Notifications Are Killing Your Productivity -- Here's What to Do About It
How can we assuage the fear of missing an important message while still improving control over our notification bombardment?
How often do you receive notifications throughout the day? Think of everything from new text message notifications and phone calls to the chimes that sound whenever a new email comes in. If you’re like most entrepreneurs, you’re being bombarded with notifications, and whether you realize it yet or not, it’s killing your productivity.
Why notifications are so problematic
Notifications are an issue for a few major reasons. Most notably, they serve as a distraction. Whether it’s the popup of a red number on your favorite app, a vibration or a sound notification, these alerts are designed to get your attention. They’re practically impossible to ignore. If you’re working on something important, your focus is going to drift, and your effectiveness will immediately decline. Some studies suggest it takes a full 23 minutes to recover your focus after a distraction, meaning each new notification could be compromising your full focus for up to 23 minutes.
Of course, these temporary distractions are just the beginning. Oftentimes, notifications are a call to some other time-stealing requirement. For example, one of your employees might send you an instant chat message asking you a few questions about a project; once this gets your attention, you’ll feel compelled to write out an answer.
Notifications can also be somewhat addictive. Social media apps, for example, design themselves to produce dopamine releases like slot machines, conditioning us to anticipate notifications so much that we feel phantom notifications at random intervals. We might even feel anxiety or very mild withdrawal-like symptoms if we go too long without notifications.
These issues wouldn’t be so problematic if it weren’t for three important compounding factors, which exacerbate these negative effects:
- Notifications are everywhere. Software developers have figured out that notifications tend to keep people using their products. Accordingly, notifications are pervasive. It’s not just emails, text messages and phone calls that trigger alerts these days. You’ll receive notifications about automatic bill payments, project management system updates and even social media activity.
- Notifications are on by default. Making matters worse, notifications are almost always turned on by default, and notifications are “normal” in our work culture. Every new app you download will try to start sending you notifications immediately, and throughout your office, you likely hear a cascade of notification sounds throughout the day.
- We underestimate the power of notifications. Notifications were initially conceived as a way to make us more attentive and more productive; after all, there’s value in knowing exactly when you receive a new email, rather than checking your email manually at predefined intervals. Accordingly, we assume that notifications “can’t be that bad.”
Because of this, most of us have become slaves to the call of notifications, and our productivity is suffering as a result.
How to eliminate the negative effects of notifications
Here’s a bold idea: Turn off notifications for everything. This is the obvious solution that none of us actually want to consider. We might be slightly deterred by the manual effort required to hunt down and change settings for dozens of apps and services, but it’s more likely that we’re deterred by fear. We’re afraid of missing an important notification when we need it most.
So how can we assuage this fear while still improving control over our notification bombardment?
There are a few more manageable solutions:
- Manage the notifications you receive. First, consider changing which notifications you receive and when. For example, on a project management platform, you may be able to turn off notifications for “all new updates” and only receive notifications when your name is tagged. You can also turn off notifications for unimportant apps, like social media apps or web notifications, and leave them on for things like email.
- Toggle between focused and open hours (or days). Alternatively, you could leave notifications off for predefined periods of time. For example, you can turn off notifications from 2-3 pm each day and designate this as “heads-down” time, notifying your team that you’re unavailable during these periods. You could even take an entire day each week to work notification-free.
- Reserve a channel for emergencies. If turning off notifications makes you feel anxious, consider opening a reserved channel for emergencies, like a chat platform or SMS text messages on your phone. Turn off notifications for everything except this emergency channel, so you can rest easy knowing everything else can wait.
Notifications don’t seem like a big deal, but in sufficient volume, they can sabotage your productivity. If you don’t do anything and let notifications rule your working life, it’s going to work against you. Come up with a strategy that allows you to minimize the number of notifications you receive while still giving you the communicative access you need.
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