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Turning Off Notifications

As a culture, our ability to discern what is important from moment-to-moment is completely gone.

I read a lot of talk about this among the technorati, but the public at large seem to be content to bury themselves in their screens more than ever. There’s a very popular Louis CK bit making the rounds lately from his recent appearance on Conan O’Brien. I find myself thinking about it often and it syncs up almost exactly with the books I’ve been reading about Buddhism and meditation.

I’ve been trying to look at my phone less and experience what’s been happening around me more. This probably comes as a relief to those who have known me for years since I’m fairly well known as “the guy who is looking at his phone”. I’m surprised by how people who used to complain about me phone-gazing barely take notice of the difference in my behavior, mainly because they’ve started doing it too. Smart phones have reached a point where people use them to soothe their minds and distract them from stray second of having to notice what is really happening.

Sure, we use our phones to get work done, interact with friends, message people, take pictures, research facts you can’t bring to mind – I get that. I’m just saying we need to think for a second before taking our phone out of our pocket. I’m saying we should keep them off the dinner table. I’m saying we should set up some personal rules that allow us to control our time and attention rather than have it demanded of us only to have it given away to something as unimportant as a picture of someone’s cat on Facebook. As a society we have taken to calling ourselves “more connected” because of our technology but the opposite is happening. We’ve becoming less connected than ever.

A few weeks ago, Alice and I went to a ramen place in New York City. It was packed so we had to sit and wait in the lobby for a table. Around us were five other couples, all waiting for their tables too. Every person, all ten of them, had their face cast down, illuminated by the light of their cell phones. There was no interaction between anyone and all of them were completely ignoring their date. What kind of “night to remember” were they going to post about on Facebook that night? Maybe they were just there to post an Instagram of their bowl of noodles instead…

Here are some of the things I did to reduce the amount my devices compete for my time and attenion.

  • I disabled almost all notifications.
  • I disabled almost all badges.
  • I set up Favorite contacts so their messages get through – generally people on my contact list who might need to reach me in an emergency (a non-work emergency, mind you).
  • I set up my do-not-disturb settings so that I am never bothered after midnight or before 7:00am except in cases of extreme emergency.
  • I leave do-not-disturb on 24/7 on my iPad so that it doesn’t ring or buzz.
  • I turn off auto-fetch on my email clients on weekends and check them at times that work for me.

You can do things to lock it down more, or you can be less stringent than me. It doesn’t really matter how you do it. The point is to make conscious decisions. Don’t fly on autopilot. Don’t give your attention away for free.

I’m not saying we throw the technological baby out with the bathwater but I am advocating some thought and awareness about how we view our connectedness or we may end up missing what is important, right in front of us.