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How Fixing Notifications Changed My Relationship With My Phone

Unread texts and emails piled up. Apps pinged me so frequently that I began to feel phantom vibrations in my pocket. I’d turn on Do Not Disturb, only to be met with a long list of alerts once I was ready to be disturbed. I wanted to throw my phone into the sea and go off the grid.

That all changed after I decided which notifications I really needed and tried a few key settings to restore my phone-life balance.

Apps ask permission to send push notifications and we oblige because, sure, it’d be nice to know when packages are delivered. But alerts are the ultimate distraction. Once we’re interrupted, even by something as low-stakes as a like on social media, it can take almost a half-hour to get back to the original task.

My path out of push-alert purgatory started with advice from

Max Stossel,

chief executive of Social Awakening, a group that promotes healthy social-media habits. He said turning off notifications that don’t come from humans—think text messages, not Yelp promoting takeout options nearby—helped him use devices more intentionally.

So I nuked all notifications except for those from friends, family and co-workers trying to reach me. After a week, I reintroduced alerts from a few other apps. (Without Google Calendar notifications, I was late to—and missed—meetings.) Still, starting from zero and choosing which apps I needed cut pings roughly in half.

Batch Notifications and Disable Badges

I still wanted updates on breaking news and shared photo-album additions, just not buzzing me right away.

The iPhone’s Scheduled Summary batches notifications from selected apps at a specific time. (There isn’t an equivalent for Android devices, but more on that system’s notification tools below.) 

Scheduled Summary is an iOS feature that batches notifications for selected times.



Photo:

Nicole Nguyen/The Wall Street Journal

Scheduled Summary is for nonurgent stuff. At 8 a.m. and 6 p.m., I get a bundle of notifications. I’m still connected, but without constant interruptions.

And that might do us all some good: In a 2019 study, Duke University researchers found that people who received batched notifications reported being in a better mood than those who got immediate notifications or received none at all.

Plenty of other powerful forces keep you glued to your phone, of course. (Looking at you, mindless social-media scrolling!) But adjusting notifications played a big part in reducing the pull my phone has over me.

If you too feel overwhelmed by digitally induced dings, these steps can help you feel more relaxed, present and productive.

Limit real-time notifications to your most important apps. Assess which notifications are actually useful—and which you don’t ever click. Go to the Settings app, then Notifications, to turn alerts on or off. Start by enabling real-time alerts for time-sensitive messages, such as text, calendar, security camera and critical weather notifications. Disable the rest. Then, after a week, re-enable other apps you missed.

You can also take an ad hoc approach. On iPhones, if you receive an unexpected interruption, prevent that app from disturbing you again with a gesture I call “The Gentle Left Swipe”: Swipe down from the top of the screen to expand notifications. Then swipe left on the alert slowly, until you see the Options button to mute, disable or configure alert settings for the app. Careful: Swipe too quickly, and you’ll clear the notification.

On iPhones, gently swipe left on notifications to quickly turn off, mute or change settings for alerts.

On Android, long press the notification, then tap the settings icon to get to alert settings.

Group notifications into a scheduled digest. If you have an iPhone running iOS 15 or newer, use Scheduled Summary to batch alerts for delivery at specified times.

In Settings, go to Notifications, then tap Scheduled Summary to enable. Here, you can set your delivery schedule, and view how many notifications you get a week, on average, from each app. For me, Messages tops the list with 382 (!) weekly alerts.

Slide the toggles next to the apps to add them to your summary. If you’re afraid you’ll miss something, you can read the summary early by enabling the Show Next Summary setting.

On Android, you can’t batch alerts, but you can set apps to deliver notifications “silently.” Your phone screen won’t light up, make a sound or vibrate, but the alert will appear when you swipe down from the top of the screen.

Use Do Not Disturb, liberally. This setting silences your phone and prevents pop-ups from lighting up your screen. On iPhone and Android, you can schedule Do Not Disturb to turn on automatically or enable it manually. 

Just let close contacts know how to break through Do Not Disturb in case there’s an emergency. You can allow alerts from repeat callers, for example. On iOS, you can also create custom Do Not Disturb profiles to allow notifications from specific people or apps.

On Android devices, mute notifications from all work-related apps from the app library.



Photo:

Nicole Nguyen/The Wall Street Journal

On Android, a focus mode can hide notifications from selected apps and prevent you from using those apps. You can also pause notifications only from work-related apps, if your company uses Google services. Go to your App Library, then tap Turn off work profile.

Dial into in-app settings for more control. On both iOS and Android, some apps offer more granular notification controls within the app. For example, if you have multiple Gmail accounts, you can turn off notifications for your work inbox, while maintaining High Priority messages from your personal account when you’re on vacation. The work chat app Slack offers many ways to customize alerts, including special notifications for group channels, which you can set to be pinged only if you’re directly “@” mentioned.

Turn off red badges. Those little dots signal that there’s something in the app for you—an unread text, a new gaming level to be unlocked, over 10,000 emails you haven’t opened yet, etc. Get rid of them in iOS by disabling badges in Notifications settings or turning off notification dots in Android.

Once I disabled them for most apps, I realized I didn’t need the additional reminder, or the distraction.

SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS

How do you handle notifications on your phone? Join the conversation below.

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Write to Nicole Nguyen at [email protected]

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