Essays on Technology and Culture

Freedom from Notifications

How many apps do you allow to interrupt you on your devices?

Notification fatigue is a real issue, and with seemingly every app on phones asking if they can pester you out of the gate, it’s way too easy to get overwhelmed. Enough so that there’s a new, growing market for gizmos you can wear on your wrist that’ll keep you from pulling out your phone to see what stupid app just buzzed you. At least, that’s how a lot of companies market smart watches. Is moving notifications from the pocket to the wrist going to be an improvement? I doubt it. As evidence, even Apple Watch is going to force you to winnow down your notifications anyway if the rumors are true. So why wait?

Real data on push notification adoption is hard to get. A cursory Googling says either 52% of people turn notifications on, or 60% of people turn them off. And with the granularity of app-by-app notifications settings, there’s really no good way to tell from here. I am confident enough in user behavior to say that most people, once they allow push notifications for an app, will never turn them off—though they might uninstall particularly gross offenders. Regardless, it’s time we take control over the things that make our phones beep, buzz, and shake, for a quieter, saner technology lifestyle.

How many of the notifications you get are things you need to deal with right away, anyway? Merlin Mann was harping about this sort of thing in 2007, with the original Inbox Zero talk. If an email client on your phone, or your desktop, or both, is dinging you with a new email every 5 minutes, you’re getting a notification 24,000 times per year. Even if you have Do Not Disturb turned on while you sleep, you’re still getting nearly 200 buzzes per day. For email. And moving it to your wrist is supposed to help?

Look at the apps that you have given explicit permission to bother you. Do it now. How many pages is it? I have twelve apps that are allowed to interrupt what I’m doing, though when I started this, I had closer to twenty. Look at each of them and decide if each app is allowed to pull you away from whatever you’re doing, be it playing Threes! or doing your day job. Think about how often they interrupt you, and what they interrupt you for. I love Overcast, and I love podcasts, but do I need to know the moment every podcast I listen to updates? Of course not. So I took it out of my notification center, and denied it the right to make my phone buzz and beep when a new podcast comes in.

One of the great things in iOS 8 is that there’s now a global toggle for notifications for each app on your device in the Settings app. When an app has pushed you past the limit, just go into Settings, scroll to the listing for the offending app, tap it, tap “Notifications”, and turn it all off. Banish the banners and the pop-ups to the hell from whence they came. [1] I can’t speak for Android, but I imagine the process is similar. All too often, however, we’re left to inertia. Changing settings remains a power user move that the average person doesn’t do. It’s time to start.

Repeat after me, friends: “And if thy new app’s push notifications offend thee, cut it off!”

  1. One reason I didn’t get that App Store push notification to promote Project (RED) is that I turned off notifications from the App Store. I don’t need to know when there’s an update, or if apps were updated. I’ll know—though I do keep the badge on.  ↩