My Phone, My Notifications

Posted 16 Jun 2017

I recently came to the revelation that notifications on my phone used to be cool, but they’re not cool any more. Usually, a notification means that I need to do something. This means that someone else (by proxy via my phone) is controlling me. It occured to me that if I could more meaningfully control the notifications I was getting, I would feel more in control of myself and my time.

Here’s what I’m currently doing:

Turned off auto email sync on my phone

I realized that the best time to do email is when I have time and energy. That’s when it makes sense for me to be doing email (e.g. if I am bored). Email notifications indicate when it was important for someone else to get my response – that doesn’t mean that it was important to me to send a response.

The only problem with this on my Android phone is that when I send emails, they don’t get put into my Sent folder properly. I’m not sure why this is … maybe it’s because the “Sent” folder is also not synchronizing?

I originally did this because I didn’t have that much data while on vacation. But I that when I did this, it made it possible to really feel like I could actually “disconnect”.

Realize that I’m not really that important

Once I learned (on vacation) that things would go on just fine without my responding to every notification, it made it much more possible to relax and disconnect. In practical terms, the lab will not burn down while I am not there. One of my mentors told me, “The best students will surprise you with what they’d done while you were away; a typical student will be right where you left them; ditto with a struggling student, and you’re unlikely to rescue them while you’re on vacation.” While this seems kind of a fatalist approach, it really eases the pressure of trying to stay on top of things.

Put my phone on do-not-disturb mode

On my phone, this means that it doesn’t ring or vibrate at all. This has had a few interesting consequences: first, it means I am not particularly responsive when my friends text or call; second, it means I am not interrupted doing whatever I am doing, and third, perhaps most importantly, it means that when I am actually available to be reached (i.e. I am physically holding my phone in my hand), I am usually happy to receive the call.

Get a spinner or a fidget box

I got a fidget box on a whim one day. On its own, it is not a big thing; however, for the first few days after I had it, I started picking it up rather than checking my phone. What I came to realize was that checking my phone was a reflex and a habit. Fiddling around with the spinner or fidget box means that this reflex and habit was not as deleterious to my attentional flow as futzing around with my phone.


As someone who prided himself on immediately responding to texts, phone calls and emails, these strategies were really hard to put into practice in the beginning. In fact, they came into existence for me not because I had intentionally done anything. Rather, they had originated as accidental incidents, where I had turned off the ringer when I was in class, only to find out many hours later. But, I realized just how much sanity it returned to me. It allowed me to concentrate when I really needed to concentrate.

One other thing I realize at this point is that this strategy only works for me if no one else in my social circle does the same thing. So, if I am regularly in contact with you, sorry, these tips and tricks are not for you.

But, fundamentally, one thing I like about this strategy is that it puts me back into control of my notifications, my phone, and effectively, my life. I like to deal with notifications on my terms. That’s a good feeling.

Post-script: My wife read this post and said, “Wait, so I can’t reach you in an emergency!?” Oops.