Notification Control

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Because last week’s dark times article was so popular, I want to share a more micro-focused tactic which complements the productivity concept: notification control.

The Unaffected People & The Subjects of the Urgent

too many notifications

Actual screenshot of my business partner’s phone. Check out the unread email count.

Before we start, however, it’s worth noting that there are two types of people in this world. Many of you, like my business partner, are unaffected by and can completely ignore interruptions from machines while meeting, working, and conversing. The rest of us are subject to fear, duty, or an overwhelming urge to act on every input as it happens. Notification control is meant to maintain the sanity of humans in the latter group. But even if you find yourself in the unaffected camp, understanding this concept might help you address a colleague more empathetically.

Very few things in this world are truly binary, but I’ve found the unaffected to be right-brained type-b folks, and subjects of the urgent to be the left-brained type-a sort. The quickest litmus test is to pick up someone’s smartphone and swipe around the screen looking for notification badges. Unread notification badges among the unaffected group will approach infinity and among the subjects of the urgent they will approach zero.

Rules of Notification Control

  1. Turn off notifications
  2. Disable new message badges
  3. Schedule regular check-in times

Turn Off Notifications

Scary, right? You’ll have to gut-check yourself on this as you choose what to allow to notify you, but take this as far as you can. Historically, there have been times when the only notifications that alerted my iPhone through ding, ring, vibration, or song were actual phone calls. That means SMS, emails, Slack mentions/messages, and anything else that might notify you by default was completely unable to make a sound. And honestly, email is the worst offender. Turn it off first. Email was originally developed as a best effort delivery technology and sometimes took hours to deliver. No one should expect their email recipients to treat email threads like real-time chat.

Disable New Message Badges

Once we’ve disabled the audible alerts from happening there’s still the chance that a simple check of the time on your phone or glance down at your desktop task bar leads to notification badge anxiety disorder. Prevent it by turning off new message badges for every app. If you’re susceptible to this anxiety, there’s no reason for any badge to earn even your glancing attention.

Schedule Regular Check-in Times

Without this step, the rest of notification control will be an unmitigated disaster. Someone might send first responders to knock down your door to find you. How frequently this happens is up to you. But here are some suggestions:

  • Do a check-in sweep on any important services when you start your workday, when you break for lunch, and before you leave from the day. This one is super aggressive, but depending on your role and how you manage expectations this could be a huge productivity gain.
  • Do a check-in on email each hour and less-critical-but-still-important messaging and social accounts at the beginning and end of the day.

The Rationale

What makes notifications so problematic for some people? If something seems important to us folks, it has the demand of urgent attention. This leads to two outcomes:

  1. If you honor the perceived urgency you pull away from your focus to handle the new thing. We know that changing gears wastes oodles of time, so do it as infrequently as possible.
  2. If you do not honor the perceived urgency you’re left with the anxiety that there’s something you’re missing, will miss, or is left unhandled.  Anxiety is no good, friends. Keep it at bay.

Another side effect is the expectation it delivers. If you participate in the email-as-chat paradigm (or even just Johnny-on-the-spot response activity), it eventually begins to devalue your time. I’m not suggesting you artificially delay responses to important people, but follow a reasonable schedule and communications will be a reasonable part of your work life.

easy, right?

What’s a similar tactic you’ve used to manage productivity?