Turn off those notifications

A notified life

I remember the time when writing a (physical) letter was the only way of long distance communication. Then pagers (it even supported messaging!). Then emails. Then cellphones. The old days have long gone, a time when we processed information in an asynchronous way: we didn’t need respond in the same transaction, and never felt the pressure to do so.

Nowadays we have so much pops up on our phones and computers demanding our attention: emails about all sorts of things, messages from various messaging apps, and push notifications crying to be checked out. They stimulate us 24/7/365, and can’t wait for our immediate attention and synchronous response. We are always on, always notified, and have subsequently adapted to the notifications around us: respond to them as the appear.

And it is killing our productivity.

OCD & fear of missing out

Many people, including me, feel compulsive to clear every notification badge. Whenever that number or dot shows up on the icon, it is almost automatic and subconscious that I open the app, check out the notification, and get the feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment. It’s a habit.

When I started my job, I wanted to be at the center of information flows. I joined every seemingly-important Slack channel and Yammer group, subscribed to new ticket notifications of many JIRA projects, and watched every pull request on Github. I wanted everything to notify me, and when the notification came, I paused on whatever I was working on to check it out. It was the fear to miss out something important.

Day in and day out, I let the notifications drive my attention. “It is quick to check it out.” I thought, “It won’t have much of an impact on my productivity.”

That is not the case.

Cost of distraction

According to the study by Gloria Mark from University of California, Irvine, an average of 23 minutes is lost following a distraction and before returning to the original task.

This is especially costly to software engineers. The problems we solve are rarely trivial and require a lot of logical thinking covering many areas of the software. I often picture the mind like an operation system. When we start on a task, there’s a heavy overhead to initialize the “process” and load necessary data into “memory”. Once interrupted, the state of the mind is lost and changed to a different mindset. When we want to return to the original task, unlike a computer operation system, our mind cannot just retrieve the previous state and resume the work. It has to go through the expensive initiation process all over again.

Not only the re-initiation is costing us, the distractions themselves are often eating up a large chunk of time and cause stress and frustration. You might think that it won’t take more than 10 seconds to check the new email, yet the consequence can be more profound than anticipated. That newsletter from the blog you subscribed may result in a 30-minute reading and browsing. That question on the newly-identified issue may make your mind wonder for 15 minutes and end up with frustration because it’s not easily solvable due to historical reasons. That rescheduling notice from your doctor may cause stress for the next few hours because your plan has to change now.

The test to turn off notifications

I decided to run a test.

  • The hypothesis:
    1. I will not miss out anything of real importance, and
    2. I will increase my productivity with a higher sense of accomplishment.
  • The method: check emails only twice a day at 11am and 4pm.

I made a mistake to leave the notifications on in the beginning. Even though I kept telling myself it was not time yet, the number of new emails on the icon stood out than ever before and was almost flaring. It was impossible to resist the urge to click it. Typical withdrawal reaction.

After reflecting on the result of the first day, I iterated on the test to completely turn off all forms of notifications from emails, except for one: I created a rule to notify me of emails from my saved contacts. They were presumably important, and it helped alleviate my fear of missing out.

I ran the test for a week, and the result was a success.

Turning off the notifications proved effective, as it eliminated the trigger to my email-checking habit (for a great majority of the time).

I did not miss out anything of real importance. Nothing couldn’t wait until one of the two times I checked emails each day. If there is, the requester will either Slack me or stop by my desk.

I had larger chunks of uninterrupted time working on important task. This resulted in longer experience of Flow, and shorter concentrated time to complete tasks. A boost in productivity and sense of accomplishment.

Question the importance & urgency

Since the test, I’ve kept the notifications off on emails, most of the Slack channels, and almost all push notifications on my phone.

I carefully choose what to keep on or off based on the analysis and examination of my day-to-day life. Yet that may not be applicable to anybody.

However, the core principle can be demonstrated by the famous Eisenhower Decision Matrix, where all things to do are put in four categories:

  1. Things that are important and urgent
  2. Things that are important but not urgent
  3. Things that are not important but urgent
  4. Things that are not important and not urgent

To improvement the productivity of our lives, it is critical to spend more time on the important things, and eliminate those that are not important, urgent or not.

Those notifications always seem urgent. Yet their importance is largely questionable.

I am still iterating my test to turn off as many notifications and distractions as possible. Being proactive on choosing what to pay my attention to, instead of passively responding to whatever shows up, has been an important attribution to my daily productivity.

I encourage you to do the same analysis of your own. Carefully examine what notifications consume a great deal of your energy and attention, while proving of little importance or urgency. Eliminate them, and start enjoying a notification-free life.

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