I’m standing in the doorway of my office, leaned against the doorpost, having a casual but enthused conversation with a coworker about the upcoming Star Wars movie. As we’re swapping theories about the latest trailer, I feel a vibration on my wrist. Then another one. And another one. It’s my smartwatch letting me know that someone is texting me. The haptic indicator is unnoticeable to my friend, but for me, it’s nearly impossible not to recognize it. And then I have to ask myself: Do I disengage from this enjoyable conversation to check my text messages, or do I ignore the constant buzzing on my wrist?
Later, I’m at my computer editing graphics for a marketing campaign, and I see a rounded rectangle slide in to the top right of my screen. Instinctively, I avert my attention to the notification, which informs me that I am once again the lucky recipient of a piece of junk email. I navigate away from the task at hand to my inbox, delete the message, inaudibly curse the sender of the unwanted message, and then try to return to the work, slightly less focused and markedly more agitated.
That night, I’m sleeping soundly in bed. The lights are off, and the only sound in my house is the soothing white noise coming from the table fan that I’ve never actually used to cool myself. Suddenly, I’m jolted awake by my phone’s bright screen accompanied by a chirping noise. Groggy and startled, I reach over and grab my phone to see what the commotion is about. The vital information that I just had to know in the middle of the night? Some stranger liked a dumb joke I had made on Twitter at lunch.
As time goes on, it seems that I’m getting more and more notifications on more and more devices. Texts on my phone. Emails on my computer. Facebook pokes (yes, they’re still a thing) on my iPad. Exercise reminders on my watch. New releases on my gaming console. Software updates on my TV. The low battery indicator on my Bluetooth speaker. Everywhere I turn, something is dinging, pinging, buzzing, or full-on screeching in an attempt to get my attention and deliver some information that I just have to know right that second lest the world seemingly fall apart.
And of course, I buy right into it. The constant slew of notifications has trained me to react with near-Pavlovian compulsion to each and every one. I can’t help but look when a notification comes my way. It’s gotten to the point where I don’t even notice myself lifting my wrist and looking down at my smartwatch each time it vibrates. It’s become muscle memory. The gap between stimulus and response is practically nonexistent and—worse—completely subconscious.
This relationship with digital notifications begins at a positive place: We want to know what’s going on in the world, and notifications are supposed to help us keep up. When a friend texts us asking if we’d like to go out, we want to know so that we can respond with, “Heck yes I do!” When a family member calls to deliver important news, we don’t want them to get sent to voicemail. And when a supervisor sends an email requesting an update on the latest project, we know that responding quickly is key for future success. These notifications are helpful, even necessary. And so we buy into the system.
But then they just keep piling up. Suddenly, streaming apps wants to notify us every time a new show is added to their service. Our favorite restaurants ask to send us reminders about new menu items and limited-time offers. Social media networks demand that we pay attention every time someone starts typing a message to us, and again when they send it. (I’m looking at you, Snapchat.) Eventually, the amount of notifications we receive in a given day becomes so great that it’s unmanageable, and it begins to have a negative impact on our lives.
These notifications are distracting. We struggle to hold a conversation, enjoy a meal, or read a book without taking intermittent breaks to check our phones. We can’t even sit through a movie or TV show (which are meant to serve as distractions from real life) without getting distracted by our digital lives. These notifications divert our focus from what’s in front of us to something in the ether. And so we go about our lives only halfway-present to the people and tasks that we should be fully devoting our attention to.
They also form nasty, compulsive habits. Every time we get an Instagram like or a response from a friend, we get a tiny endorphin high. Our brains come to associate those tones and buzzes with attention, support, and excitement. And every time we check our phones, we reinforce this subconscious link. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle that leaves us staring at our screens waiting for the next notification to come in. (Don’t act like you haven’t done it.)
Not to mention that they are dangerous. They keep us from sleep, keep us from focusing while we drive, keep us dependent on our devices for comfort and interaction rather than finding those things on our own. It might sound like a trivial problem, but the stakes aren’t low here. There are real consequences to these issues that need to be addressed.
And on top of it all, most of these notifications are absolutely worthless. They’re garbage. We literally refer to them as “junk.” Be honest: What percentage of the emails that come to your inbox on a daily basis actually add value to your life? How often do you find yourself swiping away notifications because they’re in your way and don’t offer any relevant information? Do you ever find yourself frustrated or disappointed when your phone goes off and it isn’t what you were expecting? The truth is that we don’t need the majority of the notifications that come across our devices every day. They don’t offer any value to us.
Which has led me to the conclusion that if I never received another notification for the rest of my life, I’d be better off for it. It would be better for me to miss out on some texts, calls, and emails than to keep being bombarded by the never-ending slew of crap that’s coming to my devices each and every day. I would be less anxious, more present, and much happier if the notifications simply stopped altogether. What a sad realization.
I am the last person in the world to speak ill of technology. I love technology. It’s my career. It’s my hobby. It makes up a great deal of my life, and I get so much enjoyment out of it. But technology can be misused, and I believe it’s currently being abused to the point that it’s having a marked impact on our overall quality of life. As someone with a deep affection for technology, I can’t help but seek a better way. And I believe that a better way exists if everyone will do their part.
Part of it lies on the sources themselves. People and services need to start offering higher-value content if they want our time and attention. If something is going to interrupt my life and demand my focus, it better be pretty dang important. The ability to enter someone’s life at such an intimate level is no small thing, and it needs to be taken seriously by those who are sending out those notifications.
We also need to be given more control over our notifications by the makers of the technologies we use. Sure, there are some decent options right now, but they often require digging deep into a device’s settings and going through meticulous lists that most people just aren’t going to bother with. I should be able to define who I want to hear from and when. I should be able to tell my phone to only show me work emails during business hours and that while I’m asleep, only a handful of chosen people should be able to wake me up. If I really want to monitor one particular post I’ve shared on social media, I should be able to turn on notifications for that particular piece of content without getting notified every time someone comments on some silly video that I liked last week. Giving users control over their notifications would at least give us the option of unplugging a bit when we want to.
But ultimately, the responsibility lies with us to take control of our digital lives. Because we’re the ones who have to deal with the consequences. If you can’t kick the impulse to check for new likes every five minutes, delete the app for a while. If your family members complain that you aren’t paying attention to them, turn the dang phone off and enjoy a meal with them. If you can’t sleep at night because of the dinging and buzzing coming from your nightstand, there’s a “silent” option on your devices for just such occasions. It’s on each of us to make use of the tools we have (limited though they may be) to keep the notifications at bay so that they don’t prevent us from living our lives.
We’re in desperate need of a shift in thinking when it comes to notifications on our devices. We can’t go on like they are all valuable and we need them in our lives. We can’t go on like compulsively checking them isn’t hurting our relationships with those we love. We can’t go on like relying on these notifications for entertainment, comfort, and fulfillment is a sustainable lifestyle. We can’t keep ignoring the problem and passively checking every notification that comes our way.
Our devices offer us the ability to connect with others and stay informed about the world in ways that we never thought possible, and our lives are better for it. But they also offer never-ending sources of buzzes, dings, and other intrusions that aren’t worth our time and attention. Learning to distinguish between the two and remove the latter from our lives isn’t just important: It’s essential if we’re going to thrive in the digital age.