Last year, I wrote an article about notifications on our devices and the way they impact our lives. In that piece, I made some pretty bold statements. I pointed out that most of the digital notifications we receive on a daily basis are completely worthless and that as a whole, they’re hurting us more than they’re helping us. I went so far as to claim that if I never received another notification again, I would be better off for it. And I made a call for each of us to rethink our approach to these intrusions and to make meaningful changes to solve the problems they create. There’s no way I could just leave statements like that hanging, so here I am now for some follow-up.
This piece won’t be as grand and theoretical as its predecessor, though. This time around, I’m here to speak from personal experience. It took some time for me to internalize, process, and apply all of the information that led me to write about this topic last year. But now that I have, I’d like to share my story with you, if you’ll allow me.
The bottom line is this: My devices don’t ding anymore. Or buzz. Or chirp. Or any of that other nonsense. I’ve eliminated 99% of the notifications from my life, and just as I predicted, it’s been wonderful.
You might be thinking, “He’s exaggerating. There’s no way he actually turned off all of his notifications.” But I’m not, and I did. I literally turned off notifications for every major source in my life. Texts. Emails. DMs. Likes. Comments. Snaps. Retweets. Replies. All of them, gone. They don’t make noise anymore. They don’t show up on my home screen anymore. And they aren’t in my notification center anymore. No. more. notifications.
Does that sound extreme to you? Because it did to me, at least at first. When I decided to turn off all of my notifications, it gave me a great deal of anxiety. I was afraid that I might miss out on something important. Or that someone might get mad at me for not responding to them quickly enough. Or that I might find myself constantly wondering if I have a new message and fighting the urge to check. These were very real fears.
So I decided to make it an experiment. I told myself I’d try it out just for a week of family vacation, and then I‘d probably go back to “normal” once the trip was over. But a funny thing happened: None of my fears came to fruition, and I found that I enjoyed my family time (and life in general) significantly more without the constant interruptions coming from my devices. So when I got home, I just kept the experiment going. And now here I am a month later, still living notification-free.
So maybe it’s not so outrageous to consider a life without notifications after all. But still, that doesn’t make it feasible. The end result sounds nice, but the real question is, “How?” How does one move from a never-ending stream of dings, pings, and buzzes to silence? That was the question I had to answer myself. It’s taken some tweaking, but I think I’ve found the right way to do it, at least for me.
A quick note before we dive in: I tend to work almost exclusively using Apple products, so the description of my process might use some Apple lingo. But based on my understanding of other platforms, I think this approach could translate to most anything. If you have any questions about the technical aspects of implementing my method on your specific device, I’d be happy to help you out. Just get into contact with me.
To start off, I had to think about where the majority of my notifications were coming from. Which applications were the most intrusive? For me, it was the basics: Messages, Mail, and social media. This handful of applications was dominating my time. I had tried in the past to keep these apps at bay by putting my phone on Do Not Disturb mode, but that wasn’t enough. The notifications still showed up on my lock screen, and there were always those annoying red bubbles on the home screen letting me know how many texts and tweets I was missing out on.
It felt like my phone was using me rather than the other way around. The apps that were supposed to be working for me and making my life better were actually bossing me around and telling me how to spend my time. I couldn’t resist the urge to tap on the notifications, even if it was just to get them to go away.
So I did something that seemed drastic, but was actually necessary: I went into my notification settings and completely took away notification access for my messaging, email, and social media apps. I didn’t just take away their ability to make sounds and buzzes, but their ability to push any sort of notification at all, including banners and those awful red bubbles on my home screen. Now, I could have a dozen unread texts or zero, and I have no way of knowing the difference until I actually open the app.
Here’s why I turned off these apps’ notifications altogether: I check them multiple times a day anyway, often multiple times an hour. There’s no possible way I’m going to miss something important because I’m always on those apps by choice. But that’s the key: It’s my choice. I want to choose when I check my text messages and emails. I want to choose when I check Twitter and Instagram. I want to choose when I check how many likes I’ve received on my latest Facebook post. I don’t want those apps telling me when to pay attention to them. So I just don’t give them the opportunity to.
Now, I can open the Messages app every five minutes or every five hours and still feel the same way. I don’t have the anxiety that comes with a clogged-up notification center and a red bubble on my home screen. When I have free time, I check my texts often. When I’m busy, I let them pile up until I’ve got a spare moment. Not only has this made it easier to enjoy my life day-to-day, but I also actually like reading my text messages now. They’re like nice, little unexpected surprises that I can open whenever I want to. Same with emails and social media interactions: Making them less intrusive also makes them more fun.
For all of my other apps, I use the Do Not Disturb feature. Each of my devices has one, and I leave it on 100% of the time. This way, I don’t miss out on important information from apps I don’t use constantly (such as my banking app), but they still don’t have the ability to interrupt my life. Sometimes, I’ll go a full day without a single notification showing up. But even when they do come along, they’re a lot easier to manage now, and I know that they’re worth my time.
I’ve also created a new rule: If one of these apps gives me one useless notification, or even too many notifications that are only marginally important, I immediately open up my settings app and revoke its notification privileges. I’m constantly monitoring which notifications I’m allowing into my life and evaluating whether or not they’re worthwhile. If they aren’t, I make a small change that has a lasting impact on my mental well-being. Basically, if a notification isn’t worth tapping on, then it isn’t worth existing at all.
The key, I think, is keeping in mind that notifying us about information is a privilege that we give to these apps. It isn’t a right. You may not remember doing this, but when you set up these apps on your phone, they had to ask your permission to start notifying you. Most of us simply grant these permissions without giving it a second thought, but it’s actually quite freeing to realize that you can say no. Not every app deserves that privilege, and we have the power to grant and revoke that privilege as we see fit.
On a related note, I’ve been removing digital clutter from my life in other ways, too. You know those pesky email newsletters you’re always getting but never read? Most of them have an unsubscribe button at the bottom, and I’ve been pushing it. A lot. I also created smart folders to automatically catch certain emails that I want to keep but don’t necessarily need to see every time they come in, such as daily confirmations of payments I make on my credit card. Those messages get filed away for safekeeping without taking up a second of my time or attention.
And I’ve been cleaning up my social media feeds, too. Mind you, I haven’t unfriended anyone. But most social networks now have an option to mute accounts that you don’t want to disconnect with completely but don’t need to see on a daily basis either. That person I met one time at a conference is great, but have no desire to see a picture of their daily coffee order. With just a couple of clicks, I’ve parred down my social feeds to the information that really matters, posts from the people I care about the most. Again, this saves me mental energy and makes interacting with these services a lot more meaningful. Are you catching the trend here?
Of course, such a big change doesn’t come without its complications. The biggest one is ensuring that I am available in case of emergency. And that’s where my one exception to the, “My phone never dings,” rule comes in. In my Do Not Disturb settings, I told my phone to mute everything except phone calls from people in my contacts. That way, if a family member, friend, or colleague absolutely needs to contact me immediately, they can. But only if they call, and only if they’re someone I know. (Sorry, robocallers; you’re going to voicemail.)
In urgent situations, people tend to call instead of text anyway, but I have had to do a bit of expectation management as well. Unfortunately, our cultural technology addiction has led to a false belief that text messages should be read and responded to immediately. I’ve had to tell a couple of people—and I probably should tell everyone—that if they need to contact me in a timely fashion, they have to call me. Because I’m not consistent about checking my texts, and that’s the way it should be.
Another complication is that the devices themselves don’t give me as much choice as I need to create a truly perfect solution. For example, I actually do want text messages from my fiancé to interrupt my life. But there’s no way to make an exception for her in Apple’s Do Not Disturb settings, so she gets caught in the filter, too. It would also be nice to turn on notifications from coworkers during business hours and then have them muted when I’m on my own time. And there are certain instances when we want our devices to be interruptive (such as when we set calendar reminders or play games like Trivia HQ), and I wish there were a way to only allow notifications in these few cases.
These sorts of customizations are certainly technically possible, but it’s on the device makers to give that power to consumers. Thus far, I haven’t seen it. But tech companies are starting to acknowledge the impact of technology addiction and notification overload, and they’re working on tools to empower users to take control of their devices. So hopefully we’ll see these sorts of options added very soon.
And finally, if you do decide you want to go this route, be prepared for your apps to get mad at you. The people who develop software for our devices benefit greatly from having the ability to interrupt our lives whenever they like, and they aren’t happy when that privilege is taken away. Every time I open the Facebook Messenger app now, I get a little message reprimanding me for not allowing the app to send me notifications. My old email client, Spark, disabled certain features because I wouldn’t approve its notifications requests. And so on.
The whole system is built on the assumption that we give our devices unencumbered access to our lives, so when we take that access away, it pushes back. But that’s alright. The system works just fine without all of the notifications. In fact, it actually works better for me. If developers want the deep, persistent access to my life that they’re used to getting, they’re going to have to give me a really good reason to turn those notifications back on. I’m not sure that there’s any value an app could add to my life that would be worth more than the relief and sense of centeredness I now feel.
It’s nearly impossible, I know, but try to picture it: life without notifications. You could carry on a conversation with your partner, look into each other’s eyes, and not have to stop every time someone sends one of you a text. You could share a meal with your friends and laugh together knowing that each of you is fully present. You could have fun with your family and create memories with one another that no one would miss out on due to digital distraction. It’s beautiful, isn’t it? And the good news is that it’s possible.
I’ve shared with you my approach, and I’ve done so because it’s worked really well for me. I think it could work for you, too. It’s scary at first, I know. We’ve been taught that we need notifications, but I’m living proof that we don’t. If a techie like me can learn to live without them and actually like it, I think it’s worth a shot for you, too.
I do understand that this approach isn’t for everyone. I don’t claim to have it all figured out. Maybe you’re in a situation where you need to be more instantly accessible for loved ones or for work. Maybe you use your devices for accessibility, and you need notifications. Or maybe you love playing time-based games and find that they enrich your life. I’d love to hear your perspective on this topic, too.
But regardless of whether my method is the right one for you, I would encourage you to seriously consider the role that you’re allowing your devices and especially notifications to play in your life. Are they disrupting time with your loved ones? Are they causing you stress? Are they taking up too much of your valuable attention and energy? We can all do something to take control of the technology in our lives. We can all find ways to make our devices work for us so that we don’t find ourselves working for them. And if you think the notification-free life might be the solution for you, I hope you’ll give it a try. I did, and I’m never looking back.