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Taming the phone 1: Minimising notifications

mail-notificationsMy phone keeps trying to take over my life. I can’t blame it. After all, that’s what it’s been designed to do. But because I’m Christian and minister of the gospel, God is supposed to be in charge of my life. So one of my jobs as a Christian minister is to work out how to use my phone without being used by it. A key way to do this is to minimise notifications.


(This blog series is about habits and personal organisation structures I’ve developed over the years for “sustainable sacrifice” in Christian ministry. They’re specific to my own situation, so if you think any of them are worthwhile you may have to adapt them. For more information about the purpose of this series see the first post: Slip, slop, slap for sustainable sacrifice.)


Notifications are those sounds, vibrations, little red numbers on apps, pop-ups, friendly slide-in-and-out banner things, etc. that apps use to get my attention. Notifications are often useful because they tell me when something needs my immediate attention. The problem is, the phone and app developers have their own ideas about what needs my immediate attention. And those ideas are usually driven by their profits, not by my needs as a Christian and a minister of the gospel.

Notification overload

Phone designers (in my case Apple), along with the app designers, need my constant attention. They rely on me for their income. If I stop paying attention to their devices and their apps, they lose money. So they maximise notifications. They always set the default notification setting as “on”, and they notify me about whatever they can, as often as possible.

man-with-a-megaphone-1467100857wJbThis is an effective strategy for them, because it plays on two of my key motivators: fear and desire.

Firstly, fear. When a notification appears, it instantly plays on my FOMO (fear of missing out). The notification implies that something, somewhere is happening that might be important. So I’d better stop and check it out, right now. Notifications also play on my desire. A notification tells me that something else might be more gratifying than the thing I’m currently doing. My fear and desire, then, work in tandem to motivate me to act on the notification. And even if I choose to ignore the notification, it adds a tiny bit to my fear of missing out, and hence my underlying stress. If it keeps happening, day after day, the stress accumulates. My life ends up becoming a continual game of exhausting emotional whack-a-mole, all in service of somebody else’s business model.

Minimising notifications

How do I fight this? It’s pretty straightforward. I opt out before I opt in. That is, by default, I turn all notifications off. Then I choose, deliberately and sparingly, to turn certain notifications on. Which notifications? The notifications that are clearly relevant to my life as a Christian and my role as a minister of the gospel. My task is to bring God’s word to people, and to love those people in my care. So I only switch on notifications where I need to be immediately informed about something in order to do these tasks. And every time I install a new app, I make sure its notifications are “off” unless there’s a very good reason to turn them on.

My notifications

Notifications MinimisedHere are all the notifications I currently have switched “on” on my phone:

  • Incoming phone calls (including Facetime)
  • Incoming text messages
  • Calendar reminders
  • Reminders from Omnifocus (my task management system)

That is, quite honestly, all the notifications I have on right now. I don’t need any other notifications in my role as a Christian and a minister of the gospel. So all other notifications are off.

Does this sound a little extreme? Does this strategy mean I miss out on important things (e.g. emails)? Actually, no. I’m able to minimise my notifications so much because I also have what David Allen (of GTD fame) calls a “trusted system”. That is, I have a whole set of other habits and structures so I won’t miss out on anything important. For example, in my current ministry role as a teacher at a theological college, I really don’t need to be informed as soon as someone sends me an email. I’m not a professional email answerer. However, I do check my email at regular enough times, and I have a system for getting to inbox zero each time I do check my email. This means I feel in charge of my email, rather than feeling that my email is in charge of me. This massively reduces my email-related stress. I do the same for Facebook, etc.

In some of my future posts on this topic, I’ll describe individual parts of my trusted system. For now, I just want to make the point that deliberately minimising notifications is really helpful for a life of sustainable sacrifice.

The posts in the series so far

  1. Slip, slop, slap for sustainable sacrifice
  2. Taming the phone 1: Minimising notifications
  3. Taming the phone 2: Putting apps in their place
  4. Building blocks of a trusted system
  5. Capturing wild commitments
  6. Living life in “the zone”: using zones to regulate life
  7. Inboxes. Getting all the stuff out of them. Every day.
  8. Who’s afraid of to-do lists? Making tasks that work
  9. The weekly review: Planning for sustainable sacrifice
  10. The trusted system: a week in the life

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