Not Safe From Wolves

Good Notifications

Hating notifications is all the rage, I’ve done it myself: I huff at people who break off mid-conversation to see who’s retweeted them; my wife’s phone and tablet sound loudly if someone on the Internet says her name. (Possibly in front of a mirror? I’m not sure how this works)

I’ve been swayed by the Minimal iPhone blog posts and I’ve written and spoken about removing distractions, unfollowing people and streams that don’t make you happy and deleting applications that start to feel like addictions.

But I’ve recently noticed an unproductive habit: checking and rechecking web sites and applications. You could label it fear of missing out, and it is, but it’s also because for my job I have a mixture of job roles that can be broadly defined as two things:

  • Getting lost in deep thought: Dig into errant programs in GDB. Hold the context of IOS routers and network diagrams in my head. Trace tricky race conditions and untangle failing tests. Write and copy-edit various documentation, blog posts and marketing material.
  • Reacting immediately: Answering support calls from customers. Dealing with a site outage or a failed router. Restoring something from a backup now. Unscheduled meetings. Failures of planning on other people’s parts.

I really want to like the first type of work, it’s the most fulfilling in the long term, but like most people, I find it really easy to fall into the trap of doing lots of the second kind of work. I feel the dopamine kick of getting something done, even if the thing was as trivial as a DNS update a customer asked for in a ticket.

More responsibly, I don’t want to be the guy who dives deep into his own work and ignores the support calls, tickets and fires that spring up. We don’t have a top-down structure- everyone grabs their own fair share of the support burden, so if I don’t pay attention then other people have to pick up my slack. That’s not fair.

In an effort to get more of the first type of work done, I turned off lots of notifications. I didn’t run a Twitter client in the background, have pop-ups from email, receive alerts from the ticket system, or have my IM client flash to get my attention.

I worked in a full screen terminal or text editor, Getting Stuff Done.

Nirvana. Perfect. Exactly how “distraction free” working is supposed to work.

Except that, with no status notifications, I couldn’t resist Cmd-Tabbing every few minutes to see if I’d missed a conversation in our group chat, or an important ticket update or an email from a big customer. (Our alerting dashboard is on my desk, and has sound, so I didn’t have to worry about missing that)

The less progress I was making on the big thing, the more frequently I distracted myself by polling.

This week’s self-experiment has been to turn notifications back on- the right ones, at least.

I wear a watch so that I don’t lose track of time in a full-screen window, but so that I don’t switch apps just to see the clock on my computer.

Adium notifies me of every conversation with a pop up. I can glance and decide not to take action but, as long as I’m at my desk, it’s pretty hard for me to miss what’s going on.

The team I’m in have tweaked our alerting further: it goes off less and when it does, it’s usually serious. Alerting fatigue had crept back in to the system without us really noticing it. Considering that I gave a talk on this subject I feel bad for not acting sooner.

The important part of turning notifications on again is that if nothing is popping up then nothing is happening, and I don’t have a reason to pull myself away from my work to check on it.

It’s going well, even though it’s just been a few days. The pendulum will probably swing back and I’ll have to dial down the notifications at some point, but some of that can be dealt with by caring about fewer things.

It may be that I’m aware of too much, and it takes an excess of notifications to make me realise.

This is archived content. New updates will appear on