Just a year ago, the first thing I did when I woke up was picking up my phone and instantly reviewing my notifications. Despite what Tristan Harris said about tech hijacking my morning routine, I was still doing it.
I didn’t want to check my social media in front of my employees. I wanted to show to an investor or client that emailed me overnight that I was working early in the morning. I needed to know if an important email would impact my morning meetings.
As a startup founder, I always had a good reason to do it.
And it seems that I’m not the only one. According to a recent survey from the tech analyst company ReportLinker, 46 % of Americans admitted to checking their smartphones before they even get out of bed in the morning.
How did that happen?
A few months ago, the mobile engagement platform Localytics conducted a survey on 1000 users and it appears that push notifications are better designed and accepted today than they were a few years ago. Marketers are getting better at communicating through mobile and push notifications became part of our daily lives.
The average person touches his or her phone 2,617 times every day and spends 2 hours and 56 minutes on their mobile device every day, which equates to an astounding 86 hours per month. What’s worse, we won’t be spending much of that time communicating through text or, I don’t know, taking actual phone calls… More than 90% of our time spent using mobile devices will be spent on apps.
Most apps are specifically designed to be attention hogs, using color schemes, wordings, and layouts that make them extremely addictive. Before you know it, you open an application to check on who liked your photo so far and you’ve suddenly been scrolling through your feed for minutes, or even an hour.
It takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to the task.
According to Gloria Mark, professor in the Department of Informatics at University of California, Irvine, interrupted work has a cost: it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to the task.
Sadly, push notifications are only part of a much bigger whole: dark patterns. Dark patterns refer to any design feature intended to “nudge” the user into an action he didn’t desire. Notifications were designed to inform you, so you don’t have to check the given app over and over again. Now, most of them have no other goal than engagement: when Facebook notifies you of every like, it’s to give you that sweet dopamine kick and eventually bring you back onto its platform.
It seems that using push notifications boosts app engagement by 88%. In fact, it has been found that sending out push notifications greatly increases user retention, somewhere between 3x and 10x depending on the app and frequency of notifications. Anyone who opts into push notifications for an application is twice as likely to keep it on their device.
That’s great news for the retention-driven companies behind the applications we use, but it’s not so great for people like you when you find yourself being utterly distracted by them all day long.
LinkedIn is a good example of dark patterns. Just about every time you scroll through your notification feed, you’re going to see things like: “It’s John Doe’s birthday today, tell him a happy birthday!” or “We found 97 jobs you may be interested in.”
If you paid attention to these notifications, you’d spend half the day wishing the people in your network a happy work anniversary and the other half trying to figure out how they got in your network, to begin with. The sole purpose of these notifications is to get you to open your application and use it for longer than you ever intended to.
I usually turn to music during my work day to escape from the chatter and help me dial in my focus on what really matters. The issue is, notifications are now permeating into every area of our lives, private and professional.
According to an infographic published on Entrepreneur, 40% of workers say they accept having to answer an urgent email during the middle of dinner.
This leaves people with their notifications always on and frantically checking whenever their phone dings, whether it’s urgent for work or something that didn’t deserve their attention at all. Because of this, you’ll never be able to properly step away from your job until you turn the unimportant notifications off.
Once you’re done with your emails or social apps, notifications are also coming from your collaborative apps installed on our computer or opened on your web browser. Popular collaborative apps like Slack are requiring you to be constantly connected. And if you’re like me, convinced that you might have missed something important, real-time conversations become a trap.
But living moment to moment with the fear of missing something isn’t how we’re built to live. — Tristan Harris.
Push notifications pose a huge threat to our focus and well-being, and initiatives to overcome it are rare in the workplace.
Not only are your notifications wasting your precious time, but they are also eating away at the little bit of “me” time you would be getting otherwise. The simple fact is that you don’t need to be seeing all of your notifications, so why don’t we just filter them?
The unfortunate thing about notifications is that they don’t come through like emails. If you turn on Facebook notifications, you get notifications from Facebook for just about everything.
It is quite impossible for someone to distinguish between a buzz of an important notification that needed their immediate attention and the buzz of a notification that didn’t even really need to be pushed through. The only way to tell is to interrupt your focus, even briefly, and look for yourself to determine whether or not the notification required immediate action on your part.
Whether the notifications are coming from Twitter, Slack, Facebook, or a handful of other applications that most people have installed on their phones, they are far from the first thing we should be seeing in the morning and they definitely aren’t worthy of stealing our attention away from important work throughout the day.
This is unlike your mailbox where you can easily regain control with filtering and cleaning features.
It’s a lot more complicated to manage push notifications. First of all, there are 3 different platforms to set up: your desktop, your browser, and your mobile. Second of all, filtering takes some effort to set up, as if we were encouraged to avoid doing it. Third of all, it’s pretty difficult to come up with something relevant and useful (“I would like to see in priority all notifications related to my family or my boss”).
But the thing is, even if it takes time, you have to filter your notifications and remove the useless ones. This is the only way to restore your work/life balance.
How often are you interrupted throughout the day by a notification? An even better question: How often are you interrupted throughout the day by a notification that actually deserves your attention?
Filtering out all the notifications that don’t deserve your immediate attention, arguably the majority of them, lets you focus on the task at hand. If your phone does ring, you’ll know it’s important.
Plus, while you’re at work, unimportant notifications will no longer pull you away from the projects that deserve your attention the most.
When you are in a deep state of concentration doing X, Y, or Z or when you are already in the midst of an important meeting with a client, you don’t need your phone buzzing just because co-workers are chatting on Slack or because your boss just penciled you in for a conference next week.
Those are things you can get back to later as you devote your entire focus to what’s in front of you at the moment. That will greatly improve your mental clarity and performance while preventing overwhelm.
Start with filtering your mobile notifications. I’ll explain later how to deal with desktop and browser notifications in another article.
Many articles will advise you to disable your mobile notifications for each application, one by one. But it’s way too long to set up when you have, like me, more than 15 apps. In addition, every time I install a new application I have to redo it and frankly, I forget every time to do it.
I worked the problem backward and removed all the notifications and set up exceptions. Android allows you to do it with the “Do Not Disturb” mode.
If you want to quickly enable Do Not Disturb mode, just swipe down from the top of your screen to open the notification shade, and select the Do Not Disturb icon. All your notifications will be blocked (including phone calls and messages).
Then you need to set up exceptions: a long tap on the Do Not Disturb will allow you to make changes to your settings. Now tap on Allow exceptions > Custom and it will allow you to white-list certain contacts or callers. As a startup founder, I decided to white-list all calls, all messages from my contacts and my calendar notification, but you can restrict or allow a lot more depending on your job.
One last thing: do not forget to hide visual notifications when the screen is on and off. This will significantly reduce your daily checks.
To definitely take control of my mobile push notifications, I then decided to uninstall all my social apps and apps I have not used in the last 6 months. I removed almost 10 applications.
Finally, the last thing I did was adding a blank page and set it as the main page to hide all applications except my messages and calls. To do that, tap and hold on a blank area on the home screen. Then, swipe over to the right as far as you can swipe and then add a new home screen. You just have now to define this new home screen as the main one by taping the Home icon located at the top of home screen settings.
In doing so, I reduced my interruptions by 70%. I feel more focused and efficient every day.
Everyone will probably tell you that notifications are bad for your productivity and that’s why you should ignore them all. In practice, I cannot afford to miss a call from an investor or an email from a prospect. As a young entrepreneur, I have to deal with this flow because I cannot miss any opportunity. In return, I must find all means to better filter them. I am not a serial entrepreneur who can ignore all notifications. I need to be responsive to solicitations.
The funny thing is that it’s a LinkedIn notification that allowed me to sign our first large client at Gwapit: was it a needle in a haystack?
Originally published at gwapit.com on October 19, 2018.
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