How to control the madness of notifications

By Omar L. Gallaga / Austin American-Statesman

AS this sentence was being written, about a dozen notifications just happened.

It used to take some effort to get machines to tell us stuff. A digital alarm clock wouldn’t wake you until you told it what time, down to the minute. If a phone automatically started telling you what appointments to expect that day and how the weather would be, you called an exorcist (from another phone).

But we’ve come to take for granted that our ever-smarter tools (phones, computers, e-mail) and even those with modern brain transplants (TVs, refrigerators, cars) are telling us stuff all the time. Honestly, you can’t shut them up. They feel you must know how many e-mails have arrived since the last time you checked, whether it’s time to change the water filter, who’s replied to a Facebook post you commented on last week.

If you wanted to lump all these messages together, you could just call them “notifications,” which is a catch-all term if you own an Apple or Android phone. In recent years, the way phones and tablets organize all of the alerts and updates from different apps into one neat, front-and-center, at-a-glance display has become a major mobile feature. A well-organized set of notifications can make you feel like you’re on top of what’s going on and plugged into the now. A messy notifications list is a pirate ship plank’s walk into deadly, chaotic seas.

Notifications, though, are part of a larger problem: interruptions. Perhaps you have found a way to shield yourself from the increasing number of pings and prods, the dings and distractions.

For the rest of us, it’s a struggle; what if you miss an important text message? Or a flood warning? What about an e-mail from the boss or news of a sale from your favorite store’s mobile app? How do you balance all that with the need to reclaim your time, attention and physical space from external intrusions?

How you approach the problem of notifications in an era when people are attaching devices like the Apple Watch to their wrist to be more up to date depends on whether you feel you’re having a problem at all. Are you content, happy, related and caught up? Or do you feel anxious and overwhelmed, running behind and reminded of it all the time? I try to be the former, but I often catch myself stuck in the latter with need for improvement. Let’s explore some approaches you can take to taming notifications if you feel that way, too.

Going cold turkey: This won’t stop your car from making you aware of a needed oil change or your cable company’s DVR from alerting you to a lack of hard-drive space, but on your more personal digital devices (phones, computers, tablets) you could consider turning off notifications entirely and seeing whether it brings you peace of mind.

On Windows PCs, Macs, iOS, Android and other mobile devices and on social networks, your settings or control panels will have an option for turning off notifications. On most recent smartphones, you can go in and control notifications for individual apps and how they appear on your main screen.

You may decide as you go to re-enable notifications to bring back only the ones you need, but wiping the slate clean and living that way for a few days may be a good place to start.

Hitting the worst offenders first: Maybe you’re fine with some notifications, but you’ve noticed others dominate your day, such as reminders of new e-mails or a calendar app that blasts a ringtone when an appointment arrives. Get rid of the most frequent, annoying offenders and see if that improves your life.

Some apps won’t let you off so easily. Facebook’s Messenger app, for instance, will tersely remind you every time you open the chat program that you should have notifications enabled. It’s pushy like that.

Cutting devices from the loop: You may need constant alerts and reminders if you lead a fast-charging, busy life, but you may not need to see the same notifications on all your devices all the time. If you’re a heavy Mac/iPhone user, for instance, you may find yourself seeing the same notifications on your computer, phone, tablet and, if you have one, Apple Watch. You could cut the iPad out of that cycle if it’s not a device you frequently use all day.

One other advantage to this—if you ever get sensitive private messages or anything not safe for work as an alert, do you really want that stuff flashing on the home screens of multiple gadgets at the same time, including devices that are out of reach?

To amber or not to amber: This is a little controversial. Smartphones include a feature that pushes an Amber Alert to mobile-phone users. But they also include a way to disable that, and it’s tempting to do so if you’ve ever been in an office full of people when an Amber Alert goes off en masse. (In short, it’s terrifying.) These kinds of alerts are also useful in severe weather. If you’re asleep in the middle of the night, that severe weather alert may be the only thing that wakes you up before a tornado hits.

Disabling Wireless Emergency Alerts is absolutely your prerogative as a gadget owner, but it may also be a moral question. If everyone decided to disable Amber Alerts, how much less effective would Amber Alerts be? You may need to search your conscience and simply be prepared to be scared out of your wits once in a while.

Seasonal adjustments: It may take a little more effort, but handling notifications in a situational way has its advantages. For instance, you could only shut off notifications when you’re on vacation or on weekends. You could add notifications that are reliant on location (these are called “geolocation” or “geofenced” alerts) when you’re traveling to tell you when you’re near a popular attraction or historical landmark.

It may be that you want shopping-related notifications before the holidays but won’t be able to stand them after New Year’s Day. Riding the wave of life events, holidays and shifting needs is a way to stay ahead of notification overload.

Keep them on: We may be overconnected and mega-notified, but maybe that’s just the new norm. Keeping all notifications on could potentially enrich your life, making it more likely that you’ll answer errant e-mail messages and that you won’t miss an impromptu Periscope broadcast from a close friend before it disappears. A person who is good at tuning out information, or at least with enough impulse control to glance at a list of alerts and only act on the important ones, may be perfectly Zen in notification hell.

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