Reduce distraction and stress: Turn off notifications from messaging apps

Recently, I made a small change that turned out to make a huge difference in how distracted I felt and how much stress I experienced. It was a little change that I’d been considering for a while but didn’t quite have the guts to make. Now that I’ve implemented it, I’m not going back.

Namely, I stopped getting notifications from messaging apps. I still have the apps on my phone, but I only open them when I choose to. My attention is no longer drawn to them continuously as messages come in.

The bleak past

Over the past few months, I’ve mostly been at home (sound familiar?) because we’re in lockdown here in the Netherlands. As I was going about my day, messages kept coming in to my phone. I’d be having breakfast with my family–a message comes in. Cleaning up the kitchen–a message comes in. Trying to work–a message comes in. Playing with William–a message comes in. I felt drawn to check the message even if I knew I should wait and shouldn’t interrupt what I was doing. It took willpower to not check it, and this constant battle was exhausting.

Of course, this problem could be avoided if I simply put my phone out of sight. Then I wouldn’t see that I’ve received messages and wouldn’t be distracted. However, I tried this for a long time, and it didn’t work for me. I often ended up inadvertently glancing at my phone, almost just to check whether there was anything I needed to respond to. I also use my phone as a clock, so then every time I checked the time, I’d also see if I had gotten any new messages.

This all led to a feeling of unease. Even if I didn’t read the new message, it still weighed on my mind, as though there was something I was forgetting, something I still had to get to. Like an item on my to-do list that I kept checking off, but it constantly kept undoing itself and had to be done again.

If I did check the message, it was almost never something urgent. It was usually a nice message, maybe something funny or maybe a friend reaching out, but it still drew my attention away from my chosen activity.

And I’m all about setting priorities and following through with them, right? It felt very uncharacteristic for me to be pulled away by distractions the entire day, and yet this was too powerful for me to resist.

So I decided to take action. If I couldn’t fight the temptation the whole time, I had to eliminate it.

Making the plunge!

I went ahead and stopped all notifications on messaging apps. This included WhatsApp, Viber, and Messenger. I also turned off notifications from Gmail and Mattermost (similar to Slack) already a while ago. I always had notifications from Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram turned off.

Now, I have to say, this is not technically easy to do. Some apps make it impossible for you to turn off notifications from within the app, or maybe it’s possible to turn them off for 12 hours max. Very clever! So I went into Settings -> Notifications and completely disabled notifications from the apps I had chosen. Ha!

At first, I felt great fear of missing out (FOMO, anyone?). Maybe something important would come my way and I wouldn’t respond in time. To be fair, when I turned off email notifications a couple of years ago, I had the same fear, but I never ever missed an important email or didn’t respond to it in time. Maybe it’s just that there are very few urgent matters in my job.

To be fair, communicating with Jacob, my husband, could be urgent. Perhaps he was taking care of William and needed to ask me something. We agreed that he’d send me a message (an SMS), which I do receive notifications for. He could also call, of course. The same goes for William’s daycare; they call if they need something, and in that case I answer right away.

Riding off into the sunset

The way this works for me is that I still check my apps often. I end up responding in a timely manner most of the time, and I don’t think anyone has noticed a change from before.

The big difference is that I respond when I choose to. It ends up feeling like a break I enjoy: I connect with my friends, I see a funny image, I have a fun moment. It no longer feels like an item on the to-do list that constantly keeps coming back up and I never quite get it done. This is the biggest win for me.

And I still respond to my friends and family and reach out to people. I check my messages quite often, maybe a bit more often than I’d like to, but the feeling associated with it is completely different. I highly recommend this to anyone who feels controlled by their messaging apps. And I certainly recommend it for social media–there’s really nothing urgent there.

William also enjoys my phone, even if he can’t (yet) access my messaging apps.

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