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meaningful user communication

How to Use Attention Resistance to Fight Notification Fatigue

Hana Mohan

Last updated on

This article is the third part of our content series, "Thoughtful Notifications."

You can check out the first part, "Fighting Back Against Alert Overload," and the second part, "Mindful notifications: How to make an app-to-user communication more meaningful."

By now, most of us have heard of doomscrolling, the act of spending an excessive amount of screen time devoted to the absorption of negative news. Our devices are bathing us in war, protests, the pandemic, and the worst aspects of humanity. The result? Harm to our mental health, from the inability to concentrate on everyday tasks to sleep disruption, anxiety, and depression.

Often, users aren't even choosing this route.

The notifications arriving on our devices are doomalerting us, leaving us saturated in toxic content. We're forced to endure this avalanche of negativity alongside our work reminders, Slack notifications, emails, etc. And that leads to notification fatigue.

Notification fatigue happens when your brain starts tuning out your phone's ringtone and occasional vibration. It's not that you no longer care about the tasks, news, and communication your phone provides, but your brain is fatigued.

Over time, you'll start ignoring your phone whenever there's a notification, sometimes until it's too late. And when you do check your phone and drag down the notification panel, it has over 15 tabs competing for your attention.

Information gets homogenized; since our minds can't deal with the influx, we wind up just swiping it all away. And that means important work messages get dismissed alongside mindless Instagram notifications.

This is something that's even happening to first responders and medical professionals. Since their emergency communication devices alert them to every incident, they wind up desensitized and not as responsive as they should be to legitimate emergencies. Anyone who's ever used the Citizen app to monitor a city neighborhood knows the feeling; you get so many reports of terrible things happening that you eventually start tuning all of them out.

Buried alive

If this happens to essential workers giving critical care, imagine the negative impact on the rest of us who are enduring less meaningful calendar alerts, to-do list reminders, and more on our devices.

Kevin Sonney discusses this phenomenon in "4 tips for preventing notification fatigue."

So many applications, websites, and services want to alert us about every little thing that it is easy to tune them all out. And if we don't do that, we start to suffer from alert fatigue—where we are on edge, just waiting for that next alert and living in dread of it.

Alert fatigue is widespread among people who are on-call for their jobs. It also happens to people who have FOMO—the Fear Of Missing Out—and set alerts on every keyword, hashtag, or mention on social media of a thing they are interested in.

RescueTime, creators of personal time management and productivity software, conducted research in this area and discovered shocking stats about the average knowledge worker…

Ugh! It's no wonder we're all feeling buried alive.

Worth reiterating: This isn't a problem being faced just by teens on TikTok or social media users in general. Professionals are struggling to focus too. Remote workers – and aren't we all at least a little bit remote now? – can't just "digital detox," they need to use online tools to get work done.

And then there's the issue of collaborating in real-time with people in different time zones. Dominic Kent, Director of Communications at Mio, discussed notification fatigue and how working with distant teammates can create additional woes:

What happens when you are constantly bombarded with notifications popping off all over the place? You get them in Slack, Skype, Teams, WebEx, and even Zoom… Add in working with colleagues and contractors in different timezones and the early starter and the late-night inspiration some folks get, and you've got all types of messages firing back and forth throughout the day.

Fighting back

So what's the answer? First of all, app creators need to make notifications meaningful for customers by being mindful of their messaging. That means only sending notifications that are clear in purpose, use a concise and polite tone, and are sent at the right time/place.

Alas, we can't just sit back and wait for tech platforms to think holistically and solve these issues for us. On an individual level, the solution is for us to embrace the concept of digital minimalism (or at least move closer to it).

Digital minimalists are all around us.

They're the calm, happy people who can hold long conversations without furtive glances at their phones. They can get lost in a good book, a woodworking project, or a leisurely morning run.

They can have fun with friends and family without the obsessive urge to document the experience. They stay informed about the news of the day but don't feel overwhelmed by it. They don't experience the "fear of missing out" because they already know which activities provide meaning and satisfaction.

A minimalistic approach is more significant than merely trying to achieve inbox zero or cleaning up your to-do list once a day. It's a holistic life philosophy that dictates how you interact with your devices.

Embracing this attitude (or something like it) is becoming an increasingly vital weapon in our battle to remain productive.

Think of it like taking a Marie Kondo approach to your devices. But instead of asking if a piece of clothing sparks joy, you're wondering, "Does this notification spark productivity?" If not, avoid having messages like it interrupt your future flow.

Personally, I have deleted Slack and email from my phone unless I am traveling. And I keep my phone on "Do Not Disturb" most of the time (while still allowing calls).

Also, I use a monitoring service that can call my phone if I am needed for anything mission-critical. My goal is to enhance my focus and my ability to get into a flow state.

Essentials only

With our devices constantly attempting to hijack our attention, we need to work to reclaim control actively. A great big-picture question to keep asking: What's essential in our lives?

In his book, Essentialism, Greg McKeown argues that "it is a systematic discipline for discerning what is absolutely essential, then eliminating everything that is not, so we can make the highest possible contribution toward the things that really matter."

It means becoming more selective about your information stream to regain control over decision-making and wisely using your time, energy, and attention.

Intentionally shape your digital life to align with what's truly important to you. In" Digital minimalism 101," Jory MacKay offers this advice:

Digital minimalism, in the same way, isn't just about deleting Facebook or learning a better way to clear out your inbox. It's about intentionally shaping your digital life around your values so you can feel good about the apps and tools you use daily…

The problem isn't just the sheer usage of technology. It's how digital technologies lump together the good with the bad like some omnibus bill… The more we accept a life full of attention-sucking apps, devices, and tools, the less time and energy we have for deep thinking that leads to big ideas, real creativity, and satisfaction.

That deep thinking mode is what we all want. We need to clear out the obstacles preventing us from getting there.

Opting out

One idea to get started: Set aside a month-long period and take a break from all optional technologies. Of course, you don't want to cause harm to your professional or personal life. See what you can do without for a while and only let the must-haves (if they exist) back into your life.

The goal is to use technology mindfully instead of falling into manipulative black holes on your phone, Slack, inbox, etc. Author Cal Newport refers to this as attention resistance and compares this shift to changes we've seen in the wellness world.

Suppose the explosion of CrossFit, boutique fitness, and hard-bodied Instagram influencers was a reaction to the increase in processed foods—and, subsequently, obesity, diabetes, and heart disease—in the 20th Century.

In that case, Newport believes, we're going to see a similar explosion of lifestyle trends that counter tech's takeover of the early 21st Century.

If that proves true, movements like digital minimalism aren't just some marginal fad. In health and wellness, they might be the next frontier.

Newport also discusses the importance of training your brain to not seek constant stimulation from your devices:

If you train your brain, "I always have to have stimuli. I can't be bored for a moment," you will have both professional and social ramifications. Professionally, it makes it very difficult to concentrate without distraction… It's precious in our current economy to be able to focus very intensely. To train yourself out of your ability to do that is like economic self-sabotage.

So keep in mind that practicing attention resistance is also a great way to up your value to employers, clients, and teammates.

And while it's incumbent on users to fight back, app creators should really be the ones taking responsibility for their notifications and their impact.

If an app you use is constantly bugging you with alerts, reach out to support and let them know. If a product's notifications leave customers numb and detached, the people creating it should be aware of that.

And if you are an app creator, seek customer feedback on your messaging in an ongoing way and respond to their needs, so your notifications are helping instead of creating more noise in their lives.