Switching to a new phone is easy enough these days. The squeaky older model tangled up with the shiny, oversized new thing and had accomplished a near-complete digital transfer in minutes. An exception was the notification settings. When they went back to default, my new phone started beeping and buzzing incessantly, like the strange offspring of R2-D2 and a cheap vibrator.
A photo app tried to sell me a printed album. A train ticket app urged me not to forget my upcoming trips. The Financial Times app urged me to read the latest headlines. More disturbingly, Google News installed itself and did the same, except news sources I don’t follow and don’t want. Most absurd of all, each incoming email announced itself with a beep and a teasing snippet on my home screen. Luckily I don’t have social media on my smartphone; I could only imagine the cacophony when I did.
This was all easy enough to fix. Calendar, texts, and phone calls are now the only apps allowed to interrupt me. Still, it was annoying. I was wondering: everyone turns off most notifications anyway, right? Right?
Maybe not. I came across an essay by Guardian columnist Coco Khan, who was amazed at how much calmer she felt after turning off the notifications. She described this calm as completely unexpected, “an unintended consequence of a minor adjustment”. She explained that WhatsApp alone had sent her more than 100 notifications a day and that she had only muted the apps because she was on vacation in Bali and the phone was buzzing all night. That could also be, since the notifications on social media were still on. She felt calmer when this stopped. Who could have predicted that?
At first glance, it’s absurd that she was surprised. But it’s always easier to be wise about other people. I read Khan’s story as a cautionary tale for all of us. We humans can adapt to many things; it’s easy to sleepwalk into a state of chronic stress and distraction without ever thinking that things could be different.
Khan’s experience seems common. One of the most robust findings in behavioral science is that defaults exert an excessive influence on our choices, even if it is trivial to change those defaults. It’s no wonder that many apps bother us endlessly by default. App makers clearly believe we’ll put up with it, and maybe they’re right.
A study published in 2015 by researchers at the Technical University of Berlin found that, on average, six out of seven smartphone apps remained in their default notification settings. Given the number of reports that are clearly worthless, this suggests that many smartphone users have learned helplessness in the face of endless reports.
Of course we sometimes want know immediately when something has happened. As I like to say, a doorbell is more convenient than going to the door every 90 seconds to see if someone is there. Though that trade-off would change if the doorbell itself rang every few minutes, day and night.
But most of us have too many notifications turned on. “Notification” is an unfair euphemism anyway. The right word is “interruption,” because it begs 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 examined how people felt when their phones were completely turned off. Pielot and Rello stumbled, revealing, 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 that, and those who did would be such outliers that they gave no insight into 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 afraid they wouldn’t respond.
There was no sign that they were less stressed or more relaxed, but maybe that’s no surprise. It’s not entirely soothing to know that your boss might be furious because you don’t answer your phone.
Not many of us can adopt Kraftwerk’s approach: The great electronic band silenced the phone in their studio. If you want to call them, fine. They would answer, but only by appointment and exactly at the agreed time.
There’s a happy medium here, I’m sure, and it will vary from person to person. But I suspect Kraftwerk is closer to the optimal compromise than my smartphone’s default settings.
Oliver Burkeman puts it best in his book four thousand weeks: our attention is not only a scarce commodity; it is life itself. “At the end of your life, looking back, what forced your attention moment by moment is just what your life will have been.” Look at yet another notification and you are literally paying with your life.
Tim Harford’s new book is ‘How to add up the world†
Follow @FTMag on Twitter to read our latest stories first