Half a year ago, I read that in most of us work for our phones, rather than letting our phones to work for us, as tools. The article stipulated in order to get the full use of your phone, it’s imperative for me to turn off my notifications.
I resisted — surely notifications were good. Why would all phones and apps have them, if not? I could instantly be alerted when I got an important email, a Facebook message from my friends, a like on my Instagram post. I liked getting notifications.
Do you see the problem yet? It took me a little longer to spot it.
For a few weeks, I debated, thinking I probably should, but still stubbornly believing I was the exception, that notifications helped me and my productivity. My Instagram notifications? Great for getting instant feedback on my posts. Those emails I got? Absolutely vital to professionally reply at lightning speed to any query that might come my way.
But, made aware of potential problems, I started noticing how often I got on my phone to check for notifications, anticipating that little bubble of happiness inside of me that corresponded to that red badge on the app. I noticed how frequently I’d get that buzz, stop whatever I was doing to check my phone, and promptly get lost in the feed — emails, Instagram, Facebook, whatever.
And I noticed how upset I got when I did get that notification, only for it to be irrelevant to me, like being told a friend of a friend posted a photo, or that someone I didn’t care about had started a live video. And how thirsty that made me for the next real notification, that next hit of dopamine.
Finally, it makes sense. The article urged me to check my phone when I had time, when I wanted to look at my email/Facebook/Instagram notifications, rather than being fully at the whims of whatever social media giant felt it’d been too long since I’d interacted with their platform.
I’ve written how social media networks have everything to gain from getting us to refresh and scroll over and over again, and what we lose from it.
After all, it’s no accident those notification badges come to us in red, that when we get a new one it bounces to the top of our screen — we’re being trained to think of them as urgent, as necessary of our attention immediately, when in reality they’re not.
Social media companies pay for our attention, and all we get in return is a fleeting hit of dopamine when we get a new like. I was sick of my emotions being at the whims of an arbitrary algorithm hungry for my attention. So I followed this guide and switched off all my notifications.
What happened after I turned off my notifications?
Before, I used to check my phone only to see the time and instantly be distracted by the 20 urgent new notifications.
They were silly: some were just notifying me that a random friend had posted something unrelated to me. Others were that people were selling things in my area, again unrelated to me.
Social media networks were desperate to get me on their platform, spending (or wasting) my time on the infinite scroll. Meanwhile, I was just desperate to get rid of those pesky notifications, or in the hopes that a notification actually pertained to me. So I would go on the platform to click on them and vanish them, only to get caught in exactly what Facebook wanted me to do.
We’re being trained to think of notifications as urgent, as necessary of our attention immediately, when in reality they’re not.
Five, ten, twenty minutes later I’d surface. Whether I was working on a blog post, something for work, a painting, or spending time with my partner, that time was sucked into a vacuum, never to be regained. I lost my concentration and had to slowly sink back into it.
I check the time on my phone and I see the time. My intention fulfilled, I can continue, undistracted, with my work. I have regained autonomy in my work. I check Facebook when I want to: never by accident, or because I am blindsided with an “urgent” notification. In other words, I’m finally fulfilling the phone’s true intention: to be a tool for me.
The unexpected price of turning off notifications.
Honestly, even after all my scepticism, once I was persuaded to make the plunge, I expected literally zero negative effects. And honestly, there were a couple.
We are used to being accessible to everyone, at all times. People could Facebook message me at any time and I’d see the messages and instantly reply, whereas now hours will go by while I’m working on — well, work.
I’m no longer instantly available to all.
When I host a board game get-together evening, I’m too lazy to switch the notifications back on, so I have to remember to keep my laptop open which dings as they message me their arrival, or remember to check my texts inbox every so often to make sure they’re not kept waiting.
Worst case scenario? That text goes unanswered for a few hours. My friends wait five minutes. That Instagram picture continues to rack up likes unaided by my constant refreshing.
I’m a little less connected to my friends — messages sometimes go unaswered, Snaps unopened, Instagrams unliked. But even though I may risk sounding selfish, the trade-off is worth it to me.
The side effects of no phone notifications.
I found I was addicted to distraction. I was constantly searching for a reason to stop working and check a different social media. Before, I could guarantee that when I checked my phone I’d have at least one notification — if not Twitter, then Facebook, or Instagram, or Medium, or email. I could be safe in the knowledge that distraction was a quick phone-flip away.
Now? I’m twitchy, looking for something to take me away from work or the bathroom or wherever else I’m bored. I have to use that as a cue to refocus and remember what I’m doing and why.
I found that when I received no notifications, I would sometimes forget that I’d switched them off and assume that I literally had nobody trying to contact me. This has its hazards, mentioned above, but also made me feel kind of lousy until I remembered. That was terrifying — the realization that the need to be available for everyone went deeper than I had even noticed.
I found I worried that I’d miss stuff. I checked media manually, a lot. Until I realized that 99% of the notifications I’d see were unrelated to me, generated solely to falsely capture my interest. The other 1% could have waited, to be honest. It was incredibly rare that someone messaged me something time-sensitive.
And as I grew used to having my phone be my own again, I found that I grew used to the peace and power of checking my notifications under my own volition.
If you’ve been hesitating, if you’ve heard this might be good but put it off for whatever reason, if you’ve doubted: do it now. There’s no real reason I can think of to leave them on, and I join my voice to the choir.
It will be strange. You will miss them. But turning the notifications off my phone was one of the best moves I made for my productivity, and I firmly believe the same applies for everyone else.