Your phone’s notification settings and the meaning of life

21st July, 2022

Switching to a new phone is easy enough these days. The wheezing older model formed a huddle with the shiny oversized new thing, and within a few minutes had effected a near-complete digital handover. One exception was the notification settings. As they reset to the default, my new phone began to beep and buzz incessantly, like the strange offspring of R2-D2 and a cheap vibrator.

A photo app started trying to sell me a print album. A train ticket app prodded me not to forget my upcoming journeys. The Financial Times app urged me to read the latest headlines. More disturbing, Google News installed itself and did the same thing, except for news sources I don’t follow and don’t want to. Most absurd of all, every single incoming email announced itself with a beep and a teasing extract on my home screen. Fortunately, I don’t have social media on my smartphone; I could only imagine the cacophony if I did.

This was all simple enough to fix. Calendar, text messages and phone calls are now the only apps allowed to interrupt me. Still, it was annoying. I wondered: surely everyone switches off most notifications, right? Right?

Perhaps not. I stumbled upon an essay by Guardian columnist Coco Khan marvelling at how much calmer she felt after turning off notifications. She described this peace as completely unexpected, “an unintended consequence of a tiny tweak”. She went on to explain that WhatsApp alone had sent her more than 100 notifications a day and that she had only muted the apps because she’d been on holiday in Bali, and the phone was buzzing all night. As well it might, given that social media notifications were still on. She felt calmer when this stopped. Who could have predicted that?

On the face of it, it is absurd that she was surprised. But it is always easier to be wise about other people. I read Khan’s account as a cautionary tale for all of us. We humans can adapt to a lot; it’s easy to sleepwalk into a state of chronic stress and distraction without ever reflecting that things could be different.

Khan’s experience seems common. One of the most robust findings in behavioural science is that default settings wield an outsize influence over our choices, even when it is trivial to change those defaults. It is no wonder that many apps pester us endlessly, by default. App makers clearly believe we’ll put up with it, and they may be right.

One study, published in 2015 by researchers at the Technical University of Berlin, found that on average six out of seven smartphone apps were left in their default notification settings. Given how many notifications are clearly valueless, this suggests that in the face of endless notifications, many smartphone users have learnt helplessness.

Of course we sometimes want to know immediately when something has happened. As I am fond of saying, a doorbell is more convenient than going to the door every 90 seconds to see if anyone is there. Although that trade-off would change if the doorbell itself were sounding every few minutes, day and night. But most of us have too many notifications enabled.

“Notification” is a dishonest euphemism, anyway. The correct word is “interruption”, because it prompts the right question: how often do I want my phone to interrupt me?

A 2017 study by Martin Pielot of Telefónica Research and Luz Rello of the Human-Computer Interaction Institute investigated how people felt when their phones were entirely silenced. Pielot and Rello stumbled, revealingly, right at the start. They tried to recruit volunteers to mute everything for a week, but gave up because so few people were willing to do so, and those who were willing would be such outliers as to provide no insight about the rest of us.

So the researchers tried again, with a 24-hour “Do Not Disturb” challenge. All interruptions were blocked, even incoming phone calls. The results were intriguing: people felt less distracted and more productive, but they also felt cut off and worried about being unresponsive. There was no sign that they were less stressed or more relaxed, but perhaps that is not a surprise. It is not completely restful to know that your boss may be infuriated because you are not picking up your phone.

Not many of us can adopt Kraftwerk’s approach: the great electronic band silenced the telephone in their studio. If you wanted to call them, fine. They would answer, but only by prior arrangement and at precisely the agreed time.

There is a happy medium here, I am sure, and it will vary from person to person. But I suspect Kraftwerk are closer to the optimal compromise than are my smartphone defaults. Oliver Burkeman puts it best in his book Four Thousand Weeks: our attention is not just a scarce resource; it is life itself. “At the end of your life, looking back, whatever compelled your attention from moment to moment is simply what your life will have been.” Glance at yet another notification, and you are quite literally paying with your life.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 24 June 2022.

The paperback of The Data Detective was published on 1 February in the US and Canada. Title elsewhere: How To Make The World Add Up.

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