Reclaim Hours of your Time by Controlling Notifications - Even If you have No Idea Where to Begin
Our hero sits at his desk, coffee in hand, ready to start his project. Fingers moving toward his keyboard, he is about to begin working when - *BEEP* - his phone notification alerts him of some pressing need requiring his attention.
He vows to put it off until later, to focus on what he is doing, but part of his focus is put towards wondering - what is going on? what will I miss? does someone need to talk to me? what if it is important? what if it is work? will they be mad if I don't answer quickly? - and he spends the next 10 minutes distractedly clicking and scrolling away before finally giving in to the temptation to check his phone...
for a notification that he received yet another piece of email that is probably junk.
Annoyed, he checks it anyway, spends some time reading through it, and deletes it.
Whew, 15 minutes later and it is time to start.
Five minutes later, he gets a browser notification that someone shared yet another funny cat video compilation on his social media platform(s) of choice. Then another email. Then a text message - nothing urgent, just an off-the-cuff question that could very easily be handled later, but it gets handled right now because, well...the person on the other side saw that it was read, so to not drop everything and respond immediately would be rude, right?
Soon, an hour goes by with only about 20 minutes of actual work done on the project. Emails keep coming in, being checked one-by-one as they arrive, as do text and IM messages. Distracted and anxious, our hero tries to respond to every incoming alert in real-time. His own priorities for the day are forgotten until it is almost time to go home, so he puts in an extra hour (his family will understand, right?) and goes home late, feeling confused and defeated.
"Where did my time go?
Why do I feel like I got nowhere on my project?
Why does it feel like I did a lot of running around today, only to get nowhere?"
He vows to do better the next day and returns home, only to have the emails, texts, beeps, dings, buzzes, and whistles continue.
Distracted and decision-fatigued, he finally makes it to bed. Throughout the night, his phone continues to keep him constantly updated as he tries to sleep, always a little bit curious to know what he is missing...
This, unfortunately, is a story seen far too often.
Our technology helps us every day. It keeps us connected to people we love. It allows us to access vast amounts of information. It helps us manage our schedule, our priorities, our shopping lists, our education, and even our finances. It is where we go to relax and wind down after a long day.
However, this "constantly connected" culture has some downsides...
Distraction abounds. Without thoughtful and careful control of what information we allow, we run the risk of being constantly bombarded by every app we use (and even some we don't!).
bio-trackers and health apps
the list goes on...
Not all of these notifications are "bad". Notifications, in and of themselves, are not "bad". How we use them, and whether or not we allow them to distract and hinder, rather than help, is the determining factor. I prefer to judge on "usefulness" - a notification is "useful" or it is "not useful".
My goal in writing this is to help you start to get a handle on taming these notifications and reclaiming your attention, allowing the useful notifications to alert you to information that you deem important and silencing all of the extra noise.
First, I would like to expand on a few key points that highlight just exactly why these notifications slow us down.
Then, I will go into exactly how to control notifications (and ways to quantify how many notifications you receive) on Windows 10, iOS, and Android devices.
Notifications are not useful when they do not make what we do easier or if they take our attention away from the present moment for reasons that are not urgent - things that, though they must be handled, do not necessarily have to be handled "right now".
Notifications interrupt our "Flow".
Flow, as defined by Wikipedia, is "the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, Flow is characterized by the complete absorption in what one does, and a resulting loss in one's sense of space and time." It has been known by other names, including "The Zone", and refers to the feeling of being "carried by a current of water" while performing a task.
It is the state of pure focus that happens when you are so immersed in something that you "lose track of time" and think of nothing else but the task in front of you. It also boosts productivity by up to 500%.
The specifics of Flow are a topic for another article, but for our purposes today let us assume that uninterrupted focus is a requirement for Flow to occur.
The concept of Flow assumes we only have so much "mental bandwidth" to use. We have a finite amount of attention to devote at any given moment. If we try to pay attention to many things at the same time, we decrease the amount of attention we can devote to any one of those things (more on this shortly...).
If Flow requires our complete attention, and our attention is being diverted by a constant stream of notifications (and it is, whether you check your phone or not after hearing them**), then we can see how controlling these little distractions could go a long way towards helping us be more productive.
Notifications force us to multitask.
Multitasking - everybody thinks they're good at it. Some even brag about it. However...nobody really is.
When you multitask, you're performing multiple tasks well below your potential ability. You're "half-assing" (quarter-assing?) multiple tasks, and not doing a terribly good job at any one of them. Productivity drops by as much as 40% immediately. Your IQ drops by 10 points. Accuracy suffers. You lose time as you switch back-and-forth from task to task and have to shift your mindset, focus, and thinking to adjust. Your overall anxiety and stress levels increase...
This doesn't sound like the best way to be productive and focused to me. Imagine if you folded a t-shirt, then washed a plate in your sink, then put the shirt away, then swept your floor a little, then washed another dish...wouldn't it be faster to fold all the clothes, put them all away, then wash all the dishes at once?
This is referred to as "batching tasks", or setting up to perform many similar tasks at once rather than bouncing around from task to task. It is a much faster way to work - and we will discuss strategies like this further in future articles.
What does multitasking have to do with Flow?
"The Science" has determined that it can take up to 23 minutes to Flow again after being interrupted, even for just a minute, as you answer an email or check the latest ding on your phone.
When is the last time you went 15 minutes without some kind of alarm, alert, bell, ding, or whistle? If you never get that time, you can never truly enter "the Zone", and you miss out on that 5x multiplier and all of the amazing benefits that focused work has to offer.
Still don't believe me that your phone can be THAT MUCH of a distraction? Check out this study from Rutgers University that shows that students have lower test scores for students who did not use electronics, themselves, but were near others that were during simulated classroom lectures.
I will include some highlights here:
"Selection, switching and retention effects are all effects of an individual dividing attention on the individual’s own performance. When considered in the context of a classroom, allowing students to divide attention between an electronic device for a non-academic purpose and the classroom may also have the social effect of distracting other students who are not trying to divide attention. The social effect of distraction was tested in a laboratory simulation in which all students took notes on a lecture and some students also had to perform internet tasks on laptops in addition to the note-taking (Sana et al., 2013).
Both the students performing the internet tasks and the students who sat near them performed worse on a subsequent exam on the content of the lecture" (emphasis mine).
Students who sat near the students using electronics had their performance negatively impacted. They didn't even have to be directly using the device.
"Furthermore, when the use of electronic devices was allowed in class, performance on the unit exams and final exams was poorer for students who did not use electronic devices during the class as well as for the students who did use an electronic device. This is the first-ever finding in an actual classroom of the social effect of classroom distraction on subsequent exam performance. The effect of classroom distraction on exam performance confirms the laboratory finding of the social effect of distraction (Sana et al., 2013)" (again, emphasis mine).
The pull of these devices is so strong that even being around other people using them is enough to hurt our ability to be present and in-the-moment. Even the subtle redirection of our attention from our focus to the offending device is enough - so imagine what full-on, human-octopus multitasking does to us.
Luckily, there are ways we can stem the onslaught of information coming our way, and I will show you the basics on Windows, Android, and iOS in the next section.
How to Get Control of your Notifications
Next, we will break down how to clean up your apps and get control of your notifications on Windows, Android, and iOS devices.
The first step is to go through your device and eliminate any and all apps or programs that you no longer use. In Windows, the easiest way to do this is to click Start (or hit the Windows key on your keyboard) and type "Add or Remove Programs", then click it in the search result (you may not have to type the whole thing, usually "add or" is enough). Then, take a few minutes to go through the list and uninstall apps that you no longer use or that came pre-installed on your device (these apps can often be the worst culprits of unnecessary noise).
Don't be intimidated by my Add or Remove Programs list - yours will likely be smaller. I'm a geek, remember? I experiment with a lot of software.
If you're not sure, either leave it alone or do a little research - most of the time, it's a quick Google search to find out what it is and if you need it. Remember, too, that you can always re-install a lot of programs, should you find a need for them again, so be brave.
Now that that is done, you can get a handle on what you have left.
First up, we have the quick and dirty option - Focus Assist.
Focus Assist can be accessed by right-clicking in the lower-left corner of your screen on the icon that resembles a speech box and moving to the respective entry in the box that pops up. See the images below:
Alternatively, you can simply click the icon, then click the Focus Assist button in the Action Center (the red button in the image below):
Your options in Focus Assist are Off, Priority Only, and Alarms Only. Priority Only will only allow notifications from apps that you set to Priority in Settings -> System -> Focus Assist -> "Customize your priority list". You can also configure Focus Assist so that it will turn on automatically at certain times of the day, or will turn on when duplicating your screen (for presentations) or playing a game.
For control over which apps, specifically, you want to receive notifications from you can head over to Settings -> System -> Notifications & actions. This takes you directly to the configuration page where, if you scroll down about a page from the top, you can select exactly which apps are important enough to interrupt your Flow.
With a combination of removing unnecessary apps, using Focus Assist, and exerting specific control over what apps you choose to hear from, you should be well on your way to a more focused and distraction-free Windows environment.
Like Windows, step one to reclaiming your attention from your Android device is to go through and remove any apps you can that you do not need. Again, be ruthless - most apps save to the Cloud, and you can re-install them in seconds if you find you need them.
Uninstalling apps can be done a few ways, depending on which version of Android you are running, but the easiest is to go to Settings -> Apps and go down the list. Pressing on an app will take you to its App Info screen, where you can uninstall it. You can also manage notifications and permissions from this screen. Sometimes you can simply long-press on the app in the app drawer, but this is not true for all launchers.
Android has a Do Not Disturb feature that works much like Windows' Focus Assist for a quick-and-dirty elimination of all sounds and alerts except for those you select. This is found in Settings -> Notifications -> Do Not Disturb. If you press "Allow exceptions", apps you select will still sound out (such as reminder apps, your calendar, your to-do list app, messaging apps, etc.) and starred contacts will still ring. You can allow reminders and events/tasks from your calendar app through directly from the "Allow exceptions" screen, but I would suggest making exceptions for specific reminder or calendar apps if you use them anyway.
Be advised - setting too many exceptions defeats the purpose, so be sure you really want to allow the distraction before you allow apps through.
In case of emergencies, callers who call you twice within a 15-minute period will still ring through. You can also "Favorite" specific contacts in the Contacts app by adding a Star to their contact entry, and configure Do Not Disturb to allow favorite contacts through no matter what. Messages and calls can be set up separately, so you can allow calls in case of emergencies but silence texts so you can batch-reply to them between tasks.
For extremely granular control, newer editions of Android have brought us a very nice feature called "Digital Wellbeing", built right into the operating system's settings menu. To find it, go to Settings and search for "Digital Wellbeing".
The first thing you'll see is the Dashboard, which can give you a rather enlightening overview of how you use your device. It will show you how many notifications you receive from which apps, how much screen time is devoted to which apps, and how many times you have unlocked your phone. I know that the first time I looked at this, I was shocked at the sheer number of notifications I went through in a day - hundreds, and that was after I thought I had a good handle on it.
Pressing directly on the colored display at the top of the screen will take you to a breakdown of how much screen-time each of your apps has used in a day, which can give you a good idea of where you spend your time when using your device.
You can also view your "Unlocks", or the number of times you've unlocked your phone today. Pressing on this will give you a breakdown of how many times you have opened individual apps, which can give you some insights as to which apps you habitually turn to when wasting time.
The Notifications button will display how many notifications you have received from each app, and give you pretty granular control over your apps. Pressing on an app will take you to a detailed breakdown of notifications from that app, and pressing on Notifications again within the app's window lets you configure just exactly when apps will send you notifications. You can often decide on a push notification AND a sound, just a push notification, or no notifications at all.
Each app can also be silenced for a set duration by using "timers", which can be set by pressing the "notifications" or the "dashboard" area within Digital Wellbeing.
You can get exactly the notifications that you can't be without, but nothing extra. Perfect for our goals here.
As with Windows and Android, we will start our journey to quiet our iPhones by removing unnecessary apps. This is pretty straightforward on iOS devices - simply long-press any app on your home screen and all icons will start to wiggle around. Then, simply tap on the app you want to remove, then press "Delete". Take a few minutes to go through and remove any apps you don't need - remember to be ruthless, you can always re-install easily if you find you need it.
Do Not Disturb mode can be turned on in iOS by going to Settings -> Do Not Disturb or by opening Control Center and pressing the half-moon icon. Like in Windows and Android, you can set exceptions for your favorite contacts so that specific people will still ring by pressing on the "Allow Calls From" button within the settings entry.
iPhone also has its own flavor of notifications and app use analytics, similar to Digital Wellbeing in Android above, called Screen Time. It can also be accessed from the Settings menu, and (after being enabled) will give statistics on where you spend your time and what apps give you the most notifications. This can be an eye-opening look at where your "trouble apps" might be.
On iOS, you can also directly control your apps one-by-one by pressing Settings -> Notifications or by sliding the notification banner to the left and tapping "Manage". You can then choose to Deliver Quietly, Turn Off, or you can go directly to the Notification Settings for that app. With Deliver Quietly, the notifications will only appear in the notifications center but not on the lock screen, and they will not play a sound or show a badge (the little red number on the app icon that displays how many notifications you've received since opening it).
The Settings -> Notifications entry gives VERY precise control over your notifications, and you can also group them by app type and set rules for entire groups.
Between all of these settings, you should be able be very specific about which apps you allow to distract you from the task at hand.
We have covered a lot here, so please allow me to summarize quickly (also a TL;DR for those who skipped to the end, ya big cheaters):
Notifications keep us constantly distracted, out of focus, and out of Flow - damaging our well-being and our productivity in the process.
Being "in Flow" is a desired state because it, by definition, places us in a pleasant state of complete focus. People who spend more time in Flow are, in general, happier and far more productive.
Even being near other people using electronic devices, and all of the accompanying noises and distractions, is enough to negatively impact our performance.
Most modern devices will allow you to have pretty granular control over how many notifications you receive and when. With a little bit of configuration, we can set ourselves up for a quieter and more focused life.
Be brave. When in doubt, silence the app - you can always turn them back on later. Silencing my email app on my phone saved me over 200 notifications a day - and this was AFTER I thought I had it under control. Over 200 times a day, from one app...that's a lot of Flow lost, a lot of productivity down the tubes, and a lot of time wasted.
How much time can you save yourself by eliminating these distractions, getting focused, and finding your Flow?
An hour per day?
A day per month?
A week or two per year?
Here is my challenge to you: disable as many notifications as you possibly can for 30 days and see how you feel. Try to avoid the usual time-wasting apps - you know what they are, and if you don't, your device can probably tell you. Let yourself experience life with more presence, greater mindfulness, less stress, and fewer demands on your time and attention.
We each get a certain amount of time in this Life. What will you do with yours?