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.

Try this to avoid getting distracted by your phone

At the bootcamp course on organization and time management I gave recently, one person, Sam, shared that he wanted to get distracted by his phone less often. We all nodded in agreement.

Most of us recognize this, right? You’re sitting at your desk, working hard, finally in the flow, and suddenly your phone buzzes. Immediately, you need to know what that was. Did you receive a message? An email? Or is it a notification from some app? And just like that, you’re out of the flow.

Separation anxiety from your phone

Sam admitted to being a bit of an extreme case. If his phone buzzed and he didn’t check it immediately, he became very anxious. The thought itself made him so uncomfortable that he shuffled in his chair as he said this.

I asked, “What would happen if you left your phone on silent in another room for the morning?”

“Oh, no, no, no,” he said defensively and brought his phone to his chest. Naturally, his phone had been lying on the desk in front of him during the entire meeting.

But Sam was acutely aware of how much his attachment to his phone was interfering with his work. He said that he was completing significantly less work when he was being interrupted and that he often took rather long breaks as a result of phone interruptions.

“How about if you left your phone with a colleague for 15 minutes? Could you do that?” I asked.

“Yeah, sure. I could even do an hour,” replied Sam, suddenly brave.

“That’s very good, but let’s start with 30 minutes then,” I suggested. “Set your phone on silent and give it to your colleague. In 30 minutes, you can have it back, and you can check all your messages and notifications.”

This was doable for Sam, but for more severe cases I’d start with as short a period as 5 minutes without a phone. Some people experience severe separation anxiety when they don’t have access to their phone, so we need to start small. The key is to start with a manageable exposure to the unpleasant situation (e.g., 5 minutes without access to your phone) and, once that goes well, gradually build it up to longer periods.

My system for dealing with my phone

I am also prone to being distracted by my phone, so I follow a system:

  1. Put my phone on silent. (If you want important numbers like your family members to be able to call you, you can set this up in Do Not Disturb mode.)
  2. Place my phone on a high shelf where it’s out of reach from where I sit at my desk.
  3. Set a timer for 45 minutes.
  4. Start working.
  5. Once the timer goes off, get up. (If I need to finish something, I can keep working for 5 more minutes max, for a total of 50 minutes, and then I get up.)
  6. Check my phone and respond to messages. (I don’t check social media at this time because I find that completely distracts me from my work.)
  7. Go to the bathroom or take a walk down the hall.
  8. Repeat.

That’s what works for me to avoid being distracted by my phone but to also remain responsive to messages.

How about you? How do you deal with your phone? Let me know by commenting below or on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn.

Featured image by from Pexels