Joel Gascoigne

Startups, life, learning and happiness

I'm Founder & CEO of Buffer. This is where I share lessons I'm learning.

Zero notifications

Written on 7th January, 2013
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A couple of months ago, my co-founder Leo gave me an interesting suggestion: he said I should try disabling all notifications on my iPhone. I find this suggestion especially interesting because it is one that goes against the normal phone setup. It’s so usual to stick to how things are, and with iPhone apps the easiest thing to do is to “allow” all those notifications. It seems almost odd to even consider doing things any other way.

I chose to go along with Leo’s suggestion, although I was admittedly quite skeptical that it would change much. I imagined that I had pretty good willpower, and that I am fairly productive already. Just because I got notifications, I didn’t think that affected my workflow all too much. In hindsight looking back though, one clear indication that it was already affecting my was that I was regularly turning my phone over to stop those notifications lighting up the screen and distracting me.

What it’s like to live without notifications

"Don’t Confuse the Urgent with the Important" - Preston Ni

For the first week that I turned off notifications, I checked Twitter, Facebook, Email and other places regularly. In fact, I still do, although maybe not so much as that first week. After a couple of weeks, I came to love the fact that nothing came onto my lock screen or lit up my phone. I even found that I frequently started to use the switch in Mac OSX to turn off desktop notifications until the next day.

With zero notifications, I feel like I can get my head stuck into a problem much more easily than I did before. I never realised when I had those notifications on that they truly could throw me off my current thought and cause me difficulty getting that focus back. More than anything, I feel a lot calmer. Notifications create a sense of urgency around something that’s not important at all. I don’t need to know right now that someone liked my status on Facebook.

It changes the balance, it’s now my choice

"There are two types of people: One strives to control his environment, the other strives not to let his environment control him. I like to control my environment" - George Carlin

The thing I like the most about turning off all notifications is that it is now completely up to me when I choose to check my email, Twitter, Facebook, etc. I have no excuse that a notification came in. If I check it too frequently and find myself procrastinating, it is only my fault: I went out of my way to go and look. As Derek Sivers puts it, "everything is my fault":

But to decide it’s your fault feels amazing! Now you weren’t wronged. They were just playing their part in the situation you created. They’re just delivering the punch-line to the joke you set up. What power! Now you’re like a new super-hero, just discovering your strength. Now you’re the powerful person that made things happen, made a mistake, and can learn from it. Now you’re in control and there’s nothing to complain about.

It was my fault that I received push notifications, too, but by controlling that part of my environment everything is so much more pronounced. And now that it’s my fault, I can work solely myself to be better, to check those notifications less.

I choose to avoid reliance on willpower

"we each have one reservoir of will and discipline, and it is depleted by any act of conscious self-regulation—whether that’s resisting a cookie, solving a puzzle, or doing anything else that requires effort." - Tony Schwartz and Jean Gomes in The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working

The other reason I am happy that I’ve turned off all notifications, is that wherever possible I like to avoid relying on willpower or self-discipline. As Tony Schwartz and Jean Gomes put it, we all have a limited reservoir of willpower, and by turning off notifications it means I save some of that for other tasks rather than using it on resisting checking on each push notification that comes in. I’m certainly not suddenly a superhuman with complete focus at all times, but I feel much more in control.

Have you tried turning off notifications? I can highly recommend trying it, just for a week. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

Photo credit: Christian Ostrosky

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