Why we’re addicted to notifications

Every time I read something about how much notifications are taking over our lives, I tone down my phone and turn off alerts for all my social media accounts. But somehow, by the next time I come across an article or study about our addiction to notifications, a bunch of them have crept back into my life.

Why is so hard to turn off—and keep off—notifications? Why can’t we stop picking up our phones and checking social media, even when we know there’s nothing new to see?

And what can we do to make a toned-down approach stick?

Before we dive in… Whether you work from home or in a noisy, crowded office, chances are you’re fighting distraction on a daily basis. Learn how to fight back with our free Guide To Finding Focus and Overcoming Distractions.

We’re addicted to our phones

phone in hand

As our phones become smarter and more powerful, our dependency on them only increases. In fact, when completing interviews for her book The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age, author Catherine Steiner-Adair found many people shared experiences that showed symptoms of psychological dependency.

For instance, many of the interviewees said they couldn’t leave the house without their phones or go to the bathroom without them, and they felt anxious when separated from their phones.

Other research has found, similarly, that we tend to feel more uncomfortable and anxious without our phones, or when we can’t access social media.

Just to prove how little we know about what’s good for us, research shows that people who rely on their phones most, and feel anxious without them, don’t actually feel better when they do have their phones nearby. Those who rely most on their phones and/or social media tend to have higher levels of stress, aggression, distraction, and depression, have lower self-esteem, and get less sleep on average.

Further research has shown that push notifications from email are a “toxic source of stress” for many UK workers. This study also found a strong connection between the use of push notifications and perceived email stress, according to lead author Dr. Richard MacKinnon:

The people who reported it being most useful to them also reported the highest levels of email pressure.

Another study also explored how connecting with people online affects our emotional state. The researchers found connecting with others via Facebook left people feeling sad and dissatisfied, but following up with a phone call or a face-to-face exchange left people feeling uplifted.

According to psychologist Susan Pinker, online relationships without face-to-face contact fail to create the trust needed for authentic personal connections.

So if email, social media, and mobile notifications are so bad for us, why can’t we give them up?

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    Software is designed to make us addicted

    While some might say it’s up to users to take responsibility for our reliance on our phones, Tristan Harris, former product philosopher at Google and co-founder of advocacy group Time Well Spent, says this assessment isn’t fair:

    … but that’s not acknowledging that there’s a thousand people on the other side of the screen whose job is to break down whatever responsibility I can maintain.

    Harris’s goal is to have product designers sign a kind of hippocratic oath, swearing to design products that don’t take advantage of users. “There is a way to design based not on addiction,” he says.

    Joe Edelman, who helped Harris with the research for Time Well Spent, compares the tech industry to Big Tobacco before the link between cigarettes and cancer was proven: giving customers more of what they want, even if it’s harmful.

    Nir Eyal, author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, explains that software, especially social media, is designed around an idea described by researcher B.F. Skinner in the 1950s: variable rewards. Skinner, experimenting with mice, found that providing the same treats every time a mouse pressed a lever was less motivating than varying the rewards. Mice who received either a big treat, a small treat, or no treat when pressing the lever pressed far more often than mice receiving the same treat every time. Mice receiving variable rewards also kept pressing the lever for much longer after the treats stopped coming than the mice receiving consistent treats, who stopped pressing almost immediately.

    Though using this research in software design might seem sinister, Eyal says it can be beneficial when used in the right way:

    If used for good, habits can enhance people’s lives with entertaining and even healthful routines. If used to exploit, habits can turn into wasteful addictions.

    Eyal disagrees with Harris’s idea that software designers are consciously building products we’ll become addicted to. There’s nothing wrong with using this research in human behavior when designing software, says Eyal. He says it’s simply new and unknown, making people like Harris wary:

    Saying ‘Don’t use these techniques’ is essentially saying ‘Don’t make your products fun to use.’ That’s silly. With every new technology, the older generation says ‘Kids these days are using too much of this and too much of that and it’s melting their brains.’ And it turns out that what we’ve always done is to adapt.

    But Harris doesn’t buy it. The onus is on software designers, he says, to avoid making us all addicted to their products:

    Never before in history have the decisions of a handful of designers (mostly men, white, living in SF, aged 25-35) working at 3 companies [Google, Facebook, and Apple] had so much impact on how millions of people around the world spend their attention. We should feel an enormous responsibility to get this right.

    Making notifications and social media manageable

    While Harris is making some progress in getting software designers on board with the idea of designing products that don’t rely on user addiction to succeed, there are plenty of products we use every day that are already built around addictive behaviors.

    Using Eyal’s “Hook Model,” products use triggers such as notifications to encourage us to take actions—opening the app, looking at a photo, etc. Variable rewards encourage us take action more often: opening our inboxes, refreshing our social feeds, and so on, in the hope of a treat, just like Skinner’s lab mice.

    Eyal’s model also includes investment: a step where the user, having already interacted with the product, is asked to invest time, money, data, or effort to make the product more useful to them and make it more likely they’ll come back in the future. Inviting friends to a social network or learning to use new features of an app are examples of the investment stage, that only increase our reliance on these products and make us more likely to keep using them.

    So until Harris can successfully get all software designers on board with his hippocratic oath, it’s up to us to fight the addictive design of the products we use every day.

    Let’s look at three ways to do this.

    Adjust your notification settings

    Rather than completely culling all notifications—which, if you remember the research I mentioned earlier, could make you more anxious than having them all turned on—Davide Casali suggests only keeping notifications turned on for the apps you really need to stay on top of.

    Casali split his own app usage into three groups:

    1. Instant: Anything he wants to know about as soon as it happens
    2. Relevant: Anything he wants to know about when he’s open to new updates, but not immediately
    3. Kill: Anything he really doesn’t need to know about

    For the first group, Casali left notifications on as usual. For the “Relevant” group, he turned off all notification and alert options except for app icon badges. This made it obvious which apps had new updates when Casali took the time to check their icons, but didn’t interrupt his day with updates whenever they were available.

    For the final group, Casali turned off all notification and alert options completely.

    Fine-tuning your notifications in this way may be a better compromise than turning them off completely, because being completely cut-off tends to make us anxious. Try putting just one or two apps or services into the “Kill” and “Relevant” sections, and adding more over time as you become more comfortable with getting fewer notifications.

    Check your email less often

    A study of 124 workers tested the difference between allowing workers to have email notifications turned on and check their email anytime, and having workers turn off notifications and check their email just three times each day.

    While checking less often was tough on workers, keeping their email use restricted reduced stress:

    Most participants in our study found it quite difficult to check their email only a few times a day. This is what makes our obvious-in-hindsight findings so striking: People find it difficult to resist the temptation of checking email, and yet resisting this temptation reduces their stress.

    So while it might be difficult to adjust to, try turning off email notifications and setting just a few specific times aside for checking your inbox. You might find you feel better overall, even if the immediate change is tough.

    Make rewards less variable

    Since our addiction to our phones and social media tends to be a result of the variable nature of the rewards we get, making those rewards more predictable can help us cut down on our obsessive behaviors.

    For any service that offers a daily digest of updates rather than immediate notifications, try turning that on. You’ll get a predictable daily roundup of everything that’s new, so you’ll stay in the loop without checking several times a day for a new reward.

    For services that don’t offer this feature built-in, you can use Zapier’s Digest feature to create your own. For any of Zapier’s 750+ connected apps, you can use Digest to create a daily roundup of updates you care about. You can even decide where to have your digest sent, so if email isn’t your thing you could use a Slack channel instead, for instance.

    If you’re struggling with notification overload or addiction to your phone, rest assured you’re not alone. Not only is this a common problem, but it’s a tough one to solve because many product designers want to keep us in this state.

    Being aware of the behavioral research used by product designers can help us understand why we’re so addicted to notifications and checking for updates online, but we need to take further steps to overcome those behaviors.

    The more we can reduce the variability of rewards offered to us by social media and mobile apps, the easier it will be to reduce our reliance on technology and focus more of our time on doing meaningful work.

    Belle B. Cooper

    Belle is an iOS developer, writer, and co-founder of Melbourne-based software company Hello Code. She writes about productivity, lifehacks, and finding ways to do more meaningful work.


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