Notifications are the best and worst thing about phones, pulling you into a world of feeds, updates, and real-time data — whether you want to be pulled in or not. But while it's easy to be overnotified, keeping a good balance of peace and connectivity is much trickier. Some of it is corporate thirst, apps that simply don't know when to stop demanding your attention. (I'm looking at you, Periscope.) But just as often, the flood of pings comes because you haven't drawn a line between what you need to know and what you don't.
So in the spirit of Hack Week, we decided to run a little experiment. For a full day, we invited Verge staffers to log every notification that came into their phones, from Timehops to Twitter favs to plain old phone calls. (As it turned out, there was only one of those.) As you might expect, email was by far the biggest noise polluter, but social apps like Twitter and Instagram turned out to be pretty alarm-happy too. Here's the breakdown:
A few quick notes on this data. We're big on work apps at The Verge, as you might expect, so the "Office" section mostly refers to Trello and Slack. And even though all the social networks are all lumped together, Twitter is by far the thirstiest, accounting for more than 80 percent of the social network notifications. Maybe it's because we're all in media?
But the big question is how individual people keep their phones in check, so we've broken out three individual staffers below.
Nearly everyone agrees you should keep your phone notifications to a manageable minimum — and I thought I was doing that. I've turned off email push notifications entirely (when was the last time you went 10 minutes without checking your email?) and for the most part, haven't missed them. Then I saw how many more notifications I receive each day than my co-workers. The biggest offender for me is Tweetbot, which I encourage to send me every favorite, follow, and retweet. It's a daily drip of affirmation, and makes life on this garbage planet just a bit more bearable.
But I get notifications from lots of other places, too: at least 75 apps have sent me a push in the last month. Most of those bother me less than once a day — Dark Sky, for example, only pops up when it's about to rain. But many of these apps are more frequent pests. It's an effect of so many apps building in social and messaging layers.
On one hand, writing about social and messaging apps is what I do, so I'm an outlier. But you don't have to be an app freak to have Snapchat, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Hangouts, Skype, and iMessage on your phone. Keeping up with your friends today requires more notifications than ever before.
I've never really taken the time to prune the notifications on my phone. I treat it in a very binary way: most apps' notifications are left on, except for the few (like Periscope) that can be incessant. Beyond that, I enforce very little control over them. I'm always worried I'll miss something, so I'd rather suffer the annoyance and dismiss the ones I don't care about than restrict the flow too much.
With that in mind, it still feels like there are long enough stretches of my day where the notifications either don't come fast enough that I assumed the total number wasn't that high. When I took the time to count them this week, I realized it was even higher than I had imagined.
In fact it got to be such a distraction that I had to stop counting in real time and sort of take a stab at guessing how many were coming in. Worse, I couldn't just go back and look at the notifications I'd missed because the notifications experience on iOS is still quite messy. The notifications panel at the top of the OS limits the amount you can see at any given time, and you have no option to search or sort through them.
The saving grace for me is my Pebble Time. It's where I observe most of my alerts, and it lets me quickly weigh whether an incoming notification is important enough for me to bother taking my phone out of my pocket. From here on out, though, maybe I'll turn a few more of them off.
My notification strategy is something I’ve spent countless hours upon. I use all the tools available to keep notifications as finely honed as possible. Hell, I even forced myself to climb up and over the Google Inbox learning curve because of the awesome control it gives me over email alerts. Still, it only took one day of quantified awareness to shatter any confidence I had in my setup.
Sixty-three notifications on my phone is way too many for a day when I was trying to focus and write. Sixty-three interruptions over a period of about 10 hours, or more than one every 10 minutes, on average. And that’s just my phone. (We didn’t tally the notifications coming in on other devices like smartwatches, tablets, or laptops.) I’ve grown accustomed to the interruptions — it’s normal. But normal shouldn’t be confused with acceptable. And now that I’ve paid attention, it’s very clear that I, and the industry, have a long way to go when it comes to filtering the nonessential.