By Deepak Gopalakrishnan Sep. 20, 2019
The average smartphone user faces a deluge of notifications, imploring you to do everything from checking out an unmissable offer to ordering food so you can focus on that cricket game instead of cooking. But are they a convenience, or a curse?
When the iPhone launched around 15 years ago, in addition to revolutionising handheld technology and our daily lifestyles, it also introduced the world to a new type of business – the attention economy.
A lot of the apps you know and love are VC-funded and likely, don’t make a profit yet (in some cases, it doesn’t look like they ever will). These companies have built massive valuations on the back of getting millions of users and (more importantly) “active” users – people who currently engage with the app in some way. The benchmark for this could be as low as opening the app, but whatever makes for a better-looking slide to investors, eh?
The other type of app monetises its own real estate – think news apps, content apps, and, yes, social media. More usage means more ad space to sell. But especially in the case of apps following the first model, there definitely is a war for our attention, a point which activists like ex-Googler Tristan Harris have been trying to get into public consciousness.
So, what does this mean for the average smartphone user? A deluge of notifications, imploring you to do everything from checking out an unmissable offer to ordering food so you can focus on that cricket game instead of cooking.
As work started finding its way to the phone via email, Slack, and (ugh) WhatsApp groups, this deluge became more overwhelming. After all, notifications don’t discriminate – the “ding” for an important campaign change is the same as for a stupid WhatsApp forward.
I’ve always felt notifications were more about what the apps wanted me to see rather than what I might actually like.
One day, I just had enough, and switched off all notifications. Yes, all of them – even WhatsApp. It seemed like a simple enough thing to do, but telling my phone to block all notifications seemed like a big step. What if I miss something important? What if that offer truly is unmissable? Despite my misgivings, I was shocked by how much it helped in just a week. Are there withdrawal symptoms? Yes, for a couple of days you might kept turning to your phone, expecting it to light up, but you cope faster than you think you will, like you do after a break-up or kicking the butt.
The most immediate thing you’ll notice is how you can work without distraction. You get to work at your natural pace, and give time to tasks, rather than being constantly interrupted. This is important because it’s really difficult to restart or get the flow back, you’ll always have something new on your mind. A study showed that it takes over 23 minutes to get back on track following an interruption. Over time, people realise this is your working style. You can always counter a “Did you not get my Slack?” with “When I work on your task, do you want me to get interrupted by other messages?” This also has an added benefit, in the Slack era, where briefs often come ad-hoc, it gives a sense of perspective rather than reacting in real-time. Let the “briefer” get it all out, so you can read it all at once.
And hey, switching off notifications also helps you do justice to leisure. When you’re listening to music, pay full attention to the artist. When you’re reading an article, immerse yourself. You’ll take away more this way than when your mind is in four places. Despite statements made by motivational speakers and “time-hackers”, humans are biologically not wired to multi-task (our ancestors were not thinking of how to optimise fire while trying to escape a saber-toothed tiger).
My ding-less life helps me plan my day better – instead of reacting to FB notifications, I rewarded myself with “social media breaks” after an hour of working. But it made me wonder if thumbing through the daily outrage is the best way to spend my hard-earned break. Instead, I choose to do something I found more fulfilling. Recently, for example, I got hooked to Need for Speed but was quick to switch off all notifications, choosing to play at predetermined break times than when a new challenge came up.
Going notification-free also helps in social situations, even if you are the type to not look at your phone when speaking to someone, the ting or even a buzz of your phone becomes a distraction and leads to an unsaid “will they, won’t they” situation.
A phone is supposed to be a slave, not a master.
An added benefit for control freaks is that you become less of a slave to the algorithm. I’ve always felt notifications were more about what the apps wanted me to see rather than what I might actually like. Turning off notifications helped me discover things myself. For those worried about FOMO, sign up for newsletters. This also should give app makers an incentive to be good enough where people come to the app on their own.
All this leaves you with notifications for things that are actually important. WhatsApp notifications only from a few specific people or groups. Slack messages only where you’re marked. Apps that mean breaking news when it’s more than a cow crossing the road. Think of this as the 21st century equivalent of the boy who cried wolf: The app that cried “Unbeatable Offer!”
Oh, and of course, it helps battery life, but you knew that.
What if there’s actually an emergency? People will call you (even clients know “make the logo bigger” is not worthy of more than an email). Or they find you. Like in the good ol’ days.
If you’re still not prepared to mute every interrupting ding, just turn off notifications for apps as and when they come up, leaving the things you actually want. Trust me, this will help you whether you’re working at your computer, working on your phone, or even just having leisure time.
A phone is supposed to be a slave, not a master. (It doesn’t have feelings, it won’t get offended.) Keep it that way, and regain control of your life from the attention economy.
Deepak 'Chuck' Gopalakrishnan is a freelance writer and marketing guy who lives in Mumbai. He runs two podcasts (Simblified, The Origin Of Things) and a satire newsletter (The Third Slip). He used to work in advertising until his soul couldn't take it anymore, and now spends all his time annoying his cats, listening to prog-metal, cycling and writing bios of himself in third person. He has an irrational love for cold water and Tabasco.