Productivity Hacking: Notifications as Distraction-by-Default

This is the fifteenth post in a series on productivity1. This article adds to content from a workshop I led at The Makers Summit.

In college I had a professor who, for many years, held an executive position at one of the largest advertising agencies in the world. Everyone loved his class because theory collided with decades of experience and practical advice.

Several lessons he taught us probably skimmed the surface initially because of our lack of age and experience, but, looking back, were they were extremely valuable bits of wisdom that I wish I’d paid more attention to. One story I’ll never forget. As he rose in the ranks at the agency, my professor had made a promise to his family: “no matter when or where or what meeting I’m in, if you call and ask for me, I’ll be available to you.” The man walked out of the most important meetings with the most important clients to take calls from his family.

I’m not such a luddite that I would exchange the powers of modern communication and technology for an age of landlines and secretaries, but part of me envies a clear way to separate signal from noise (if these three people contact me, answer, always).


The devices we use today—both personally and for work—are set up, by default, to notify us of almost everything. If you purchase a stock iPhone today, go through standard setup and don’t install any third-party apps, you’ll get notifications about email, iMessages (and SMS), phone calls, app updates, calendar events and more (if you use the Reminders app, etc.). These notifications in and of themselves aren’t bad. In fact, they’ve helped many people bring positive structure into their lives. The problem is that the our choice when it comes to notifications is often all-or-nothing.

In a world where your personal number is often your work number and business is expected to be conducted via email, social media channels and, increasingly, iMessage or SMS, our personal and professional lives have been blended together by a singular device that goes everywhere with us. When we need to be in the know (when we’re on the move, for example), all of our notifications in one place can be a blessing. When we need to focus, though, we don’t have many options for separating signal from noise.

Research has shown that distractions gut productivity and you need focused, uninterrupted time to do your best work (as I’ve written about before). We know from reality, though, that some interruptions are more important than focused work, like family emergencies. Enter the almighty iPhone, as an example. Apple has left much to be desired in the line of customized notifications (especially considering that it has been a top-seller for almost a decade2). 

You can choose to allow calls from only your Favorite contacts when your phone is in silent mode. That’s a great feature, but you’ll likely want to allow calls from different people at different times. For example, you might want to hear from a friend visiting town or a business colleague who will have news to report after an important meeting. The concept of that person being a ‘Favorite’ contact doesn’t apply—there is only a temporary need to be interrupted by a particular party.

You can also choose to be notified of people calling twice within the span of 3 minutes. That feature makes sense as far as frantic attempts to get in touch with you, but asking family members to remember ‘to call twice within 3 minutes if it’s an emergency’ feels very low-tech compared to what else the device is capable of.


Lastly, there are some options in Apple’s Mail app for senders you designate as VIP contacts3.

There aren’t any customizations available for iMessage (or SMS via the Messages app). Note that all of these examples are only for a core set of ‘standard’ digital communication channels (phone, email and iMessage/SMS), not any third-party apps or even browser-based notifications.

Having some features is better than having none, but the options listed above feel extremely primitive relative to how advanced and elegant the iOS operating system has become on the whole. (I’m unfamiliar with options on the Android platform, so I’d love to hear from you in the comments if they’ve provided more flexibility.)

All-or-nothing in the real world

The current, all-or-nothing nature of notifications is a difficult problem and I haven’t found a great solution. You can, of course, try to be diligent about setting expectations around availability and response times, but moving beyond the closest family, friends and colleagues forces the average person to ask the world to conform to their schedule. While there is wisdom in mastering how your time is used, striking a balance between such polarized options seems like a strange requirement with all of the technological tools available to us today. (Humanity has always been required to strike a balance, of course, but as I’ve written before, the digital world we live in presents different challenges4)

Thankfully, there are companies like Projector5 applying more advanced thinking and technology to notifications. I’ll be interested to see what they come up with. In the meantime, I’ll continue to search for a suitable solution.


1. You can read the story behind this blog series and find links to all of the resources here.2. You can see a historical listing of best-selling mobile phones on Wikipedia.3. You can learn more about designating a contact as VIP in Apple’s Mail app on Apple’s support site.4. You can read my original post about the unique challenges of our digital world and distractions here.5. You can read more about Projector on their website.

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