We all receive a barrage of notifications on our phone each day. Slack messages, text messages, sports updates, and the most precious of them all, social media notifications.
So why are apps so keen on sending these notifications to our phone? Is it that they want to keep us informed on relevant information, like when someone emails us or sends us a private message? But that doesn’t explain the range of notifications we receive. Most apps, social media apps in particular, send us notifications about viral posts or trending topics or new promotions, things that have nothing to do with us and can be produced whenever developers choose. What explains these notifications? From my experience as a software engineer at Google and YouTube, as well as working on dozens of independent projects with friends, the fundamental reason to send notifications is to drive growth. Each notification is an opportunity to increase engagement of the user base, by getting them to interact and spend more time on the platform.
This is no secret to those within the tech industry. Notifications are an important tool for growth hackers—those individuals in software companies charged with making business-relevant metrics go up and to the right.
I’m not criticizing companies who use these strategies to improve their business. If one of us were in their position, we would likely do the same. But as users, we should understand the true reason we are getting so many notifications. They have little to do with us. They have more to do with the goals of the company which sends them.
And make no mistake, notifications are incredibly effective at capturing our attention. There are few of us who can get one and ignore it. The reason for this has to do with both the personalization and mystery of the notification. Only we are getting that notification at that particular time. So in a way, it's like mail addressed to our home address. Of course, then, we are going to check what it is, just like each of us, regardless of what we are doing, turn our head when someone calls out our name. Personalized messaging is simply too difficult to resist. In addition, each notification represents another spin of the digital Roulette wheel. There can be so many possibilities, from receiving a piece of spam mail to getting a text from a crush, that we don’t know if the next buzz on our phone means something good, bad, or in between. It is this mystery that also contributes to the strong urge to check our phones.
These notifications would not be of much concern but for the fact they are disruptive. They prevent us from entering flow states, which are periods of intense focus in which we lose ourselves to the moment. These flow states often characterize the greatest source of fulfillment in our lives. Notifications also reduce productivity by causing us to shift from one cognitive task to another. They lead us into rabbit holes and help us procrastinate. They disrupt the people around us.
For these reasons, I keep all my notifications off on all apps minus two exceptions: I keep my ringer on for phone calls and keep text notifications on for my family and a handful of close friends. I have done this now for the past 3 years and it has worked amazingly well. I don’t get pulled into my phone for unnecessary reasons, but I also don’t miss my mom’s phone calls and therefore dodge the sure-fire wrath that would occur if I did. I initially thought that configuring my phone this way would mean missing events or flaking on friends, but as long as I set some time to check my phone, like during breakfast, lunch or dinner, I usually catch everything important.
I know this approach may not be suitable for everyone, especially those with children or whose work requires constant attention. But most people can probably cut some notifications without any downside. You don’t have to take my word for it, though. Try it for a month and see if you enjoy the notification-free life. Who knows, you may end up forgetting certain apps exist on your phone in the first place!