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Justin Watt
Justin Watt

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How to Stop Letting Notifications Kill Your Workday

“So insanely busy.” When's the last time you heard that phrase or a variation of it upon asking a co-worker how they're doing? I will bet it's within the last 7 days.

This past Monday, I decided to quantify where some of the “insanely busy” feelings came from for the work day when it came to notifications.

I received 41 emails. 23 of them came from humans, the rest were notifications or automated, redundant information. That's my fault for not unsubscribing to unneeded emails sooner.

I received 153 Slack notifications. 3 of them were critical enough that I needed to answer them within an hour. Another 20 of them were important enough that they needed an answer the same business day. The rest were informational but not needing a notification.

Chrome alerted me to 14 different Google Drive comments to engage with. And this is all after customizing notifications to be less intrusive.

Sound familiar?

Teams I work with day to day are respectful of each others time. When it comes to notification overload, it's not people that cause the bulk of the issues, it's the products we use to get work done.

“I'm busy.” – Today's Air Horn of Hyperbole

Many argue that in our personal and business lives we sound the air horn of hyperbole in regards to how busy we are. To an extent, people aren't wrong when they claim that many are feigning how busy they are as a badge of honour. But these people certainly aren't right either; people are busy AF. We pride ourselves on our ability to multitask, to ebb and flow as needed by our co-workers and leadership teams. Many pride themselves on having “more on the go” than the person beside them. This article isn't about that bullshit. This is about the deluge of interruptions we experience on an individual level in our work lives that our organizations and software providers have unknowingly thrust on us.

There are endless articles about dealing with notification overload in our personal life, but what about our work life?

Notifications or GTFO?

You sit there each day experiencing the deluge of pings, dings, and rings that notifications propel at you. Outside of the multitude of personal notifications you get, you're pestered by email, Slack, texts, calendar invites, Google Drive, Dropbox, Jira, Office365, Trello, Basecamp, Salesforce, or the abundance of other applications that you may use in your organization. We're lead to believe that we need to be up to date and current on all of the information flowing in and out of these applications at all times and each products notifications are built around this assumption.

While each individual service tries to be respectful, the compounding effect of all these notifications is crippling each day. It is easy to get caught up in these notifications, but we need to learn to accept that not all of them are a high priority. Many are barely a low or medium priority. The acceptance of this overload is half the battle though. Dealing with the deluge is the next step.

Some Solutions

While it often feels easier to embrace the anxiety and time wasted that all of these notifications produce, there is a better way. Here's some tips to think about:

For Yourself:

  • Ask yourself what apps or services provide the most important notifications? Which apps provide the least important? Use these answers to customize or remove unneeded notifications.
  • Use Do Not Disturb mode on your Mac (Windows has it now too)
  • Slack (or the workplace IM platform of choice) is often the main notification overload culprit but has solid notification customization to weed out the important information from the noise. Take the time to take advantage of this.
  • Discuss the notification overload issue openly with teammates at work. Many others face this issue. A common understanding will help everyone to be more respectful of pings and help to set the tone culturally.
  • Head to Google and let it help solve your notification overload. A quick search for "customize notifications for [insert app here]" will do wonders.

For Business Leaders:

  • Encourage your teams to summarize information in single messages, not a barrage of information that creates a large amount of notifications.
  • Create a culture of focused work by encouraging teams to turn all notifications off for a while with features like Do Not Disturb.
  • If you're responsible for a business or team and wondering where a weakness lies, look closely at the cracks and crevices where information is currently trapped or overloading people and make time to discuss ways in which to address this with your teams.

For Those Making These Fantastic Products:

  • Bundling: Start embracing bundling of non-high priority notifications like 37Signals has done with Basecamp.
  • Keep some best practices in mind when designing notification systems and hierarchies in your product.
  • Design to reduce anxiety.

Keep Yourself in Check

As new software is implemented in your organization or teams create new workflows, you'll start to see more notifications coming your way. Don't fall into the trap of being overloaded and overworked because of the deluge of information coming your way. Recognizing the issue and keeping yourself in check when it comes to notifications is time well worth spending. Your sanity at work depends on it.

This article was originally published on Medium. Lots more great information like this in my newsletter or say hi on Twitter.

Discussion (4)

sliceolife profile image

Great article, I usually maintain a 'Do Not Disturb' window by myself of around ~30 minutes whereby I only allow really urgent messages to get through via a specific Slack channel, the rest of all the notifications I just mute and block out.

craser profile image
Chris Raser

Excellent article, and I love the bit about establishing expectations on teams. Managers can go a long way toward helping this by having clear guidelines for their teams, and clearly communicating those norms to other teams inside the company.

And I honestly think that tools for managing notifications are horrible. I'd love to have smarter notifications. For example: "Don't create a pop-up until I have 5 emails in inbox." Or, "Dev & Ops team leads have posted 15 messages to #issues in the last 5 minutes." If we had this, it would go a long way toward addressing what is currently a fairly universal frustration.

nrobinson2000 profile image
Nathan Robinson

Thank you for the article!

wpdevvy profile image

I normally set wifi to switch off when the phone sleeps. So, no notifications until I wake the phone manually myself. Downside is that I won't get alerts immediately and I can live with that.