On Notification Capture

(Epistemic Status: Endorsed and actionable. Notifications are memetically toxic.)

What is the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning, after you shut off your alarm?

Think about it for a moment, just the first few minutes of your day.

If you’re anything like me, you wake up, shut off the alarm, and spend 15 minutes catching up on all those shiny notifications that happened overnight. Oh, but then it happens again when you’re on the train. Then you’re just idling during lunch, checking your phone. Then it’s dinner, you might even be with someone, but gosh, there are so many shiny notifications. Then you’re going to bed, but you stay up a half hour later because you just HAVE to have this conversation on the internet. You’ve probably lost a total of 2 hours over the course of the day to your phone – if you’re lucky.

The process I described above starts with something I call notification capture. When a notification grabs your attention and you need to resolve it, you often end up spending longer than you intended to on the app trying to get your attention. This reaches superstimulus level if it’s a conversation or other social tool. It’s insidious and toxic to productivity – and I’ve figured out some basic ways to stop it.

The first and most obvious approach is to turn off notifications for all your apps.  Every time I look at my phone during a conversation (to record something or google something, usually), I feel much less compelled to get stuck talking to people who aren’t directly in front of me. The drawback to this is that I’m less reachable than I used to be since it takes more action for me to check notifications on my phone. For some people, this might be an unacceptable drawback.

The second approach is owning an actual physical alarm clock and not relying on my phone for waking up.  When I applied this, I noticed that I was getting out of bed, turning off my alarm, and not having my attention drawn to things that can probably wait. I’ve gone as much as 2 hours without so much as looking at my phone in the morning since implementing this intervention.

Another approach I’m less skilled at is basically consciously acknowledging a notification happened and refusing to engage it. This breaks the habit I’ve gotten into that notifications must be immediately dealt with. That habit is partially why notification capture became such a problem for me in the first place.

Overall, notification capture is an intended effect of persuasive technology is most modern social apps. As persuasive technology becomes increasingly sophisticated, it’s going to require increasing resistance to “convenient” options to stop your mind from being hijacked into nonproductive channels. This is one way to fight against the behavioral changes that are being forced on us by technology – while the most productive counter would be to refuse to use applications that are so finely tuned to get inside your head, the popularity of applications designed like this makes them fairly useful (particularly social applications). Attention is the new battleground for productivity – being aware of it is the first step to increasing yours.

Discussion Questions: Do you experience notification capture? How many hours do you think it costs you? Do you think your life would be better with less social superstimuli? What other productivity techniques do you feel are a good counter to attention hijacking applications?

One thought on “On Notification Capture

  1. I checked discord twice while reading this…

    That said I don’t think I’m that bad about these things; I’m currently in designated read/chat on the internet time, so it’s not really a issue. I waste time with extended conversations, especially in the evening, and while I do go for my phone when I wake up, I’m not checking my notifications, I’m just looking for something to read (generally one of the web-novels or whatever I have queued up in my browser). I do probably lose a few hours to “talking to people”, but it’s not a uncontrollable thing, and rarely on my phone; I am perfectly capable of ignoring my phone for hours when IRL stuff is happening.

    I avoid a lot of this stuff by simply really disliking writing on my phone, so all conversations which are not vital tend to get delayed until I can type on a computer.


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