Turn off notifications and break free of your online chains

We fret about distraction, yet choose to allow a device in our pocket to beep or buzz whenever someone else decides it should

Everyone complains, these days, about the distractions of digital technology, and rightly so, since the problem really matters. How we spend our days, to quote the essayist Annie Dillard, is how we spend our lives, and if you spend too much of yours on pointless emails, or even more pointless Twitter feuds, you risk dying filled with regret. But it has come to my attention that a significant proportion of these complainers (perhaps including you?) haven’t turned off their notifications. That’s right: they bemoan how many things tug at their attention, how time feels so fragmented, yet they have their phones, and maybe laptops, configured to make an annoying little noise every time someone sends them an email or friend request, or likes a photo they posted; or when some app they’ve downloaded feels starved of affection, so decides to pester them with news of a special offer.

I have some advice for these people. Perhaps you can guess what it is. Turn off your damned notifications! All of them, if you like, but above all email, social media, plus those generated by apps you rarely use or that couldn’t ever legitimately demand your urgent attention. (Web-connected smoke alarms and suchlike are another matter, as is breaking news, if you like that sort of thing.) You fret about distraction, yet choose to allow a device in your pocket to beep or buzz whenever someone else decides it should? I’m looking at you now with the same expression of withering incredulity that Angela Merkel wore for much of her press conference with Donald Trump in March.

In the contemporary struggle for concentration, notifications aren’t just low-hanging fruit; they’re fruit that long ago fell to the ground and now lie rotting in a maggot-infested mess. To live with frequent notifications is to outsource decisions about the allocation of your attention to a vast committee of friends, colleagues and strangers, most of whom have no incentive to put your interests first: they want an answer to their email right now, or more engagement for their app. And you know who else spends all day and night attached to a device that causes them to be abruptly interrupted to enforce compliance with someone else’s agenda? People on parole or under house arrest wearing ankle monitors, that’s who.

The alternative is obvious: check incoming streams of information, especially email, when you decide to. Even if that’s every 10 minutes, which it shouldn’t be, you’ll still be reclaiming some power. (If you use Gmail with Chrome, also install the “Open Compose Window” extension, which lets you write emails without seeing, and being diverted by, all the new ones in your inbox.) As the Australian philosopher Damon Young points out in his book Distraction, we sometimes secretly welcome the interruptions we claim to hate, since without them we’re forced to confront the question of whether we’re using life well. But if we avoid that question, we fritter our years away. This is a hard challenge. But the first step is easy: turn off your notifications! Thank you for your attention.



Oliver Burkeman

The GuardianTramp

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