How To Prune Your Phone's Notifications

If you're anything like me, your phone buzzes all day long, alerting you to completely useless things such as app updates, Facebook likes and chain emails from your grandma. Here's how to keep your phone from bugging you all day without turning your notifications off entirely -- and still staying on top of what matters.

We've all experienced phantom vibrations before -- that feeling that your phone is ringing when it really isn't. Psychology professor Larry Rosen says this could be a symptom of tech anxiety, and it's probably true -- we've gotten to the point where every time our phone buzzes, we feel that we need to pull it out to see what just happened, even if we're so often disappointed by email newsletters, Facebook likes and other notifications that aren't "need to know". This is annoying, but there's no need to turn off notifications altogether -- all it takes is a little pruning.

The process is somewhat different depending on whether you have an iPhone or Android device, but there's a lot you can do on both platforms to keep annoyances to a minimum while staying on top of what's really important. It takes a bit of setup, but you'll be much happier in the end. Here's what you need to do.

Step One: Split Up Apps By Importance

Before we get into the settings, you should take a look at the apps on your device and decide which ones you really want to stay on top of. Generally, I split notifications up into three categories:

  • Important: These are the apps I always want to buzz me when something happens. Vibrations, sounds, badges on the home screen, the whole nine yards. SMS usually falls into this category, though it can also include personal or work email, calendar alerts and to-do apps (such as the iPhone's Reminders app).
  • Unimportant: These are notifications that I like to have but I don't want bugging me during the day. If I check my phone during a free moment, I like to see them, but I don't want them to vibrate or make noise. This often includes things like Facebook, Twitter and IMs.
  • Useless: These are apps where I want to just turn off notifications entirely. If I want to see what they have to tell me, I'll open them up. I don't want them wasting space in my Notification Center, let alone vibrating in my pocket. That means you, podcast managers, games and other random apps.

You may find that you have other categories or subcategories, but this is a good skeleton to base your system on. Next, it's time to delve into the settings.

Step Two: Tweak Your Notification Settings For Each App

With those categories in mind, we'll now come up with a system for which notification settings we'll apply to each category of apps. Here's how to do it on both the iPhone and Android.

On the iPhone

Head into Settings > Notifications and go into each app one by one. Here are the settings you'll want to use for each category:

  • Important: I turn everything on for important notifications. The Notification Center, badge app icons, sounds and the lock screen. I usually stick with banners instead of alerts, but you can tweak this based on your own preferences.
  • Unimportant: Unimportant notifications should probably use the same settings as important notifications, minus sounds. That means these notifications will show banners when you're using your phone, they'll show up in the Notification Center and on the lock screen, and they'll show badges. They just won't bug you with sounds or vibrations when you get notifications.
  • Useless: For these, you can go ahead and just turn everything off and set the Alert Style to "none". That should keep the app from ever bugging you or taking up notification space.

Note that the "Sounds" slider in the Notification Center means sounds and vibrations -- there's no way to separate your preferences for each in iOS. If you have sound notifications, you'll get vibrations as long as you have vibrations turned on in Settings > Sounds.

On Android

Android apps manage their notification settings independently from one another. So to tweak the notification settings for a certain app, open it up, press the menu button, and go to Settings. Search around for the notification settings and tweak them from there (some of them are hard to find -- Gmail's is hidden in each individual account's settings under "Labels to Notify", for example). Here are some guidelines for what you'll want to set:

  • Important: I turn everything on for important notifications. I want them to show up in my status bar, make a sound and vibrate. These are important notifications and I want to know about them as they happen.
  • Unimportant: For these apps, I'll often turn notifications on but turn vibrations off. I'll leave sounds on, usually, unless I get lots of notifications from the app (like Twitter), in which case I'll turn sounds off as well.
  • Useless: For these, you can go ahead and just turn notifications off entirely.

Note that every app has different notification settings -- some will have more than described above, and some will have less. You just have to make do with what you have. For example, if you don't have the option to keep sounds on and vibration off, your best bet is to turn off both for unimportant notifications.

Step Three: Give Each App Its Own Notification Sound

If you really want to make your life easy, you can give each app its own notification tone. That way, when you get a notification, you know exactly what kind of alert it is without even looking at your device. Here's how to do it.

On iPhone

You can tweak the built-in apps' sounds right from Settings > Sounds. This includes new SMS messages, new voicemails, new emails, tweets, calendar alerts and reminder alerts. Just tap on a category and choose from one of the many tones. You can also create your own tones using iTunes and sync them to your device -- as long as they're shorter than 15 seconds, you can assign them to any of these categories as well.

Unfortunately, you need to do a little more work to assign custom tones to non-Apple apps. We've discussed how to do this before, so we won't go into it here -- just know that it's a little more work, and since a lot of apps come with their own separate tones anyway, it isn't always worth the trouble. For third-party apps that just use Apple's default tri-tone sound, the only way to customise them is to jailbreak your phone and use an app like previously mentioned PushTone, which is a great way to customise your sounds all from one place.

On Android

To assign a notification tone, go back to the notification settings of each app. Within the notification settings, you can tap "Ringtone" (or something similar) to assign a tone from Android's vast library. Don't forget you can also add custom tones to Android by copying short MP3 files to the /media/audio/notifications folder on your SD card (if it isn't there, you can create it). After copying them there, they should show up in the list of possible tones in each app's notification settings.

Other Tweaks To Further Customise Your Notifications

If you really want to go the extra mile, there are a few extra tweaks you can make to make your notifications as unobtrusive to your life as possible. Here are some neat tricks for iOS and Android.

On the iPhone

The iPhone has a cool feature that lets you use custom vibration patterns for each of your contacts so that when they call you can tell who it is without even taking your phone out of your pocket. To set them up, just go to Settings > General > Accessibility > Custom Vibrations. Turn it on and then go into the Contacts app. By editing a contact, you can give them a vibration pattern of your choosing (or even create a new one). Sadly, this only works for calls -- not SMS or other notifications -- but it's still handy if you get a lot of phone calls from friends and colleagues.

If you're jailbroken, we also like this handy little tweak called Reveal, which makes your notifications scrollable on the lock screen. That way, you can see an entire notification -- whether it be a text message, email summary or something else -- without having to unlock your phone. It can often save you from having to open up your phone, wait for your inbox to load and read the message if there's something else you'd rather have your attention on.

On Android

If you want to really get the most out of notifications on Android, you have to check out previously mentioned WhoIsIt, which lets you assign custom ringtones and vibration patterns to all of your contacts. Essentially, you can give each contact a different ringtone and vibration pattern for calls, Gmail, SMS and MMS, which means you'll always know exactly what that notification is for without taking your phone out of your pocket. It will definitely take a while to set up, but once you get all of your contacts customised, you'll be completely on top of every buzz your phone makes.

We also like previously mentioned Notifier Pro for Android. It gives you iOS-like banner notifications across the top of your screen that are much easier to read than Android's defaults, which mean it's easier to see if a specific notification is something you need to open up right now. You can also set it to resend your unread notifications after a few minutes, which is great if you don't always feel your phone vibrating in your pocket.

This is just the beginning of everything you can do -- we could do a whole feature on customising just your email notifications if we wanted to -- but you should find that your phone is much less annoying after putting some of these ideas in place. Got any other cool apps or tweaks for controlling your notifications? Let us know about them in the comments.


Comments

    would be nice to see windows phone instructions too. i don't have one, personally, but i know many people who do.

    Useful, thanks. But how do I turn off iPhone App Store badges? Sick of constant "bug fixes".

    I highly recommend the jailbreak tweak "DoNotDisturb". It gives you access to a toggle which, when activated, prevents all notifications from popping up. Especially useful if you dock your phone next to your computer, to avoid getting distracted with every push message.

    I have iphone 4 and restored to ios 5.1.1.The problem is although I turned banners alert for my phone,message,email and other apps,banner does not display at top of the screen only the old alerts display in the middle of the screen.I've restored 3 times but still Banners alert does not work!!!!Helpppppp

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