Push vs. Pull notifications

When my phone vibrates with a new notification, I react to it – I read it while thinking about it and sometimes type a reply. In a very broad sense, it’s a push notification: It’s pushed towards me without me seeking it and it triggers my reaction.

How did people do this in the pre-internet era? They had a letterbox. The snail mail would arrive once per day and you would walk over to your letterbox and get the new mail. Let’s call that a pull notification: You specifically seek to get your new messages and process them.

Imagine how a letterbox with push notifications would look like: Every time someone puts in a letter it would walk over to you and vibrate on your leg with a new notification. What the hell! How would anyone ever stay sane with a walking letterbox in the house!

Reacting vs. Seeking

Turns out, that’s exactly what push notifications on our phones do. If you get 20 notifications in a day those will trigger you to react 20 times.

And you will react to them in some way every time. At the very least, your current thoughts will be replaced and corrupted by random notification-thoughts.

But here’s the crazy thing. People seem to be okay with that. Why? From time to time, it’s really rewarding to read those notifications. Someone likes your new photo on Instagram. A new Tinder match. A long-lost ex-partner is in town and wants to “chat over a glas of wine”.

In an absurd Pavlovian way, we become conditioned to seek push notifications and the reactions which are attached to them. We check our phones on the subway, during conversations, on the toilet. We’re fine paying the price of impaired attention and sanity.

Seeking Reactions

But what if our phone doesn’t have anything new for us? We start seeking out things which generate the same feeling of novelty in our brain. Things we must react to. We start browsing Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Reddit, Hacker News. We turn on the TV. We open Netflix.

We start creating our own push notifications.

On social networks, there’s a whole inception of reactions going on: You want to check out who posted a new photo. You then react to that photo by commenting on it. This reaction triggers the other person to react to your reaction to their photo – the other person might reply to your comment.

But did you want to see that photo in the first place? It’s not like you asked your friend to send you half-naked pictures from their vacation in Thailand.

A simple two step plan

Two steps to reacting less. Changing habits is always hard.

Turn off Push Notifications

Switch your phone to Do Not Disturb (DND), preventing all notifications from appearing. If you feel the need to check your phone, ask yourself whether you’re expecting something specific. If so, deactivate DND, look through all notifications, reply to the relevant ones and re-activate DND. Remember the snail-mail letterbox.

Maybe it will re-condition you to stop checking your phone as there’s nothing new to see.

Of course there are tricky situations. What do you do if you’re meeting someone in four hours and that person decides to change plans two hours before by sending you a message which you won’t see due to DND? You might have to deactivate DND in those situations.

The underlying problem however is that nowadays everyone assumes that plans can be changed frequently at no cost.

News Feeds are evil

Ask yourself critically which news feeds still provide value to you. For me, Facebook and Instagram don’t. News sites don’t. I have mixed feeling about Twitter.

Be aware of reacting vs. seeking

In a world in which we don’t have to spend time hunting for food, our attention becomes on of our greatest assets. Guarding it is a huge responsibility.


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