TECH
01/15/2016 08:07 am ET

My Phone Notifications Took Over My Life. So I Turned Them All Off.

Life's a lot better without a buzzing phone, but adjusting to this new freedom wasn't easy.
Lee-or Atsmon Fruin

This story is part of a 10-piece series for which HuffPost staffers agreed to experiment with improving their health and decreasing their stress on the job. It’s also part of our monthlong “Work Well” initiative focusing on thriving in the workplace.

Notifications: Can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em. Or so I thought.

As The Huffington Post embraces healthy habits at the office and beyond during its #WorkWell week, I took it upon myself to live a life that's basically free from smartphone notifications. The reason is pretty simple: I spearhead our technology coverage at HuffPost, so I'm always thinking about how devices influence our lives. And even though I try to cut out irritating apps, I get a lot of notifications.

Worse, I get them on multiple devices. I have a personal smartphone, a separate phone for work and a tablet that I routinely watch videos and read comic books on. We use Slack at the office, so I get pop-ups and little pings on my computer when coworkers need something. And while I've basically sworn off wearables like the Apple Watch in my personal life, I'm often trying new, notification-filled devices for work. A study found last year that even hearing these notifications can ruin your focus.

It's a curse I've inflicted upon myself. My managers don't expect me to be available 24/7. Friends can wait for me to respond to text messages. There's absolutely no reason why I need to see that someone "liked" my tweets when I'm walking to the office in the morning.

So, I challenged myself to cut it out.

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RULES

Going through and configuring notifications for each and every one of my apps on all of my devices seemed like a pain, especially since I so often download (and delete) new ones. So, I didn't do that.

Instead, I used the "Do Not Disturb" function all of the time. It's basically a way of silencing notifications and averting buzzes. You're supposed to use it at the movies or dinner or when you're trying to go to sleep or talk to your girlfriend. Both my Samsung Galaxy S6 and iPhone 6S have this feature -- and your phone probably does, too.

For a week, I had this function flipped on constantly, and I had my screens out of eyesight whenever possible. Normally, I have both of my phones on top of my desk next to the computer: Whenever they buzz, I see them immediately and can respond as necessary. (It's usually not necessary at all to respond right away, of course!)

That's basically it: a week of "do not disturb" and no blinking screens. If I wanted to check my notifications, I had to purposefully pick the phones up and click them open. No buzzes for text messages or Slack updates. This strategy isn't as "pure" as manually disabling all notifications altogether, but it got the job done.

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PREDICTIONS

Before I did the experiment, I typed out a few thoughts about how I anticipated it going. Here they are:

I'm incredibly concerned about this, but I can't really put my finger on why. I don't agree that people should be 100 percent available all the time, but the thought that I might miss something significant on my phone -- simply because my notifications are off -- fills me with anxiety. (That said, I'm pretty anxious by default!)

I think I'll probably go for long stretches of time without checking my phone, realize that potential notifications might be piling up, and then panic and check my phone.

But maybe I just have an outsized impression of my own importance and I won't really miss anything at all!

It turns out, I did miss things. But did it really matter? In a way, that was the point. 

zakokor via Getty Images

DAILY DIARY

Day 1

Day one was the hardest. Turning off phone notifications isn't exactly some massive feat of bravery, but it did feel like I was abandoning channels of communication. I was nervous enough about missing something from my family and friends that I sent an email to some of my closest allies -- the ones I talk to on a daily basis.

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A chunk of the people I reached out to didn't even answer my email, so things were looking up. 

In the first hours, I definitely picked up my phone a lot to see what was going on. Usually, it was nothing important.

Day 3

Yes, I missed messages at work. This seemed inevitable before I started the experiment, and it totally happened. Part of my job is to weigh in on pitches and keep track of news. At around 7:30 a.m. one day, a colleague was asking around on Slack to see if she could work on something for the Tech section.

I didn't look at my work phone until about an hour later, so Nadya's pitch went unanswered.

Sorry, Nadya!
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Sorry, Nadya!

Normally, I would've heard my phone buzzing when I was sipping coffee at home or trying to figure out what socks to put on. The remarkable thing, though, is that the world kept turning. My coworker went on with her life, answered pleasantly when I finally did respond at around 8:30, and somehow the planet didn't explode.

Day 5

It seems pretty obvious that not being pestered by notifications at work was actually kind of nice. What I didn't expect was how pleasant it could be to live without notifications at home, when I was off the clock.

We've ceded some "relaxation" time to our devices. I like reading novels, watching movies, playing video games -- and it's actually really hard to do those things when your phone is going nuts every few minutes. Again, I'm not some remarkably popular person, but I have friends, a fiancée and a mom who like to text me. I'm active on Twitter and Facebook, so I get notifications from those platforms. This is all relatively normal behavior that I expect a great many smartphone owners identify with.

Going without notifications let me focus much more effectively on whatever leisure activity I was doing at the time. I'll level with you: I've been trying to get through "Purity" for an honest three and a half months now. It's not even a particularly long book! But I am incredibly prone to distraction. Being able to just sit and read without my phones buzzing was kind of wonderful. I lit candles!

While I didn't finish the book during the challenge, I made it to the final page soon after.

It's easier to focus on reading when your phone isn't constantly demanding your attention. Duh.
Amazon
It's easier to focus on reading when your phone isn't constantly demanding your attention. Duh.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

This experiment reminded me a bit of an experience I had so many times when I was a little kid growing up. My mom -- a hardworking businesswoman -- would finally sit down on the couch with the Sunday Chicago Tribune, and the landline would ring. There's no describing the sound of exasperation. She would slap the paper down on her lap, fling her head back and sigh a sigh that was like rocks crunching together.

"I'm letting it go to the machine!" she would yell.

And then we'd sit there listening to the phone ring over and over again until the answering machine picked it up. The recording would play -- "Hello, you've reached the Bereses..." -- the machine would beep, and then we'd listen to someone leave a 30-second message. It would happen again and again and again.

The problem isn't notifications: It's the mindlessness.

Kids are incredibly lucky they're growing up in the era of the smartphone. Ringing landlines and bogus answering machine technology were several times more interruptive than smartphone notifications, and you couldn't really opt out of them. Sure, you could disconnect the phone, but then you were really in trouble if there was an emergency because no one had cell phones. 

In other words, the problem isn't notifications: It's the mindlessness. Sometimes it's worth letting your phone buzz to life when it needs to tell you something. Often, it's not. My experience here taught me to be a bit more conscious about identifying those situations. For that reason alone, I'd recommend your own notifications-free experiment.

WHAT'S NEXT?

A week after the experiment, I'm back to notifications. Truthfully, I like being aware of what's going on, and I like texting with my friends and getting back to them as soon as I can. It's sort of stupid, but I almost feel like it's a responsibility.

I also have a responsibility to myself and the people I'm actually spending time with. This is all so obvious on paper, because as soon as you stop to think about any of this, you understand immediately that allowing little pings and bloops to command your life is absurd. But before this article, when was the last time you stopped to think about it?

More often than not, work can wait. Snapchat can wait. If it's not a human baby coming out of a birth canal, it can probably wait. But that thing right in front of you -- a potentially transformative book or movie, your friend who won't be around forever -- shouldn't have to. Be mindful of these things. It worked for me.

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