July 8, 2019

A Notification Audit

Taking a closer look at when I allow devices to ask for my attention

I’m not sure why it’s taken me this long, but I started this month off by finally taking the time to look at, think about, and adjust my notification settings on each device.

It’s easy to inadvertently dig yourself into a pit of distraction. We install new apps, and we’re excited to use them to their fullest so we accept their terms and grant their permission requests…and suddenly that’s one more thing pinging, beeping, or vibrating our phones during the day.

Over time, this becomes untenable. To their credit, phone manufacturers have generally done a good job of giving us the tools to manage this deluge, but we tend to be bad at actually making use of them.

How I Fixed My Notifications

Once I actually set aside time to do this, the process itself was pretty straightforward.

I navigated to SettingsNotifications on my iPhone and worked my way down the list of apps, considering each one KonMari-style and adjusting its settings accordingly.

The vast majority I had to curtail. I wasn’t ruthless though.

For the most part, if an app is installed, I don’t mind it being able to ask for my attention (otherwise why bother keeping it?) but do they need to be able to do so with lock screen, notification centre, and banner alerts? Plus sounds and badges? I think not.

In the end, most apps were set to show alerts in notification centre only, and with badges but no sounds. I find this to be a good balance as it stops the apps from interrupting me when I’m not using my phone, but allows me to easily catch up when I am using it.1

There are two exceptions I want to call out.

Email and Messaging

This is the category of apps that I left more permissive notification settings for.

I don’t get very many messages, so I left those wide open. This applies to Basecamp too, not just the Apple Messages app.2

For email, I ended up turning off sounds and banner alerts, but allowing lock screen and notification centre alerts along with badges.

This is part of a parallel attempt on my part to be better about giving myself time to focus. Having email constantly on leads to a very fragmented work day, but I can’t be too restrictive about it either since quick response times are a selling point for an agency like ours.

My compromise has been to effectively turn off email notifications on my mobile devices (as described above) and switch to a desktop email app that allows me to receive notifications in a bundle on a set schedule that I can determine. For now, I’ve set it to bring in new emails once per hour.

The app in question is in beta still, but I’ll be writing more about it as it’s been a transformative improvement in my productivity.

Focused Work

The end result of this little crusade is that my day feels much more ordered, and my time feels more valuable since I can actually use it in the way I set out to instead of giving 200 apps the means to interrupt my flow.

When I’m working on something, my phone is on my desk but it no longer beeps or pings or vibrates for every random thing the internet wants to show me. My email comes in once an hour with a single desktop notification only, allowing me to deal with it periodically and giving me an excuse to take a break.

If one of my message threads gets too active while I’m trying to work, I simply put my devices into Do Not Disturb mode to keep my focus intact without permanently changing the otherwise-effective notification strategy.

I have to say, it feels like a breath of fresh air to work this way and I wish I’d done it sooner. If you can carve out fifteen minutes, I highly recommend doing a notification audit of your own—the results are worth it.

  1. Because my Watch mirrors notifications from the phone, it also means I get way fewer taps on the wrist.↩︎

  2. I guess I should say phone calls are also wide open, but I get so few of those that I forgot about them.↩︎

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