Push Notifications Considered Harmful

In which I wrestle with one of the foundational principles of mobile technology: the push notification. How can we maintain focus if our phones are built to distract?

Mark Cohen, May 14, 2018

Over the past year I’ve noticed some rather alarming trends about myself. My ability to do focused work has declined sharply, and my attention seems to wander more with every passing day. I constantly feel like I need to be running somewhere, like every moment something new is vying for my attention. I’ve tried all manner of task management systems, mindfulness techniques, and exercise regiments; all of these changes have been positive for my well-being, but none of them have addressed the core problem. With careful thought and observation, I’ve determined that the root of these feelings is a lack of control over my own attention, brought about by the incessant barrage of push notifications that I subject myself to every moment of every day.

Compared to some I know, I don’t even have it that bad: my inbox is relatively low-traffic (~10 emails per day), I meticulously keep it at Inbox Zero, and I’m careful to unsubscribe to anything corporate/marketing related. I usually keep my phone on its Do Not Disturb mode, and I only have Slack notify me of direct mentions and keywords. Nevertheless, I resent the constant reality that every time I wake my phone there’s something new on my lockscreen trying to grab my attention.

All that said, I don’t think it’s the mere existence of push notifications that’s been ruining my ability to do focused work. Rather, I think the culture of push notifications is the problem here. It’s the idea that app developers have the ability to grab my attention as they wish, which of course we enthusiastically welcomed into our lives as one of the chief innovations of the iPhone age. The truly fucked up part is that as a consequence, when we send someone an email or text or Slack message, we expect a response within minutes or hours: we expect our own message to grab their attention. This norm, created by push notification culture, is what keeps us dependent on our notification shades.

By this point, you might be thinking that the obvious solution is to just disable push notifications entirely. I wouldn’t blame you: that was my first thought as well. I did that experiment, and I found that it caused me to check my phone/inbox/Slack more, not less. After a few days, I realized that my brain had become so accustomed to my phone telling me what I needed to attend to, that I felt lost when I didn’t have those cues. I found myself constantly checking my calendar to make sure that I didn’t forget about an important commitment. I would check my inbox even when I wasn’t expecting an email just to make sure I didn’t miss anything. You get the picture.

In terms of the history of technology, my childhood was marked by the meteoric rise of the iPod and iPhone, the genesis of truly widespread internet access & use, the first early adopters of technology in the classroom (which my school was very much one of), and complete and total tech-illiteracy on the part of the previous generation. The culture and mindset of push notifications was thrust onto the world during my formative childhood years. So of course turning off notifications made me feel lost - it couldn’t have happened any other way.

I don’t pretend to have any magical, practical solutions. In adopting a bullet journal, I’ve been able to organize myself in a more mindful and purposeful fashion. One primary benefit is that I no longer need a push notification to remember my work or my important meetings. I found that even the best electronic task management systems were neither customizable enough (and really, what could compete with paper in that department?) nor conducive to general awareness; when I used Todoist, I would treat tasks with a “set-and-forget” mindset, which perpetually stressed me out because I would be aware of having a lot of work but unable to picture any kind of structure to my days. But as I mentioned before, none of this is able to solve the attention problem.

It’s not all doom-and-gloom though. Android’s notification snoozing feature is wonderful, if underdeveloped. And I hear Android P is doing some cool things with Do Not Disturb which have me very excited. On the other hand, I tried out the iPhone X in the fall and within 3 months I observed a marked increase in the stress I associate with my phone due to iOS’s lack of notification bundling and Do Not Disturb customizability.

I would be remiss not to talk about some kind of ideal solution. I think we should be moving toward a model often derided for being old-hat: the digest. Phone and computer-wide notification digests (for all apps and all notifications) would be an incredibly effective way to tame the beast. Of course, you could set certain notifications to bypass the digest: calls and texts from starred contacts, for example. But the ability to bundle my emails, texts, Slack messages, and new podcast releases into an on-demand and unintrusive digest would be the ultimate notification nirvana. If anyone reading this works on Android, wink wink ;)

What do you think? Do you have similar experiences? Discuss on lobste.rs!