse, feeding ignorance. His new book, The Information Diet, discusses this problem in depth. He was formerly the director of Sunlight Labs at the Sunlight Foundation and founder of Blue State Digital – the technology company behind Barack Obama’s web site.


    • I think the issue isn’t that notification systems are evil per se, just that non-configurable notification systems are not optimal and waste your time.

      Sometimes I want to be notified if someone important to me sends me something on Facebook, however in other cases I could care less about Facebook.

      Not being able to configure what is important and unimportant is the bad part. If they allow us to configure it they will probably get less advertising revenue but I am not sure whether this is the sole reason they don’t make their systems configurable.

  • A while back I turned off email/Twitter notifications, desktop and phone.
    I also killed all unread email counts where possible so I couldn’t subconsciously notice that more emails had come in in the Gmail browser tab and email phone icon plus various other things to this effect.
    Amazingly useful – try it and only check emails at certain points in the day. Productivity up large by a large percentage.

  • I used to love notifications on my phone; having news updates all day long seemed like a good thing. But about two weeks ago I realised that I was tired of all the constant information being presented to me. It really affected my work.
    So I turned off most of my notifications and removed all but a few widgets and I feel much better now.

    • No, not the only one. I was thinking “There’s no maximum at all!”

      Then I read the article. Still informative, but can’t help but feel something missing.

  • Pretty much everything in my life is set to be unobtrusive. I’ve had my computers completly silent except for media playback since 2002. My phone is set only to vibrate if there’s a call, everything else waits till I check it. I swapped to finch for all my IMs, so that’s a manual-check operation as well. I occasionally ignore something important this way, but it usually works out fine.

    What I can’t avoid is people coming up and talking to me in person. I don’t have an office door to close, and I get interrupted about once every 15 minutes over my work day. There’s no easy way to avoid that final level of ‘notification’.

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