App Notifications

App notifications are the modern bane of productivity

There can be many obstacles to productivity during the day. Some common examples:

  • Lack of sleep
  • Reading your phone in bed
  • App notifications
  • Distraction
  • Brain clutter

Reading your phone in bed

Lack of sleep is a whole different and complex issue. I'd argue that the rest in comparison are relatively easy to solve.

Putting your phone in a totally different room before you go to bed is a good habit to have. To a curious mind, a smart phone is an infinite portal to the world of people and information. It can be easy to feel bored or lonely whilst in bed, and I'd suggest that's why it's apparently a very common of people to spend too long in bed using them, before going to sleep and after waking up. I know I've definitely had a moment of realisation that I was losing large chunks of my life through doing this!

Once I'd started re-locating the phone, I adapted very quickly and now I don't even think about the idea of using it in bed. It will be different for different people, but practising discipline and good habits is a great core skill to have.

Once you have some initial momentum through simple actions, it is easier to build on that and tackle other issues.

Time and Simplicity

In 2015 I started working freelance. In 2016 I stopped using Facebook. In 2017, I started disabling every possible application notification on my desktop computer, laptop and phone. I did all of this because notifications were really getting in the way of work and life, and I've never looked back.

I am a strong believer in keeping life simple. I also believe in being efficient with your time — time is precious. How many times have you heard that phrase? "Life is short". This famous Steve Jobs quote chimes with me a bit. If life is so short, how is it that time sometimes seem to pass so ridiculously slowly? If you sit still and do nothing for 10 minutes, it feels like a really long time. Try it. Multiply that by 6 for each hour, and 24 for each day, and even a week starts to look like an age. And we have 52 of these in a year. Most of us can expect to have at least 10 more years ahead of us, many of us much more. So in fact, on average, we actually have an eternity of time available to us.

Yet all of us have periods in our lives where time seems to have gone terrifyingly quickly — be it on a timescale of a day, week, month, year or even several years. It makes you shiver to imagine it! My own experience is that when I look back, the perceived rate of passage of time varies depending on what I was doing with that time. Those times that were the most rich when I looked back, and which seemed to have stretched out the longest, where those when I was most fulfilled and active, doing hobbies and learning lots with various achievements along the way. Keeping busy, but with notable and memorable milestones with which to mark the passage of time. Those periods of times which seemed to disappear, were those when I accomplished least with the time, or completed the least things, for whatever reasons.

I use the above philosophy to guide me on how to spend my time, and I now live by a list of goals which can be accomplished within short, medium and long timescales depending on the size of the task to achieve the goal. And it certainly helps me to banish that feeling of time going too quickly. Perhaps being busy and enjoying yourself does make time go by quicker in the moment, but I'm not so sure of that either. Being totally present in the moment really makes the experience richer.

App notifications, distraction & brain clutter

So I mention app notifications because these were one of the things that were breaking up my time into useless short chunks, resulting in me not having those days full of accomplishments. There are many possible ways to be distracted, but smartphones have potentially the most power to do this, because they are often a constant across different environments, because people carry them in their pockets by default.

Context-switching is the killer of efficiency. When you want to get something done efficiently, you need focus. Focus is achieved when you have a good amount of time to work on a task, and don't have to worry about urgently getting it finished to work on the next thing. As soon as you receive an app notification, audible or visual, I find it disturbs your train of thought. Even worse is then taking action to do something about the notification, which is so often hard to resist because there are so many occurrences where it really does feel urgent to respond. But it never is urgent. It simply doesn't matter most of the time, and you should not set the expectation with people that you are going to be available 24/7 for every conceivable conversation.

What about notifications at work? Perhaps it's not as feasible to simply mute everything, but you should be as brutal as possible with these too. Email works well as an asynchronous communication tool, and I find it's best to keep it that way, checking in several times a day perhaps and batch-replying to things. Within the office, prefer face-to-face communications. Colleagues will less-willingly disturb you face-to-face, but it can be very easy to fire off an instant message about every little thing. Sometimes you need to use instant messaging to keep in touch with colleagues — for example when working remotely. These days tools like Slack allow you to customise notification settings by conversation group, which is really really useful for trimming notifications down to only what is urgent.

In my personal life, I don't allow any messaging app to send notifications to my phone's home screen, or even show me unread message icons. Even unread message icons have an extraordinary power to add to 'brain clutter', and give you a nagging feeling of things undone and of 'dirtiness'. This is unhealthy.

With instant messaging applications and conversations where urgency is not required, I check a few times a day when I have time, as with emails, using them asynchronously too. This helps me immensely to make the most of my time, including personal time, making progress with hobbies.

The essential idea is that you should value your time highly, being conscious of what is possible when you are hyper-focused, and remove any barriers to being in that state. If you feel bad about leaving messages un-replied to, remember that it's in nobody's interests for you to be unproductive.

This is all very opinionated of course, with the caveat that it's mostly a description of my personal experience and not necessarily to be extrapolated to anyone else's.

But I can't help but notice the blatant distracting power of smartphones in people in general, including myself, and sometimes it feels pretty dystopian to me. The film Idiocracy presents a really beautiful (horrible) picture of a dystopian world of distraction. Don't be the guy watching Ow My Balls all day.