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Push notifications: kill the noise

Published on September 26, 2017 - 3 min.

Photo by Gian Prosdocimo

Ever since last summer, the first thing I do whenever I install a new app on my phone is to go into its settings and completely turn off push notifications.

When Apple came up with push notifications back in 2009, they were a godsent. No longer did we have the need to check our phone to see if a new email had arrived! Whenever something important happened, a subtle Ding! or a quick vibration alterted us of an incoming tweet or appointement. It was a great way for the user to stay in touch with their digital world.

The problem is that now, each and every app thinks it's the most important thing and you HAVE to listen to what they say. Congratulate Helen for her new job! Marc is tweeting about #takeaknee! Don't forget to check on your Happy Dragon's Eggs! Tom has posted for the first time in a while! It has become so dominant that now it feels like notifications are nothing but noise. So much so that people have started to develop new diseases such as Phantom Vibration Syndrome. How often do you think you get a new notification and reach for your phone, but it turns out that it was just your brain tricking you. There are even people who are experiencing anxiety related to notifications. The constant flow of information has become overwhelming, and it just won't stop. And now, you can also get push notifications from websites. While I love the technology behind it, it's unfortunately so badly used by web developers around the globe. Each and every website wants your authorization to notify you about the latest trend in whatever they're talking about. It's presented as a way to deliver a better service, but let's not kid ourselves: it exists for the solely purpose of making you come back there, and present you with just a few more ads.

Last year I bought myself a Pebble. It's a great little gadget that goes around my wrist and vibrates whenever I get a notification. Thanks to it, I can't miss a single email, phone call or text. It's also nice because it's discreet. It's been a year since my phone last chimed, and now that it's always on silent mode, it doesn't bother my coworkers when I'm in an open space, or my family during our sunday lunch. I've started to look less at my phone, because since it's connected to my watch thanks to Bluetooth, I won't miss a notification as long as the phone is less than 10 meters aways from me. But I've realized that it was at my own expense. The problem is that I started the bad habit of constantly having to look at my watch. Whenever my phone needs my attention, I get these three taps on my wrist that remind me it's there, and it needs me to take care of it. While fun at first, it started to feel like a dog collar, and that Bluetooth link started to feel more like a leash than a usefull tool.

So I've decided to turn it all off. The only notifications I've kept on my phone are Emails, and everything that's directly aimed at me (Telegram, Twitter DMs and SMS). That's it. LinkedIn is quiet, Instagram as well, and I'll check on my Amazon deliveries whenever I damn please. On my desktop, I've disabled all notifications as well. Now I take a glimpse at my Dock every once in a while, and whenever I see a Slack or Airmail badge, I'll see what it's about only if I have nothing more important to do. I often completly shut down email and open it right before lunch, or a moment before leaving the office. I won't interrupt a coding session just to see if my Aliexpress order has shipped or if someone has replied to a Github PR. And it feels wonderful.

Turning off notifications has been a great thing to do. I feel like I'm more in control over my digital life. I get less interrupted by all this noise, and in the end much less stressed about this constant flow of notifications. I feel happier, but not less "connected", I just chose to open an app because I feel like it, and not because an algorithm has decided it's a good time for me to do so. A recent article from Wired reports that in 2013, "Apple proudly announced [...] that 7.4 trillion push notifications had been pushed through its servers". Where is the limit between information and spam?

I hope this trend will develop and people start cutting off notifications more and more. Unfortunately, now that Apple has added SIM support for its Apple Watch, the "notification machine" has become independant, so people will get even more reminders to check on their phone. My advice is try it for a week, and see how much you miss having a device constantly buzzing in your pocket. I bet you'll feel much better, even after day 3.