Just Say ‘No’ To Notifications

Posted by on Feb 27, 2011 in Life | 2 Comments

The battleground

As most of my regular readers probably have picked up on by now, I’m waging a war of attrition against the complexities of life in 2011. Like most wars, there are many battles — some bloodier than others. In this post, I’ll describe a skirmish that must be won, if we are to be free.

In this battle, the enemy’s mercenaries fight not with bullets but with vibrations, audible alerts, obnoxious T. Pain-inspired ring tones or other mantras of pop culture. Their staccato rounds fill you with anxiety, obsessive-compulsiveness, neuroticism and other chronic, life-dulling manifestations that splinter our attentions and impale us with impulsiveness.

I have no doubt that the world will continue to downsize, right-size, diversify and compete for our attention in new and insidious ways every moment of every waking minute. We get pinged regularly on our smartphones about nearly everything these days. Stock quotes, baseball scores, breaking news from CNN, Words with Friends play requests, blog comment notifications, Facebook anything (if you don’t know how to hog-tie their privacy settings) … they’re all there, lining up and shouting, “Look at meeeeee!” But honestly, how much of it do you really NEED on a moment-to-moment basis? Most of these pings take you away from the task at hand, even if but for just a moment. God bless you if you can find an off-ramp on the Tangent Turnpike.

I’ll admit, sometimes people need that instant notification. Doctors, fire fighters, police officers — public servants in general need to be ready to roll with a moment’s notice. It’s not neuroticism then … it’s simply a day at the office, where reaction rules the day. But the vast majority of us could live very productive, focused lives by ditching the automatic notifications … or at least triaging them and dealing with them in a structured way.

We should be teaching our kids in the public schools how to cope with such notifications right now. They are arguably the most vulnerable to such distractions, and how many school districts have really effectively blocked cell phones from the classroom? Students these days, especially in cash-strapped Florida, don’t need any other barriers to good grades and graduation. Are we content raising a new generation of citizens who multitask by default?

Is that the new normal? Does it have to be?

While I myself have struggled over the years with keeping focus and attention, I’m taking a stand against notifications. In the office some time ago, I disabled those little pop-up “you’ve got mail” boxes in Outlook, and I now let calls I’m not expecting go to voice mail. On my iPhone, I’ve disabled all but the most important notifications. I still get pinged on incoming calls and texts, but I’ve started unsubscribing to those text alert systems that offer you discounts … at seemingly all hours of the day and night. In the same breath, I’ve removed myself from dozens of e-mail blast lists I somehow became attached to after buying something online (and forgetting to uncheck the little “Please send me everything” box at the bottom of the page).

To be fair and in full disclosure, I will acknowledge that my industry/discipline — marketing and public relations — has contributed much to this surge in notifications. Heck — notifications sell. Like advertising, they take you away from your current state and show you somewhere else you might like to be. But like alcohol, it’s up to all of us individually to use notifications responsibly, before they get the best of us and distract us from the precious present moment.

Let’s practice staying in that moment and enjoying that moment, because they are endangered species more and more these days. And let’s teach our kids by example. Heck, if the schools won’t do it…

What are your strategies to combat daily distractions such as smartphone notifications? With what other distractions do you have difficulties?




  1. Beth
    February 28, 2011

    Jay, what a wonderful (and delightfully written) post. I, too, have been speeding toward information overload in recent weeks. My plan at this point is to remove one email address, the one that brings mostly marketing emails, from my smartphone. Also, I have learned to set my phone face down when it’s nearby, or else I will constantly check for and immediately respond to the red blinking light. Text messages remain an issue for me.

    Now I know why I haven’t heard from you via Facebook for a while!

    • Jay Magee
      March 2, 2011

      Thanks, Beth! I’ve been starting to keep the iPhone face-down when I’m working so I’m not tempted to peek at work. But those notifications … they’re kind of like all the bells and whistles of the slots and video poker machines in a busy Vegas casino. They’re intoxicating at first, but after a while (like any good cocktail) you get a little sick of them. 🙂 Thanks for the comment.