How I got my iPhone notifications under control and restored my sanity
The constant buzzing and humming. The screen lights up a dozen times an hour. A page-long list of little rounded rectangles, too big to scroll through, filling up our lock screens.
Notifications have outlived their usefulness—at least most of the time. What started as a way for apps and the operating system to let us know about something important, something you want to act on right now, has been abused by app developers to almost constantly beg for our eyeballs. This is the attention economy.
So now, we are all trapped in a horrible purgatory. We either check our phones hundreds of times a day to see what that latest buzz was about, or we ignore them and potentially miss something that’s actually important. To paraphrase a phrase from The Incredibles: When everything is critically important, nothing is.
Fortunately, iOS has everything you need to organize your notifications. Focus modes are the newest tool in the toolbox, but I think they are too complex. Setting up multiple focus modes is a powerful and flexible thing, but it requires a decent amount of time and attention, and most people have shown that they are not willing to spend to tame notifications.
But you need to master Focus to tame your notifications. Over the years, I’ve refined a simple set of rules for my notifications that have whittled them down to just a handful per day. I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything important, and more importantly, my iPhone feels like something I use when I want rather than a task master or a needy child begging for attention.
Here is my method of managing notifications. It takes about 10 minutes to set up, and then just a few seconds when you install a new app.
How to Drastically Reduce Notifications Without Missing a Thing
- Time to complete: 10 minutes
Materials needed: iPhone or iPad
Open the Settings app and go to Notifications
We’re going to do most of our work in the Notifications section of the Settings app. Open Settings and then scroll down to Notice. at the top, you can customize how they are displayed, and set up scheduled summaries. But we are interested in the list of applications among the Notification style heading.
Go through all your apps and customize notifications
It will take some work, but it’s a one-time thing. Go through the list of every app on your iPhone and tap on each one. You’ll get a long list of options – whether to deliver immediately or wait for your scheduled summary (if you’ve set one up), how to show alerts, and more.
For the majority of your apps, you should default to turning off the “Allow notifications” settings. That’s right, most of your apps don’t need to send you notifications at all! You can simply catch up on whatever you missed when you open the app organically. For example, you probably don’t care if you ever see a notification from the Netflix app. You can just see whatever it has to tell you the next time you feel like opening the app.
The rule: Should you act immediately?
The rule for changing your notifications is: Do I need to respond to this immediately? For apps that provide critical “you need to do something about this now” information, leave your notifications on. Apps like home security systems, phone, messaging and other messaging apps, wallet, weather… they all offer the kind of notifications you might need to respond to immediately.
Almost everything else can and should be disabled. If you’re unsure, make sure you disable notifications for that app – you’d be surprised how many things you do not miss.
Make notifications less intrusive
For some applications, it can be useful to know that the application will require your attention at some point, but not immediately. Maybe you want to know you have unread emails, but don’t need a popup and noise and vibration every time a new email comes in, for example. Maybe your fitness app has a reminder for you that you don’t even have to check for a few hours.
These select few apps can simply notify you in a much less intrusive way.
Start by turning off lock screen alerts and banners (so you don’t get a pop-up while you’re doing something else), and consider removing them from Notification Center as well.
Disable sounds, but maybe leave Badges on. That way, when an app has something to tell you, you won’t be interrupted, but you’ll see the little red circle with a number in the corner of the app icon.
With these changes, you’ll likely find your phone interrupting you a small fraction of the time it used to. That’s good! With every new app, it defaults to changing notifications off unless it is something that delivers critical time-sensitive information that you will need to act on immediately. Remember these two golden rules:
- Apps should only deliver a notification if it might be something you are must act immediately. Everything else you can only see when you open the app on your own terms of course.
- If you want a reminder for any other app that it has a notification for you, disable all banners and sounds and rely on badges as a visual reminder that you need to visit the app.
Those who want to get really fancy with managing notifications may want to delve into Focus Modes. You can set custom modes that either automatically or at specific times, in a location, or when you open a specific app and can change which notifications are allowed or not. It is a more flexible system, but also more complex.
The bottom line is that iOS is sophisticated enough where you don’t have to suffer through an endless stream of notifications you don’t care about. With a little work, your phone can be leaner, your lock screen cleaner and your life a lot more peaceful.