Push notifications are ruining my life. Yours too, I bet. Download more than a few apps and the notifications become a non-stop, cacophonous waterfall of nonsense. Here’s just part of an afternoon on my phone:
“Hi David! We found new Crown jewels and Bottle caps Pins for you!”
“Everyone’s talking about Bill Nye’s new book, Everything All at Once. Read a free sample.”
“Alex just posted for the first time in a while.”
I get notifications when an acquaintance comments on a stranger’s Facebook posts, when shows I don’t care about come to Netflix, and every single day at 6 PM when the crossword puzzle becomes available. Recently, I got a buzz from my close personal friends at Yelp. “We found a hot new business for you,” it said. I opened the notification, on the off chance that Yelp had finally found the hot new business I’ve been waiting for. It did not. So I closed Yelp, stared into space for a second, and then opened Instagram. Productivity over.
Over the last few years, there’s been an increasingly loud call for a re-evaluation of the relationship between humans and smartphones. For all the good that phones do, their grip on our eyes, ears, and thoughts creates real and serious problems. “I know when I take [technology] away from my kids what happens,” Tony Fadell, a former senior VP at Apple who helped invent both the iPod and the iPhone, said in a recent interview. “They literally feel like you’re tearing a piece of their person away from them. They get emotional about it, very emotional. They go through withdrawal for two to three days.”
Smartphones aren’t the problem. It’s all the buzzing and dinging, endlessly calling for your attention. A Deloitte study in 2016 found that people look at their phones 47 times a day on average; for young people, more like 82. Apple proudly announced in 2013 that 7.4 trillion push notifications had been pushed through its servers. The intervening four years have not reversed the trend.
There’s a solution, though: Kill your notifications. Yes, really. Turn them all off. (You can leave on phone calls and text messages, if you must, but nothing else.) You’ll discover that you don’t miss the stream of cards filling your lockscreen, because they never existed for your benefit. They’re for brands and developers, methods by which thirsty growth hackers can grab your attention anytime they want. Allowing an app to send you push notifications is like allowing a store clerk to grab you by the ear and drag you into their store. You’re letting someone insert a commercial into your life anytime they want. Time to turn it off.
Push and Pull
Originally, push notifications were designed to keep you out of your phone rather than constantly drawing you in. When BlackBerry launched push email in 2003, users rejoiced: They didn’t need to constantly check their inbox for fear they’d miss important messages. When email comes, BlackBerry promised, your phone will tell you. Until then, don’t worry about it.
Apple made push a system-wide feature in 2008, and Google did the same soon after. Suddenly, there was a way for anyone to jump into your phone when they wanted your attention. Push notifications proved to be a marketer’s dream: They’re functionally impossible to tell apart from a text or email without looking, so you have to look before you can dismiss. “Push messages serve an important role in an app’s user engagement,” digital marketing company Localytics wrote in 2015, “and there are no signs pointing to a decrease any time soon.”
In fairness, the platforms and companies responsible for this mess have tried intermittently to clean up. The Apple Watch was initially conceived as a way to keep you off your phone, offering clever filters and even adaptive vibrations to help differentiate between notifications you care about and those you don’t. Instead, the Watch turned your wrist into yet another buzzable surface, this one even harder to ignore. After years of torturing users, Apple finally made it easier to dismiss all your notifications at once. Meanwhile, Google recently simplified the process of turning off notifications for specific apps, and plans in the next version of Android to give users more control over which notifications they want to receive at all.
And still, you could see how it could easily be better. You could tell Outlook to notify you only when you get something from your boss or partner. You could say “never send me coupons,” and ask every app to comply. You could have some notifications come through during work and shut off when you get home. Facebook could figure out who you actually care about, and notify you accordingly. In every case, that would lead to fewer and better notifications. Great for you, bad for the companies trying to steal your attention.
At this point, notification management is a losing battle. News companies send more and more, trying to get you into their apps rather than their competitors. Games beg you to play more, so you’ll spend more on in-app purchases. Ad-based apps need you to open the app so you’ll see the ads. You can turn off all the Facebook notifications you don’t want (assuming you can figure out how) but Facebook will just invent and opt you into new types. There’s no incentive for anyone to slow the pace of pushes, not even Google or Apple, who are just as happy when you look at your phone. Nothing’s going to get better without your interference.
Peace and Quiet
Neither Android nor iOS offers an easy way to turn off notifications en-masse. In both cases, you have to dive deep into Settings, then go app-by-app to turn them off. It’s a massive pain, but completely worthwhile. Throw on an episode of Glow (which my notifications tell me is now available on Netflix, by the way) and just hammer through. Turn off notifications on all the social apps, the shopping apps, the fitness apps, the notifications from Netflix, Spotify, and Kindle. If you want to leave texting, phone calls, and WhatsApp, fine. Everything else has to go.
If you absolutely can’t handle the idea of missing notifications, here’s an alternative: On iOS, turn off everything except “Show in Notification Center.” No sounds, no badges, no lock screen, no banner alerts. Nothing will interrupt you, but all the notifications will still appear when you pull down the windowshade. On Android, you can choose “Show Silently,” a similar setup.
It’s not like turning off notifications shuts you out from using the apps you like. It just puts you back in control; you’re on your phone when you want to be, not when Amazon’s data says you’re likely to buy stuff. I still check Twitter all the time, but I’m not forcibly thrust into Twitter because four people happened to like someone’s photo. Apps like Instagram and Facebook are built to show you the best stuff every time you open the app—you won’t miss much by ignoring notifications. And if not getting notifications means you forget to even open the app or check your phone for a while? Well, you’re welcome.
I turned off notifications on every app on my phone, save for a handful: phone, texts, and my calendar, plus Outlook and Slack, because I’m addicted to work. I’m a far happier person for it. You might think I’m crazy, that I’m missing all the good stuff happening in the world because nothing alerts me anymore. Feel free to tell me all about it! I’ll see it next time I check Twitter. Which will be when I feel like it, and not one second before.