I suppose there is no dispute over the value of having notifications on our devices for providing reminders of important tasks, events, or updates. In this day and age, and with the multitude of duties and commitments we have, it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep track of all that is important to us.
The issue is that, sometimes, the notifications flood becomes too distractive. We could hardly focus on any one thing before having multiple notifications coming our way. The other related issue is that we are not only getting these notifications from one device. They are probably coming from multiple devices: the iPhone, the Apple Watch, the iPad (Pro), and the Mac.
In this post, I will help you to be more mindful about notifications and put a plan in place to get the most value out of them while minimizing the negatives.
# Sources of Notifications
Notifications could potentially come from everywhere! Your productivity apps, social media networks, utility apps, communications, and even games! It goes without saying that we really need to prioritize the notifications coming to us, and to consider switch off some of them. Below are suggestions for productive people, divided by app types:
– Time organizers (Calendar and Tasks)
Your calendar should be a sacred place! Only the important events that really have to happen at specific times should go in there. If that is reasonably set, then you should probably keep calendar notifications on. My recommendation is to set the default reminder time to 1-hour before events in order to give you sufficient transition time.
As for tasks to do, one of the best apps to use (beside the built in Reminders app) is Omnifocus. For these kind of apps, the tasks to do (or next actions) are usually not as restricted to specific times. In such cases, you are probably better served switching notifications off by default. This approach works best for groups of tasks that are usually done during routine blocks of time, like work items. In this case, you are already at your work desk checking the task items as you are going through the work day.
For time related notifications (alarm, timer, pomodoro, etc.), it is probably better to keep notifications on. These kind of activities are usually ones you are being mindful about and have an immediate need for.
Messaging could be grouped under two general types: text messages (SMS) and instant message applications (WhatsApp, BBM, WeChat, etc.). For text messaging, it is usually better to keep notifications on. The exception for that is when you are doing some deep work and do not want to get distract, in which case you would trigger DND (Do-Not-Disturb).
For instant messaging apps, on the other hand, I would recommend keeping all notifications off. Since these apps are free, people are likely to broadcast non-urgent and unimportant messages often. This tends to be distracting and the real valuable messages are lost in a sea of gossip and jokes. To be truly productive, you should keep notifications of instant messaging apps off, while only tending at them at particular times of the day.
Email is not designed for instant communications. When someone sends you an email message today, you are (usually!) not obliged to immediately reply and could wait on it a day or a couple of days.
From this perspective, it is clear that email notification should be turned off, especially on your iPhone or Apple Watch. Depending on your work, however, you may prefer to keep notifications on (on the iPad or Mac) while you are at your work station.
– Social Networks
Based on what I wrote above, you would probably expect me to advice switching off social network notifications! Well, you are absolutely right! I believe this is ideal, with the understanding that you would have specific times scheduled for social networking (say 30-60 minutes a day) where you would be able to catch up on what’s happening.
If the type of work you do involves social media, then switching on some notifications could be warranted. However, you still need to be mindful about the specific notification types within each social networking app.
– Games and entertainment
If you are into gaming and other entertainment apps (like Netflix), then it is something that you probably do on your free times. This means that you would not want to be notified about gaming/entertainment updates all day long. So, keep those notifications off! 🙂
Other than the above categories, it depends on the types of app that are important to you. For me, I usually keep some notifications related to well-being on. This is mostly on the Watch for breathing reminders, activity reminders, and prayer time reminders (via Falah app).
# Across devices
The discussion above is mainly on notifications for different categories of applications. The other related issue that faces us is managing notifications across different devices.
If there’s a task on OmniFocus that is due, it would not be fruitful to be notified about it on your Watch, iPhone, iPad, and iMac at the same time! This could give you an unneeded sense of emergency!
I recommend that you minimize the number of devices for any notification to only one, or at max two, devices. This would minimize distractions and leak of mental energy away from what you are trying to focus on.
The question is which device to use for each notification. The answer is that it depends on who you are, the context, and the kind of work at hand. Below are some specific suggestions:
– For communication tasks (mainly phone calls and text messages), notifications should only be on the iPhone and/or the Watch. There’s probably no need to enable that on the iPad or Mac.
– For time related tasks, notifications aught to go to the Watch (remember, it is your time machine!). Here, we are talking about calendar, timer, or Pomodoro notifications (via an app like Pommie). As for alarms, I use the iPhone for the morning alarm and the Watch for power naps.
– If you are in need of email notifications, then I would suggest restricting that to the iPad/Mac. If you really need to be instantly notified of emails coming from some VIP, then you would want to have that coming from your iPhone, but probably not from your Watch.
– For health reminders (workout, sleep, breathing), the Watch is probably the most suitable device. This helps in setting the Watch as your well-being device, and contributes to prioritizing your health.
At this point, you are probably noticing that the Apple Watch is taking a larger share of the notification recommendations above. This is a revelation that I haven’t reached until I started to mindfully think about the issue. The Watch seems to be indeed well suited for most notifications. In general, I recommend keeping all Watch notifications on haptic alert only.
At the same time, the larger devices (iPad & Mac) are better kept away from most notifications. Being the productive person you are, you want to have the iPad/Mac screens’ solely occupied with what you are working on. To be distracted by notifications is the last thing you need. You would still occasionally be sensing nudges from your Watch or notification sounds from the iPhone, but these are less obstructive than a notification covering the top part of the report you are writing!
# Closing Tips: Time Blocking and DND
In order to better manage notifications, I recommend that you employ the concept of time blocking into your daily routine. You are probably already doing that, at least partially. The idea is to have specific times scheduled for specific areas of your life; Family, work, emails, communication (including instant messaging), hobbies, and gaming/entertainment.
If you do this well, you will naturally have your need for notifications reduced. For example, if you routinely check your emails at 10 am and 3 pm everyday, you will not need to be notified of any emails coming in between.
The other tip is the strategic use of DND (Do-Not-Disturb). This works like a Master-Off-Switch to kill all notifications at the high focus times. For example, when I enter a classroom, I enable DND from my Watch (which also enables it on the iPhone) and have that set for the duration of the class time. No notifications would be allowed and I could have the focus I need for my students. After the class is over, the devices automatically go out of DND.
This post provides systemic and tactical recommendations for managing the notifications you get across different apps and across all your devices. This should work as a good starting point, from which you could do the necessary adjustments to tailor the experience to your specific needs.
An important concluding remark, however, is that our devices and their features are only tools. They cannot, by themselves, make our lives organized, productive, and distraction free. It is up to us to set the groundwork and be mindful about our digital experience. In other words, unless we are proactive in controlling our devices, we run the risk of having them control us!