Notifications’ atrocities and where to hide from them, part 1

Illustration by Anna Maksimenko.
Anna is an incredibly talented Ukrainian refugee, go hire her for your project.

They’re here, they’re there, they’re every-freaking-where. There’s hardly a more powerful irritant than notifications these days.

Each ping feels like you’re drowning in a cesspool of don’t-miss-outs, breaking news, ends-soons, and 🔥🔥🔥’s of every kind. You’re not alone. You want to ignore this onslaught, but it feels like there’s no hiding. They will find you and they will kill you. Well, at the very least they’ll butcher your attention span enough for a goldfish to pity you.

Despite that, did you know notifications are actually good for you?

More on that in a minute.

Meanwhile, let’s unpack how notifications came to play such an outsize role and how we end up paying.

Running amok

By various counts, we receive, on average, 46 to 80 notifications daily. Even if we take the lower figure, that’s almost three pings per waking hour, once every 20 minutes. And that’s average! Some people get hundreds of them daily. I don’t know how they get anything done without having a meltdown, but here we are.

As a result, according to data compiled by Business of Apps, almost a third of users never find notifications helpful. Half think they’re distracting (with the rest probably just not realizing as much, IMHO). And reaction rates barely ever reach 10%, which means few people ever bother to interact with notifications at all.

So, do we do anything about it?

Well, kind of. Statistically, just one alert from an app per week leads to 10% of users disabling notifications for that app, and a further 6% deleting it altogether. Getting three to six pushes weekly will cause a whopping 40% of users to opt out, one way or another.

While that may look like a lot, the numbers also tell us that most people just don’t bother opting out. They remain exposed to virtually all alerts thrown at them. Besides, disabling and deleting are blunt tools. A 2015 study found that only one in ten users fine-tune their notifications. While the range of available ways to customize your “notifications menu” has dramatically expanded since 2015, I suspect that one thing hasn’t changed — people just aren’t enthusiastic about dabbling with those settings.

App developers aren’t helpful, either. How often do you open an app to find a clear breakdown of how often, at what times of day, and for what reason you’re now getting their notifications?

Are they ever upfront and unambiguous about it?

I don’t remember a single “spammer app” mentioning that they’d serve me a dozen pings before lunch, not to mention any explanations.

You learn about all that stuff only once you’ve already allowed notifications. And if you’re on Android, you’re out of luck, because you’re signed up by default. No wonder it results in much higher opt-in (81%) compared to iOS (51%), which requires active consent.

Is it just me, or is it really still the Wild West out there in the notification world?

Notifications are bad for you

Sure, the sheer number of apps multiplied by the number of notifications they dump on us is staggering, but that’s just one side of the coin.

Research is clear: notifications drive increased phone use even when you don’t act on the alerts themselves.

Unsurprisingly, they’re responsible for an overwhelming majority of phone use instances (others are mostly self-initiated). While this causation may seem obvious, keep in mind that each interaction is also an interruption. Even if you just pick up the phone to read the notification and dismiss it, your work is done for — it’s a full-fledged interruption. Your focus goes down the drain, and you’re back to restoring your concentration (takes a long time!) after you put your phone down.

And don’t forget, just picking up your phone can lead to more self-induced interruptions. For example, you delete or disregard the useless ping that started it all, but then go on to check Facebook or emails. I mean, why not, you’re already there?

But that’s just your phone.

What about desktop? Email? Slack and all the other project management apps that hide there? What about tablets and smart watches? They’re just as eager to spawn all kinds of alerts of their own. Even your browser isn’t safe anymore — websites don’t mind signing you up to their own notifications.

Moreover, some apps resort to unscrupulous (though, admittedly, quite clever) tactics to discourage you from opting out. For example, an online shopping app I have on my phone sends an irresistibly juicy promo code once every few days. Knowing I probably wouldn’t want to miss those, they also offload a dozen pushes daily to compel me to spend more. Other developers go as far as hanging an annoying red badge somewhere you won’t miss it (e.g., over the settings tab) as long as notifications remain off. So cute.

With this onslaught, no wonder we struggle with focusing. Aggressive marketing aside, I think the core problem is that most apps simply consider interrupting you an acceptable, totally natural way of doing business. App developers routinely overstep their powers and encroach on our personal space without our express permission. While they don’t take your attention for granted, they most certainly do exploit it as free-for-all “commons.” And we all know how that ends.

While notifications are ostensibly there for our benefit, the costs totally override them. Numerous and, more importantly, unpredictable interruptions throughout the day is a great recipe for poor “work hygiene.”

Combine notifications with other interruptions (including self-inflicted, such as checking the time), and levels of overwhelm and stress soar, making any work that much more excruciating.

Being in this environment is not much different from sitting next to a coworker who keeps clicking his pen all day.

If you’re now considering killing notifications altogether, I can totally relate. Too bad it doesn’t work.

Notifications are (sort of) good for you

A study looked at what happens when people disable ALL notifications for 24 hours. Some findings are expected: a big share of participants felt less distracted, less stressed, and generally more productive, with less distractions to hurt their progress.

But it turns out notifications are like winter. You may hate it all you like, but you’re still gonna miss it when it’s gone.

Completely turning them off brings unexpected feelings, most notably anxiety over missing something important and appearing rude for not responding, and loneliness because of feeling less connected with others, including loved ones and other social groups.

This distress is so pronounced that “[after disabling notifications] 40% of the participants reported to react … by frequently checking the phone when they were expecting important messages.” That means, for some, the result was more distractedness, not less, compared to when notifications remained on.

Remember, when I mentioned that the more alerts users receive, the more likely they are to disable them one way or another?

Well, that only works up to a point.

Counterintuitively, when an app spews 20 or more pushes daily, the opt-out rate drops precipitously — only one in 20 users bails.

The reason is probably that a big share of notifications are sent by social apps such as WhatsApp or Messenger. Not only do we expect lots of messages from them, but also we clearly understand the purpose because those alerts come from people you know, and not from the app itself demanding attention. As a result, we tolerate them well and don’t put in much of an effort to regulate this intake.

But, the reality is that they’re the perfect storm.

  • They’re the most numerous.
  • They bring seemingly important communications we don’t want to miss.
  • They usually aren’t purely informational and require a response (read: more time to interact with than an average notification).
  • We don’t want to appear rude by not responding promptly.

Combine these four and it’s clear why we rarely, if at all, disable “social” notifications. As a result, they cause both the most frequent and the most prolonged interruptions compared to other notifications we (at least most of the time) can safely ignore or get back to later. In other words, we tolerate them best and they hurt us the most. Stockholm syndrome. The last thing I expected to bump into when I started this post.

So what?

When it comes to notifications, it’s easy to find ourselves between a rock and a hard place.

I wish there was science that would just tell me what to do, how to defang notifications of their interruption power and preserve the connection with others that they facilitate.

Give me something that would finally let me focus.

Alas, it looks like we’re on our own here. The findings and stats I cited above can only give us some hints to push off of.

Adjusting notification habits can be one painful exercise. My hope with this post is that looking at alerts from the attention and focus standpoint can turn out revelatory to you as it did for me. But if the alternative is inescapable absent-mindedness, it’s worth taking a shot, isn’t it?

Originally published at joinbrick.com on June 28, 2022. Want to get these posts in your inbox on day 1? Sign up and learn more at Brick.

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Co-Founder at Brick (joinbrick.com). I write about meaningful work & minimalistic productivity. Let’s explore together with no 10Xing or overblown “secrets”.

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