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I was staring down at my phone as the group Whatsapp messages came rolling in. One after the other. Making plans, changing plans, laughing at jokes, posting pictures, sending a string of emojis. All within the space of a few minutes. I felt anxious – stressed, even – looking down at my phone when I was meant to be concentrating on a conversation with my sister.
I turned it on silent but could still see it flashing out of the corner of my eye. I turned it over, face down. Anxiety loomed over me. It was overwhelming.
Part of me wanted to keep up and read every single message. Not because they were important, but because I wanted to be in the loop. And also because if I didn’t look there and then, I’d have 187 unread messages to go back to. The other part of me wanted to turn my phone off and not look at it for a few hours.
Push notifications make us slaves to our phones. They take away the control we have in our relationships with our devices. They choose when we respond to our friends and when we divert attention away from what we’re doing.
They choose how present we are in the moment, by forcing us to divide our time. We feel uneasy about the distraction our phones are causing us, yet we still allow it to buzz, beep, or vibrate whenever someone else decides it should.
Yet we all know why we like notifications – they make us feel wanted, a sort of technological affection. It beats the feeling of pressing the home button on your phone and seeing nothing by a mile. But in our ever-growing struggle for concentration in today’s world, notifications are making things even messier.
“We give our phones immense power when we allow them to nudge us with updates throughout the day,” Professor Adam Alter from New York University, who has done research in this area, tells me.
“We’d never give the same power to another person – imagine telling someone that you’re happy for them to tap you on the shoulder every few minutes. Our phones are just as intrusive, and we give them that power.”
It happened again at work a few weeks later. A group chat buzzing, full of people who had the headspace and time to engage in a conversation about nothing of huge importance. I replied once and 16 messages followed. While replying, my phone alerted me about a Twitter retweet, my eBay parcel being dispatched and my FitBit telling me I hadn’t done enough steps that day.
A few days later, when I was at home watching my 17-year-old sister’s phone become inundated with notifications, that I realised it had gone too far.
She had been notified that someone was typing on Snapchat. Three seconds later it flashed up again: someone had liked a photo on her Instagram. Another like. A Snapchat message. Someone favourited a tweet she retweeted. Four people were active in her group chat. A message from a friend. A Facebook like. A game she was playing was expiring. It was never-ending. Looking at it gave me a headache. I quickly realised my phone isn’t much better.
I wanted to do something about it, but was it actually going to make me feel better? Apparently so. A 2014 study found a third of the smartphone notifications we receive worsen our mood. But what I found more interesting was research back in 2015.
A study known as the ‘Do Not Disturb Challenge’ asked men and women to turn off notifications for 24 hours. The findings showed people were more productive and less distracted after their first notification-free 24 hours, although some people revealed anxiety about missing messages from friends.
The experiment also had a positive long-term impact. When the researchers caught up with the participants again in 2017, they found it had encouraged two-thirds of participants to change their notification settings, reducing their long-term tendency for distraction and stress.
It was enough to convince me. I wanted to go completely cold turkey and turn off all notifications, but I knew that would be unrealistic for me (I’d probably end up checking my phone even more “incase of an emergency”).
So I turned off all the notifications for unnecessary apps: photo apps, eBay, FitBit, Pinterest, Twitter, Facebook, Facebook Messenger, O2 priority. I whittled it down to the point where my phone would only flash for three reasons: 1) a Whatsapp message from one person (not a group), 2) a text message, 3) a phone call. Nothing else.
That was four weeks ago. The first few days I was so hyperaware that I could have messages and notifications without being alerted that – dare I say it – I think I checked my phone even more. But as they say, it takes 21 days for habits to break and although it happened gradually, I realised over the coming weeks that I was going a few hours (I know, so long) without looking.
Sure, there were times I’d press the home button, see nothing, so go into all the apps to double check whether I had any very important messages. But this was minimal. I guess my goal wasn’t necessarily to stop going on my phone, it was to control the attention I gave to it as and when I wanted to.
I got used to the idea that I might go into Whatsapp and suddenly see a group chat had been going for the past few hours, but I was at peace with the fact I was dedicating time to reading and replying when it suited me. Throughout the day I would reply to messages from friends usually if I’d received a notification but, for the most of it, I chose when I was online and able to respond. Once you get a taste of a phone that stays quiet, you’ll never go back.