Keeping sane in the face of digital overload isn’t easy. There are a lot of things that look like quick fixes, but the gains they provide rarely last for more than a couple of weeks. I find that it’s usually a lot work to change my behavior and form good habits.
Which is why I get super excited when I stumble on a simple “flip the switch” solution that actually seems to work.
I recently touched on this in a more technical post about my experiment with an information diet, but it’s such a simple thing, and had such an impact on my sanity levels, that it deserves a post of it’s own.
When I was reading the Information Diet, I noticed this suggestion:
You want to move yourself away from a reactive model of computing, where you’re constantly being tugged and pulled in every direction and responding to every notification that comes across your screen, into a conscious model, where you’re in complete control of what you’re paying attention to.
It sounds like a pretty good idea, right? Probably not terribly realistic, though. I mean, buzzing phones and bouncing dock icons are there for a reason, right? That’s important stuff that you need to know, right? Right? As I read the next few pages where Clay listed several tricks and tools, it occurred to me that all I’d really need to do to test this out is simply take 5 minutes and just flip off every notification I can find. I mean, sure, they’re a little buried on a few apps on my phone, but they’re not that hard to turn off.
Weirdly, it made me a little uneasy thinking about it. I like being on top of things, and having a real-time stream of information seems like an important part of that. But, five minutes of effort is something that’s easily undoable, so it seemed pretty low-risk. So I took those five minutes, turned off every notification I could find on my computer and my phone and decided to take a week to see if it made a difference.
That was several weeks ago. I’m never turning ANY of that stuff back on.
Phantom Notification Syndrome
For the first couple of days, I felt like kind of an idiot because I was unconsciously checking my phone ALL THE TIME. Getting on elevators, waiting at stop lights, even getting out of the shower, I’d go for my phone, blankly staring and wondering where all the notifications were. I was totally habituated. It was pretty revealing, actually.
I tweeted about how awkward it felt, and Clay Johnson (author of The Information Diet) replied back with this comment, which seemed kind of silly at the time… (Spoiler: foreshadowing)
But then, things got awesome
After I settled into it, I noticed I was able to stay on task at work. Weirdly enough, even the things I assumed I relied on the notifications for (email, work-related social media, etc) all got done, usually more completely than when I had the notifications on. I found my conversations with people more engaging. Dinners with friends got better, as did time by myself. I just felt more in the moment. I could still access all the things I had silenced, but they weren’t thrust upon me. It would always be my choice.
(ok, confession, I did keep SMS notifications. I felt like it would be a good idea to have one channel people could reach me at immediately if something was really important.)
Funny side note: Fast forward a few weeks, and I got a new tablet. Just like Clay noted in his tweet, I spent a few days wondering why I felt so scattered. It seems weird that I didn’t notice it right away, but it ended up being because I hadn’t disabled notifications for my tablet and all the random bleeps coming from my backpack were totally throwing me off. I had a good laugh about it, then killed them off.
So, it was a little experiment that ended up fundamentally changing my relationship with technology. You should try it, it’s such a small effort and it’s completely undoable if it’s not for you. Just like Michael Winslow said in Spaceballs, “lose the bleeps, the sweeps, and the creeps”*.
Oh, and you should check out The Information Diet if you’d like to read someone smarter than myself talk about this type of stuff.
*Ok, that’s a corny line to end on, but I really wanted to work a Spaceballs reference in.