Tech Tonic | The notifications on our phones are an overwhelming mess

There was a day, not too long ago (pre-Covid, as modern-day timelines are often defined) when I felt the watch on my wrist buzz. A gentle suggestion that someone had sent a message that I must read immediately? Nope, since I wasn’t wearing a smartwatch. Have you heard of the phantom vibration syndrome? I hadn’t, and after some amount of Google-ing, I identified what I — and others too — were experiencing.

We’re so overwhelmed with notifications that our mind gets tuned to receive those signals periodically. (Pexels)

It is simply a distinct feeling that a user’s phone (or smartwatch in some cases) was vibrating to suggest an incoming notification when that isn’t the case. The reason is simple. We’re so overwhelmed with notifications that our mind gets tuned to receive those signals periodically. And when we don’t have an actual notification for a while (those rare windows of peace), the mind hallucinates. In this case, the brain perceives a sensation that wasn’t physically caused, it’s a kind of tactile hallucination.

So what is the reason for all this mess we find ourselves in? The number of notifications on our phones (and smartwatches if you wear one). An important message. An email that cannot brook a delayed reply. Our shopping order updates. Credit card transaction updates, warnings about how to avoid fraud and the helplines being unavailable due to maintenance. The government and banks prescribe a methodology for reporting spam messages. A smart home device sends you an update on its status. Each of those bell icons clicked on YouTube coming back to haunt you. Those are active messages, based on direct communication between you and another person or a tech platform you’ve interfaced with.

There is an equally high volume of unsolicited (and inactive) notifications cluttering up the phone’s lock screen that are often promotional, as if the uncontrolled spam being served on SMS was not enough. Your favourite airline telling you it’s time to book tickets for the next vacation. Blinkit reminding it’s time to stock up before the weekend. Zomato asking if all is well because you’ve not ordered a meal for a few days now. Some random Instagram users you don’t even follow requesting you to join their broadcast. Starbucks is missing you parting money for unnecessarily expensive coffee. Amazon urging you to not miss an amazing deal. Google’s weather forecast for the next day. Your Samsung phone saying it’s time to download some themes for the Galaxy phone. Xiaomi phone suggests some more apps to download.

It’s an absolute mess we find ourselves in. No wonder our attention spans are truly compromised. It is easy to miss important messages in that overwhelming stack residing on your phone’s lock screen. The trick could be making app notifications truly in-app. Perhaps YouTube Music has the right idea, with a new ‘Activity feed’ listing all updates and new music drops from the artists you’ve subscribed to, within the app. If each of these were to land on your phone’s lock screen or notification bar, it’d be classified as a nightmare.

Over time, I have put in place a method to reduce the notification load to an extent. There are two parts to dealing with this.

First is the swipe left method (it may be swipe right on some Android phones), to clear the clutter almost as soon as it lands on the notification real estate on Android phones or an Apple iPhone. Second, deals with incoming messages, which are best handled by a message filtering service like Truecaller (iPhone and some Android phones have built-in tools too, but they aren’t as precise) – it’ll effectively filter out all the overload of property deals, special mobile number, loan at low interest rates and credit card application promos and other regular irritants.

Just this week, Truecaller announced a new web app for users of its service on Android phones, which brings messages (SMS and Truecaller Chat) and incoming call identification on your desktop or laptop computer via a web browser. Android phone users with Truecaller set up on their phones can pair with Truecaller Web and replicate everything on the app, onto the desktop computer. Reduces the need to unlock your phone, again and again. Quite likely.

Think of this as much like the web version of WhatsApp, for instance. Or Microsoft’s app for replicating some functionality of your phone, on Windows PCs. Except in the case of Truecaller for Web, the utility is greater, specifically with Live Caller ID. 

For any new app installed on the phone, there is inevitably the first unsolicited notification attempting to draw attention – simply turn off all notifications from apps that don’t mandatorily need that privilege. On iPhones, swiping slightly left opens up an “options” tab, while on Android, long-pressing on a notification opens up the controls.

For certain parts of the day, Android and iOS’ built-in focus modes would be handy — enable Do Not Disturb for example, when you may need some peace and tranquillity to hold a train of thought when writing an important article, or while driving. Except for apps and people or the contacts you allow, all other incoming attempts at conversation will remain silenced. Believe me, this is a very powerful tool if configured properly. Take some time out and get this right. A simple shortcut to enable this can save you a lot of time otherwise wasted dealing with communication best avoided at the time.

Life coach Emma Jefferys wrote in a blog post on her website, “Find yourself absent-mindedly reaching for your smartphone when you should be concentrating. Pop an elastic band or hairband around. Having to move the band to get into the phone will interrupt your autopilot and make you consider whether you need to do this.”

Last but not least is the Scandinavian logic of minimalism. Don’t keep unnecessary apps on the phone. If they aren’t there, you won’t be bothered by the notifications. Less is more. Fewer apps. Less distractions. Less clutter. Whatever works for you.

Organisation is important. When technology becomes disorganised, you have to step up. Some app developers are taking note, allowing for turning off all or selected types of notifications while setting up the app the first time, or just as easily from the settings menu. Others don’t keep things as simple. That has to change.

Vishal Mathur is the technology editor for the Hindustan Times. Tech Tonic is a weekly column that looks at the impact of personal technology on the way we live, and vice-versa. The views expressed are personal.

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