Ding! This needs your attention right now, notifications seem to say. Boing! It might be an emergency. Or, just as often: Boop! Somebody you love might want to talk to you. We get hundreds of notifications every day, and they are almost all lies.
Notifications are for the benefit of the app, the phone, the social network. They rarely benefit you.
The problem with notifications goes beyond interruptions, or the fact that they deliver randomised dopamine hits like a super-addictive slot machine. Notifications help apps skew your worldview. They make you think that your phone is important and essential.
How often do you truly need an interruption to your day, a thing that sets your pants buzzing and makes you drop what you're doing, be it work or play, and rush to take a different action? Maybe once or twice a day, right? So why are notifications bugging you all the time?
The Goal Is Only to Get You Back on Your Phone
Your phone excels at sucking you in. The feeds are infinite, the videos autoplay. The purpose of a notification is to make you pick up your phone and spend time on it. Not to bring you news of an emergency or to communicate with your loved ones. The notifications are for Apple's benefit, or Samsung's, or Google's, or Facebook's, or Twitter's. Not yours.
All these companies benefit when you use their products. Google wants your eyeballs and your data. Apple wants you so engaged with your iPhone that you get excited every time they launch a new one. If you just left your phone in your pocket all the time, what good are you to them?
While writing this article, I looked at my notification centre to see what had pinged me lately. I keep my notifications pretty pared down, but there was Reddit, telling me about some trending topic. "I should turn that off," I said to myself, and then spent the next ten minutes scrolling Reddit instead.
A Notification Isn't Really a Friend Interacting With You
The engineer who invented Facebook's "like" button described its effects as "bright dings of pseudo-pleasure." We love the idea that a friend likes us, or that they enjoyed a thing we chose to create or share.
The dark side of that is loneliness and FOMO. You keep checking your phone, notifications or no, because you're afraid of missing something. Maybe a loved one just texted. Maybe some important news story just broke. Maybe your coworkers are discussing something funny on Slack, and you're missing out.
Even when we hit the jackpot — aha, a friend liked a thing I posted! — it often doesn't really mean that.
Former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris points out that social media companies design their products to make it look like your friends are interacting with you, when really they're just clicking a button that appeared in front of them as they were scratching their own itch for social approval. They upload a photo, and Facebook suggests they tag you. They're scrolling Twitter, and they heart your tweet because it's right in front of them.
They didn't seek you out. They're not really interacting with you as a person. They just clicked something while being vaguely reminded of your presence.
Would you go out and buy a device that grabs your attention randomly throughout the day just to tell you that the computers that run Instagram made your name scroll past an acquaintance's screen halfway across the country? Well, you did.
Apps Bundle the Stuff You Care About With the Stuff That Makes Somebody Else Money
Not every notification is bullshit. I really do want to know when my boss says my name on Slack, when an internet friend DMs me on Twitter, when my calendar says it's time to leave for the dentist. But it's so hard to separate the things that matter from all the stuff that doesn't.
I've told my Twitter app not to send notifications when somebody likes a tweet or retweets me or follows me; those aren't urgent. (I do like to see replies, though, so I allow those.) But when I'm using the app or Twitter.com, the little bell icon always has a badge on it, telling me something is here if you click it.
It's almost always likes and retweets, even though I've told Twitter I don't care about those. They just want me to notice the little badge, and click. The few things I care about are bundled with the many I don't.
This bundling doesn't benefit me; it benefits Twitter, because it keeps me tapping around in the app. Social media companies make their money through advertising, stuffing ads and promoted posts into your feed. Their business model is, quite straightforwardly, that you'll view their ads because they bundle them with things you care about.
Facebook is especially bad at this. I want to see if somebody replied to something I posted, and that's pretty much it. But right now I have 11 Facebook notifications, and only two of them are about comments from conversations I'm involved in. The others are things on the level of "hey, an acquaintance liked a post in a group that you're both in." The notification badge slot machine is a game that ultimately makes Facebook money, but the information you and I get out of it is barely useful and definitely not urgent.
How to Crawl Out of the Notifications Hellhole
Sick of being manipulated? This is 2018, so your every move is being monetised. I can't put a total stop to that. But I can show you how to get fewer of those garbage notifications.
First, you'll have to come to terms with which of your notifications are garbage. The real answer is almost all of them, but I know that when you start turning them off you're going to think about the jolt of dopamine you get when you see some beloved app's notifications.
Stop! Don't base your judgement on how the notification makes you feel when you see it; base it on how you feel about your whole goddamn life knowing that this app gets to bother you 100 times per day.
I recommend this:
Allow texts and text-like messages from actual humans. For me that includes Signal, Facebook Messenger, Twitter DMs, and not much else.
If you check an app often, you don't need its notifications at all. You'll see your Instagram likes next time you open the app. You'll see your emails the next time you check your email.
Nobody needs news alerts. iPhone users, do you realise that many of your Android-using friends have never had news alerts on by default? They survived, and you can too. Chances are you learn about news in some other way (see rule #2). If you're worried you'll miss the hot topic of the day, use Nuzzel to notify you when 15 of your friends all share the same link.
Turn off all the badges. In your settings, stop apps from being able to put a little red-numbered badge on their icons. If there are one or two apps you want to use more, allow just those badges.
Get used to saying no. When you install a new app, it will want to send you notifications. Say no. Chances are, most of those notifications will just say "You haven't used this app lately!" If there's a task you really want to be reminded do, like working out or logging what you ate, set yourself a reminder to do that. Don't trust the app. You know it doesn't have your best interests at heart.
Use websites, not desktop apps. Installing an app on your desktop often gives it a direct line to system level notifications. If you're using (say) Slack in a browser tab, you can close that tab whenever you want to focus. You can also create home screen shortcuts to mobile websites in place of installing apps.
Schedule notification-free time. If you use Slack for work, tell it to snooze notifications from the minute you leave the office to the latest possible time you might arrive. (Wake up early some days? See rule #2).
It will take some tweaking to pare down your notifications to the bare minimum. You'll have to go into the Twitter app to tell it to allow DMs and nothing else, for example. Email is trickier still; you may have to set up some filters in gmail to be sure that the stuff in your "priority inbox" is truly priority.
I went as far as setting up a new email address just for truly important emails, and my regular email accounts now forward certain messages to that address. I now have notifications turned on for just that account, and off for everything else.
But whenever possible, it's best to block notifications at the system level, so the app can't surprise you with a new type of notification next time a developer decides they want more of your attention. On both Android and iPhone, you can block an app's notifications right from the notification itself.
With notifications off, you may feel lonely. You may start opening apps to see if there are any new replies or likes. When you notice yourself doing this, stop! Ask yourself, what do I really want right now? Is it human contact? Hug your kids, or text an actual real life friend. Is it entertainment? Decide on a book or a movie before you pick up your phone. With practice and intention, you can fight the apps' designs and use your phone for your own purposes.
If you have a healthy relationship with your phone, you should even be able to step away from it from time to time. I'm not there, but I'm getting closer.
For example, I take my phone when I'm running or kayaking, but I put it in aeroplane mode so I won't be distracted by notifications — just because I'll read texts at home doesn't mean I want them to ping me when I'm in the middle of a lake.
The other day, I was doing puzzles with my daughter when my husband left the house with our other kids. I had set my phone to charge in the other room but, I thought, What if he needs to get in touch with me in a semi-emergency? I dug through a haze of childhood memories to remember what we did before notifications, before texting.
I told him to call me if anything important came up, and I put the phone in "do not disturb" mode, knowing that my settings will always allow his calls to come through. Like in the olden days, I left the phone plugged into the wall, and turned on the ringer.