How to manage all those notifications

This post is about how you can turn the tide in your battle against the attention-stealing notification.

How to manage all those notifications
Photo by Brett Jordan / Unsplash

Now that more teams have started working remotely or hybridly, you get more notifications than ever. Team chat, Zoom meetings, emails, project management apps, everyone wants to get your attention, and they want it now.

It's not a surprise that many people struggle to get deep work done when working from home. You are constantly being distracted by notifications because what if your manager or client needs something from you now?

This post is about how you can turn the tide in your battle against attention-stealing notifications, so let's first have a look at the things you can do without making any changes to how your team communicates.

Turn off all non-essential notifications

Are you still receiving notifications that don't have any relevance to you?

Useless notifications from mobile games, emails from websites, and group chat messages, if you still have notifications that you never open immediately, it's time to take some action and declutter.

The first step you can take is to go to your notification settings on all of your devices and disable notifications from every app that doesn't need your immediate attention.

This will go a long way in reducing the number of notifications you receive each day.

After you've turned off notifications per app, you should also go one layer deeper, for example, in apps like Slack, Whatsapp, Telegram, Notion, or Jira, mute groups, channels, and people that don't require you to be responsive every minute of the day.

For most groups chats/channels, you are well off only checking them a couple of times a day to see if you missed anything important.

Don't be afraid to turn off your notifications because you think you must appear "online." Working remotely is about trusting you with the freedom to work when you are productive.

Turn off notifications when you are in focus mode

Now that you’ve turned off all non-essential notifications, you can still be easily distracted by emails, phone calls, and messaging channels you haven’t turned off.

While you don't need to turn them off all the time, you should feel comfortable turning them off when you are focusing on something, whether it be work-related or time spent with your friends or family.

With the introduction of IOS 15, Apple added a helpful feature called "focus," they describe the feature as:

“Focus lets you stay in the moment when you need to concentrate or step away from your device. You can customize Focus settings and choose when you want to receive alerts and notifications while letting other people and apps know when you’re busy.”

Exactly what you need to temporarily mute your notifications, but only if you configure it correctly. Don't be afraid to disable notifications from Slack, email, and all other applications that don't have anything to do with the task at hand. And if you need to, you could always make exceptions, for instance, allow messages and calls from your family to come through.

Want to configure focus (Apple), focus assist (Windows), or focus mode (Android)? I’ve included the official guides below:

Put your phone on silent and turn off vibrate

Since my first iPhone, I always put my phone on silent with vibrate enabled. I just don’t see the need for letting anybody in my proximity know that I received a notification or a call.

Notification sounds have become so good that even though my phone is on silent, I still grab my phone when I hear that iconic Apple ringtone. That might tell you just how much of a phone-grabbing trigger those ringtones have become.

Lately, I've taken one step further while configuring focus for my iPhone. I also turned off the vibration for any app notification that, while important, doesn't require my immediate attention. This way I still see the notifications once I unlock my phone, but those notifications no longer distract me while I am writing this article for example.

The beauty of this is all in how well you configure your notification and focus settings on your device. But I encourage you to keep tweaking it until you don't think about it anymore.

Managing notifications, it’s a team effort

Let's look at what you could do as a team to reduce notification anxiety and boost the team's productivity (and likely their morale).

Make asynchronous communication the norm

First of all, normalize asynchronous communication within your team. I've written a blog post about this topic before. Here are a couple of tips from that article:

  1. If it's not an emergency, it can wait.
  2. Nobody should be "stuck" on a question. Always make sure that everyone has enough work to do.
  3. (new) Only @ co-workers in chat when you require their immediate attention, otherwise write out their names without an @ if you are only referring to them.

I encourage you to read the full article, which you can find here.

Reduce the use of “ASAP”

The expression “ASAP” (as soon as possible) has a very different meaning from person to person.

One person uses it to tell you that you should drop everything and get to work, while someone else uses it to indicate the priority of a task without expecting you to drop what you are currently working on.

The same way of thinking applies to the person receiving an ASAP, especially when they are confronted with multiple ASAP’s a day which happens more often than you might think.

Make it a ground rule not to use ASAP in your team communication again. Just include the timeframe you want something done, so instead of:

“Can you have a look at this email ASAP?”

Ask

“Can you please have a look at this email before the end of today? I need some feedback on x, y, and z.”

Which question makes you feel more stressed out? I also think that the second question is much more likely to get the actual thing done. It's formulated well, the time frame is clear, and it tells me exactly what someone expects of me.

Yes, it takes a few more words to type out and some more seconds to think about what exactly you are asking of someone, but it’s so much more efficient and will prevent a lot of stressed-out co-workers.

Have a system in place for the urgent notifications

Last but not least, come up with a system for urgent matters. This can create peace of mind across your team and help everyone start disabling notifications to improve their productivity because they'll know that if someone needs them, they will know.

You could for example create an “SOS” channel in Slack, that everyone in the team has unmuted so that they can be reached in case of an emergency or other important matter that requires their immediate attention.

It’s up to you and your team to decide what this will look like, sit down together and come up with something that works for everyone. Just remember that whatever you come up with should have clear rules and guidelines so that everyone keeps taking the channel seriously.

If you take away one thing from this post

You should decide when you can be distracted because at the end of the day you have work to deliver that requires your time and attention.