May we suggest...

Joel's Posts

Zero Notifications: The Phone Hack That Could Change Your Productivity Forever

A while back, my co-founder Leo gave me an interesting suggestion: he said I should try disabling all notifications on my iPhone.

I find this suggestion especially interesting because it is one that goes against the normal phone setup.

It’s so usual to stick to how things are, and with iPhone apps the easiest thing to do is to “allow” all those notifications. It seems almost odd to even consider doing things any other way.

I chose to go along with Leo’s suggestion, although I was admittedly quite skeptical that it would change much.

I imagined that I had pretty good willpower, and that I am fairly productive already. Just because I got notifications, I didn’t think that affected my workflow all too much. In hindsight, one clear indication that it was already affecting my was that I was regularly turning my phone over to stop those notifications lighting up the screen and distracting me.

zero notifications

What it’s like to live without notifications

“Don’t confuse the urgent with the important.” – Preston Ni

For the first week that I turned off notifications, I checked Twitter, Facebook, email and other places regularly. In fact, I still do—although maybe not so much as that first week. After a couple of weeks, I came to love the fact that nothing came onto my lock screen or lit up my phone. I even found that I frequently started to use the switch in Mac OSX to turn off desktop notifications until the next day.

With zero notifications, I feel like I can get my head stuck into a problem much more easily than I did before. I never realized when I had those notifications on that they truly could throw me off my current thought and cause me difficulty getting that focus back.

More than anything, I feel a lot calmer. Notifications create a sense of urgency around something that’s not important at all. I don’t need to know right now that someone liked my status on Facebook.

It changes the balance; it’s now my choice

“There are two types of people: One strives to control his environment, the other strives not to let his environment control him. I like to control my environment.” – George Carlin

The thing I like the most about turning off all notifications is that it is now completely up to me when I choose to check my email, Twitter, Facebook, etc. I have no excuse that a notification came in. If I check it too frequently and find myself procrastinating, it is only my fault: I went out of my way to go and look.

As Derek Sivers puts it, “everything is my fault:”

But to decide it’s your fault feels amazing! Now you weren’t wronged. They were just playing their part in the situation you created. They’re just delivering the punchline to the joke you set up. What power! Now you’re like a new superhero, just discovering your strength. Now you’re the powerful person that made things happen, made a mistake, and can learn from it. Now you’re in control and there’s nothing to complain about.

It was my fault that I received push notifications, too, but by controlling that part of my environment everything is so much more pronounced. And now that it’s my fault, I can work solely myself to be better, to check those notifications less.

I choose to avoid reliance on willpower

“We each have one reservoir of will and discipline, and it is depleted by any act of conscious self-regulation—whether thats’ resisting a cookie, solving a puzzle, or doing anything else that requires effort.” – Tony Schwartz and Jean Gomes in The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working

The other reason I am happy that I’ve turned off all notifications is that wherever possible I like to avoid relying on willpower or self-discipline.

As Tony Schwartz and Jean Gomes put it, we all have a limited reservoir of willpower, and by turning off notifications it means I save some of that for other tasks rather than using it on resisting checking on each push notification that comes in.

I’m certainly not suddenly a superhuman with complete focus at all times, but I feel much more in control.

Have you tried turning off notifications? I can highly recommend trying it, just for a week. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

  • I agree. I disabled all my notifications for everything except for phone calls and text messages, which tend to have higher urgency than e-mail, Facebook, etc. It gives me much greater peace of mind.

    When I *really* need to concentrate, I put my phone in “airplane mode” so that I don’t get phone calls or text messages either. It’s quick and easy to do on my phone (Samsung Galaxy S3). I usually do this in 90-minute chunks. There is nothing that can’t wait 90 minutes.

  • By default I don’t allow any app to send me notifications. Then I enable the ones which seem important to some extend. This resulted that the only apps allowed are messaging/email apps and stuff that doesn’t happen all to often. Sometimes group conversations heat up I usually just mute them for a couple of hours if I’m not part of the discussion.

  • This is one of my favourite strategies. I still let a few select notifications in (namely phone calls, texts, and “you have no money!” alerts from my bank) but otherwise I avoid them. It’s still hard to break the “look at your phone” habit, but it’s a big step in the right direction.

  • viroolinc

    Great tactic! Thank you, Leo & Joel! Minimizing the amount of noise in our daily lives is critical to finding time to focus on what is important. Much appreciated.

  • I did this a couple of years ago, and the first thing I realized was how much it felt like a weight was lifted off me.

    Love this: “More than anything, I feel a lot calmer. Notifications create a sense of urgency around something that’s not important at all.”

  • I experimented with this a few months ago and actually felt more productive with notifications. I keep my phone in my pocket, so the notifications lighting up the screen wasn’t a distraction for me. But when I would go to check Facebook, I would end up spending 10 minutes in the news feed. Same thing with Twitter.

    By getting push notifications for only the social network activity involving me (new comment, retweet, etc.), I find I can quickly scroll through my lock screen to see what’s happening, dismiss the notifications, and go back to work. If I decided to take action on a notification, swiping it would take me directly to that post/tweet so I’m not distracted by other content.

  • Anubhav Tiwari

    Boom! Exactly the same scenario at my workplace, my CEO suggested the same and the results are same too!

    Plus, I feel I have become much social offline now, which actually was my aspiration.

  • kelly bishop

    While at work I always keep my phone on silent as not to disturb those around me (which everyone should do in my opinion as it’s proper office etiquette). If I need to go an extra step to avoid interruptions, I simply place my phone facedown on my desk so I don’t see the notifications and then when I’m ready for a break I will check my phone then to ensure I didn’t miss anything. This method works well for me and allows me to focus on the task at hand.

  • This is awesome, Joel! I turned off my notifications about a month ago and instantly felt more at peace. It’s easy to get sucked into the black hole of social media, especially when we’re constantly bombarded with notification stimuli. I decided to keep notifications for my personal email and calendar (of course), and I also kept notifications for Happify and Superbetter, since they help remind me to take steps toward self-care and improved work-life balance.

    In the evenings, I still found myself scrolling through my endless Facebook feed, so yesterday I deleted all of my social apps on my phone. Now I can check from a desktop if I feel compelled, or use that time to do something more enriching / fulfilling / exciting. I might add them back someday, but I love having a more simplified phone experience!

  • My husband and I are opposites here. He has a lot of apps notifying him. It even distracts me when his phone is nearby. Mine is set for only SMS notifications. Being deaf — people don’t call me, so they email or text. Have to be available to family.

    Many of us — me included — are like Pavlov’s dog. We can’t help but check our phone when it buzzes or dings. If I can’t be interrupted, I’ll put the phone in my purse where I’m less likely to feel it buzz.

  • On iOS, you can just slide up and tap “Do Not Disturb”.

  • That’s awesome you’ve had such a great experience with zero notifications, Joel. I started the same approach about a month ago, and my experience has been similarly phenomenal. We’ve let these notifications creep up on us little by little, destroying our ability to focus, but no more!

  • Paulie

    It has been a recent attitude i came upon naturally in trying to change my life in everything. Redesigning how i think and do things.
    First i have to think, which is not possible if always connected, always notificated from email or personal messages. That’s how i found too the osx toggle for desktop notifications :)

    Great post as always

  • What a great challenge and idea Joel and Leo! Thanks. Just grabbing my iPhone and turning all the notifications off. I have already limited them to only 3 apps I think but I will shut it down completely (except Twitter as I need it for quick business replies). Thanks a lot for reminding me how annoying and unproductive and distracting notifications are.

  • Interesting concept. I’ve never really thought about it before but it’s very true that we can easily become prisoner to our mobile devices. I think everyone has a feeling of “what if something important comes in” but the truth is while I’m with clients I silence my devices anyways because THEY are what’s important.

  • Did that about 3 months ago. It was a great relief and the best time saving action I did in a long time.
    Before turning notifications off I was pretty much “confusing motion with progress” as Peter Drucker cleverly stated in his writings.
    The only notifications I receive are SMS and phone calls.
    Thanks for the post!
    Cheers from Argentina :)

  • I already have my Outlook notifications turned off at work and never really thought that my phone was distracting me but I’m going to start using DND at work to see how that goes.

  • dereckbreuning

    Interesting! I’ve been thinking about this for a while now since it’s NOT helping me focus. Last week I had my iPhone on Do Not Disturb and it helped but then I would miss calls from anyone not in my favorites (which are only family/close friends).

    From a practical point of view, I’m curious Joel, did you turn off the Notifications per app completely or just deselected the “Show on Lock Screen” option? I think disabling them all straight up is a bit rigorous :) If you decide to check you want to see them in Notification Center so you can go through stuff you missed easily.

  • Yeah disabled most notifications a few weeks ago myself. The only time I get notifications now is for text messages, which with me generally means someone has something to ask me this very minute.

  • I did the same about 5 months ago. I just had to tell people that I will answer their messages later. And as I only use twitter on my phone, I can see replies and retweets later.

  • Instead of turning off all my notifications, I turn on the “Do Not Disturb” mode on my iPhone when I want to focus on my work. It’s because I still want to receive the notifications when I’m not in all-focused mode. The “Do Not Disturb” mode is good for a few reasons:
    1) It’s very easy to activate the mode. Slide the control centre up and press the “Moon” icon.
    2) My phone will not light up when there are notifications so I do not get distracted.
    3) It can be set such that calls will not be slienced. I set it this way because I feel that calls tend to be urgent and require my attention then. You can slience calls if you want. You can also set it such that only calls from certain people (eg. partner, child) will cause an notification.

    Hope this is useful!

  • Julien Lafleur

    Love it! Thanks for putting it out there!

  • IyelBey

    I had to disable the notifications on my phone because the Twitter notices were killing my battery. I had notifications that were interrupting other notifications three and four times. I’m already in the habit of checking anyway so it hasn’t made that much of a difference, except in battery life. Thanks for the article.

  • Idea Charger

    I have resisted installing FB to my new iPhone6. When I have to work to share experiences, it slows me down and helps me add a “does this really add value by sharing?” to my posts. I now tend to blog more meaningful articles and don’t lose time to pointless FB garbage. Liberating! (I found your post via Twitter, which I browse when I have some true downtime.)

  • Gaiaa

    It’s like It temporarily disables all distractions and also supports your will-power and self-control.

  • Nicolas Giraud

    Well I work as a software consultant and I often have to keep track of several customers at the same time (bug reports, support tickets) so notifications are a requirement for me.

    I’ll agree though, that constantly having to get your phone and look at notifications is detrimental to productivity. Even more, at least for me, it generates a notable amount of stress, which I’d rather avoid especially when I have stringent deadlines to meet!

    I solved that dilemna by using a smartwatch. My phone stays in my pocket and I can read very quickly the notifications on my wrist, whithout really interrupting my current activity. It really helps me staying focused on productive work while keeping up-to-date with communications.

    Much less stressful and super efficient!

  • Brady Dyer

    I turned Facebook off a few months ago and it’s SO much better!! This post just gave me enough motivation to turn off the rest!

  • Dennis Meng

    Curious to hear how this experiment is going >1 year later. Still notification free?

80,000+ social media marketers trust Buffer

See all case studies