A few weeks ago, I got an email from a client at around 9pm—just as I was getting ready for bed. This isn’t uncommon for me, as I live in Australia and most of my clients live in earlier time zones. I tend to wake up to a barrage of client emails every morning, as they’ve been working while I slept.
But this particular email was one that would weigh on my mind until I’d dealt with it, and I felt annoyed that I’d read it right before bed.
The next morning I had an email from the team at MeisterTask asking whether I’d be interested in writing about the anxiety that comes from having to manage notifications at all hours.
It’s probably not a surprise that we’ve been thinking about this. It’s a common topic, just like dealing with the growing amount of email we all get—nobody’s figured out a perfect solution yet, but we all feel like the situation could be a lot better.
This is a complaint that’s backed up by science, too. It turns out having to manage notifications at all hours—and our dependency on them—isn’t exactly a healthy way to work.
Catherine Steiner-Adair, author of The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age worries that we’re too connected to our phones.
“Some of the people I interviewed for my book used phrases like ‘my smartphone is like my blankie, I feel anxious without it.’ These are signs of a psychological dependency.”
Relying so heavily on our phones that we can’t be without them without feeling anxious over what we might be missing is dangerous to our health. Multiple studies have found that “those who rely heavily on their phones and/or social media experience elevated levels of stress, aggression, depression and distraction, as well as lower self-esteem and lack of sleep.”
But it’s not just using our phones too much that’s a problem. Having to manage notifications specifically (and those coming from our inboxes in particular) is often not good for us.
Researchers from the UK found that email push notifications are a serious source of stress among workers. The researchers studied 2,000 working people across various industries. They found that people were most stressed when they checked their email early in the morning or late at night, or left emails unread all day.
They also found people working in media, IT, PR, and marketing were the most affected. 65% of the workers in these groups used push notifications, and more than 30% of them received over 50 emails every day.
Surprisingly, those who felt notifications were most useful were also the most affected by the resulting stress of constantly being notified about something new.
And it’s not just an issue at work—we take the stress of needing to manage notifications home with us. The researchers found that push notifications for email are linked to perceived email pressure, which in turn was linked to work stress affecting the home lives of participants. This consequence was itself linked to a “compromised home life” affecting work performance, making the whole situation a vicious cycle.
And all because those participants received a notification every time they had a new email. Who’d have thought managing notifications could be so damaging?
Notifications trick our brains
Push notifications have tapped into something very clever, but also very dangerous for our focus and stress levels. It’s called variable interval reinforcement schedules. In practice, this simply means that we’re only rewarded with new notifications sometimes. Because the reward comes at unpredictable times, we tend to check our inboxes and phones constantly, just in case this is the one time we’ll get the reward of something new to look at.
We crave that novelty, and it keeps us checking all the time, just in case we’ll get a hit.
In some cases, it isn’t even our own faults that notifications are encroaching on our lives and affecting our wellbeing. A 2015 study explored telepressure, the urge to respond immediately to work emails or notifications, regardless of what time of day they arrive.
The study found those who succumbed to telepressure were more likely to be sleep deprived, to take sick days, and to be burnt-out. The researchers also said, however, that telepressure is a workplace problem. It’s a behavior we learn from our colleagues or pick up from the social culture in our workplace.
So this is one area where employers need to take the lead in changing how we think about—and react to—needing to manage notifications, both at work and after hours.
No notifications isn’t the answer
It might seem like the answer is not using notifications at all. But for those of us who love our notifications, there’s no need to stress about giving them up entirely.
It turns out taking away someone’s phone entirely, or cold-turkey turning off notifications is not the best solution.
A British study explored what happens when taking away people’s phones entirely. It turns out not having our phones around makes us more anxious. Another study found 45% of people felt “worried or uncomfortable” when email and Facebook weren’t accessible.
Though we’d certainly get used to not having to manage notifications after a while (humans are very good at adapting), there are more lenient approaches we can take.
1. Get more real life contact
To achieve a better balance in your life, researchers suggest getting more in-person contact with friends, family, and colleagues, rather than relying exclusively on digital interactions. Canadian psychologist Susan Pinker found that relationships without any face-to-face contact lacked the trust necessary for authentic relationships to develop.
In a study that compared phone and real-life connections to contact via Facebook, participants were often left feeling sad and dissatisfied after Facebook interactions. Following those up with a phone call or an in-person connection, however, left them feeling uplifted.
If you’re running your relationships—whether they’re with colleagues, friends, or family—through notifications and social media, try increasing the amount of face time you get to balance out the emotions you feel within those relationships.
2. Rethink how people access you
Telepressure is an example of how we’re seeing the lines blur around work time and home time. Many of us are accessible 24/7 to our colleagues, and juggle friendships and professional relationships all within the same mediums.
British designer Sarah Parmenter found this became such a problem for her that it caused unnecessary stress and anxiety.
“My breaking point this month was when a friend of a friend used my personal What’s App [sic] to keep pestering me about advice on her career. Despite the fact that I had never even met her, she had no regard for what time the messages were sent. Her message would range from 6:30am to 1:30am.”
For Parmenter, the main issue was “all about access.” Having friends, colleagues, and clients all asking for her attention any time of day in various ways led to Parmenter feeling overwhelmed.
“You might be happy with everyone having access to you all of the time, but I wasn’t. It was actually making me ill.”
Parmenter’s solution was to rethink the purpose of each messaging platform she used, and to make a clear delineation between services used for work communications and those reserved for friends and family. After ensuring each platform has a specified use and adjusting her notification settings to match, Parmenter said she was “much more calm and enjoying social platforms again.”
3. Limit yourself without going cold turkey
For many of us, email is the biggest culprit when it comes to anxiety-inducing notifications.
Email is one form of communication that’s hard to delineate because we use it for everything from receiving receipts for online shopping to discussing work projects to catching up with friends and family.
While going cold turkey is not necessarily a great method for cutting down on notifications of any kind, one study found reducing the time we spend with email can be beneficial to our wellbeing. The study split 124 workers into two groups. Each group spent one week with no restrictions on email notifications or checking their inboxes, while the other group spent the week with no notifications for email, and only three inbox checks allowed per day. Then the groups swapped to the opposite condition.
Despite the fact that most of the participants found it hard to not check their email when in the restricted condition, the study found that “limiting the number of times people checked their email per day … lowered overall day-to-day stress.”
So cutting back could be simply a matter of setting aside time to check your inbox, and turning off notifications outside that time period. It might be hard at first, but you’ll be glad you did it when you notice your stress levels are lower as a result.
I’ve just turned off notifications for email on my computer. I’ve also adjusted my phone’s “do not disturb” mode to go from 6pm to 8am, rather than starting at 10pm when I’m heading to bed.
I’m yet to see how big a difference this makes to my focus and stress levels, but I’m looking forward to being able to properly switch off when work is done for the day, and not let work overlap with my free time so much. I can’t see many downsides to that!
You might also be interested is Digest by Zapier, providing custom summaries for any app and another way to manage your notifications.