Whittling down distractions: digital notifications

When focusing on a task at hand, there’s nothing worse than interruption. Digital notifications are one of the biggest culprits. Our computers, smartphones, and tablets constantly pine for our attention, sending us a myriad of invitations to slip into a rabbit hole of distraction. About a year ago I decided to take charge.

I came to the realization notifications almost always broke my focus, are rarely time-sensitive (like emails and chat messages), and half the time not all that informative (see: smartphone app notifications). Even if I didn’t hop over to the website or app calling my name, I was at least reading the notification and deciding whether or not to act on it. All of those micro decisions add up, accelerating us toward decision fatigue.

I started with my laptop, cutting out notifications for new email and instant messages (e.g. Gmail chat). Emails shouldn’t be time-sensitive and can wait until I’m ready to process my inbox. If the message is urgent, there are arguably better methods of communication. Instant messages are more time-sensitive than email, but ultimately can wait until I’m between tasks. I see instant messages as not substantial enough for an email but not urgent enough to walk over to the person’s desk or hop on the phone. At this point in the whittling process I’m free of notifications alerting me to new emails and I’m no longer audibly pinged each time an instant message comes in.

Next, I started paring down notifications on my smartphone by deciding which apps I truly need notifications for and, if an app made the cut, which then deserve to make noise. This is a continuous curation process as I decide apps don’t need my instant attention (remove audible notification) or can wait for me to check the app (remove all notifications). Many apps fell into the silent but visual notification category allowing me to decide when I check app activity rather than being driven by notifications chiming left and right. Turning off a notification’s sound also means no vibration, greatly reducing the number of times I pull my phone out only to find a notification undeserving of my immediate attention. Cutting email notifications to no notifications whatsoever was my biggest break through. Email has become such an unmanageable communication method – a constant waterfall of personal, work, marketing, and other messages – that to have your phone buzzing and chiming throughout the day is beyond overload.

A few months ago, I took an even more aggressive approach with my smartphone. The constant barrage of notifications, even when silent, results in repeated illumination and dimming of the screen and you can’t help but check to see what’s incoming. I now put my phone into “do not disturb” mode when I first arrive at my desk in the morning and it doesn’t come out of that state until I leave the office – unless I’m out of the office for an extended period of time like lunch or an off-site meeting. But what if someone is trying to contact me in an emergency? Fortunately the iPhone has a VIP list to allow certain people to reach me even if my phone is in do not disturb mode, allowing my loved ones to get through with a phone call.

I can’t tell you how much the above has reduced distraction during my day. At this point the only things interrupting me are desktop calendar notifications for impending meetings – rightfully so. Reducing notifications to nearly zero has helped me focus. How do you maintain your focus in an age of distraction? Leave your tactics by commenting below or starting a conversation with me on Twitter.