Notifications: Your Train Of Thought Has Been Derailed

Notifications are bullets in the war for attention. They’re something to be protected against, yet most people welcome them. Be judicious.

The Allure Of Notifications

Notifications are increasingly a part of all technology. You’ll be most familiar with them from the home screen on your phone. But they pop up everywhere: banners coming in from the top of the screen, blinking numbers in red circles on web apps, badges on app launch buttons, and so on.

Each notification is weighted with possibility. That message could say anything. The photo you’re tagged in could be incredible. This news story could change your view of the world. And memetically, they’re created to inspire this feeling: app creators measure notification engagement rates, A/B testing over time to find the most alluring way to pull you in.

Derailing The Train Of Thought

Notifications are an assault on focused thought. You might be pondering something, following the thread – but there comes the ping noise, your phone vibrates, and instantly your eyes turn to the machine next to you. Or you instinctively reach into your pocket to take a glance.

In the war for attention, every notification is a bullet. It’s something you have to deal with. With smartphones, you’re attacked on three of your senses: visually, your phone screen flashes. Sonically, you hear the pinging sound. Even physically, you’ll feel the vibration on the table, in your bag, or against your leg.

Your train of thought doesn’t stand a chance. You can’t keep your mind working in one direction while you’re getting pinged by every app you’ve ever used.

Protect Yourself

Notifications are something to be protected against, not granted liberally. This is something we eventually develop an intuitive understanding for, when stakes are high. People will use software to set timed blocks on things like Facebook, and close their IM/email programs when doing deep work on a problem. But that’s only on desktop. Nowadays, we’re all carrying around potent, always-on notification machines in our pockets.

Minimize your exposure to notifications. Wherever possible, turn them off – especially for things that aren’t productive in the slightest. Messaging and phone call notifications at least keep you in direct communication with others. Work email notifications will drag you into the office even on your time off. Don’t do that if you don’t need to. Social media is even worse: it’s something you absolutely do not need to do, yet it yields the highest potential memetic value.

If notifications are cocaine, social media notifications are crack. They promise an even greater high, even quicker. Yet over time, you’re doing nothing but damaging yourself.

For focused thought, this is an absolute necessity. Turn vibrate off, and put your phone down. Grant notification permissions only to the most essential apps. Every app you grant notifications to is getting a key to enter your brain at will. You need to be the gatekeeper.

And if you’re really struggling, try tossing your phone. At least to the other side of the room.


Keep your thought clear, and guard your mind garden from invasive species. Information has potent effects on us all. Want to learn more? Join thousands: subscribe for email updates and follow me on Twitter, where I also post daily.

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