Notifications Turn Your Brain Against You – So I Turned Them Off for 6 Months

Abhi Chand
December 10, 2020

Bzzt! Did my phone just vibrate?

*quickly turns on the screen to check*

That's weird, no new notifications... I swear I felt it vibrating.

Has that ever happened to you?

It's a phenomenon called phantom vibration syndrome where we think we felt the phone vibrate. It's a form of FOMO of missing out on a call or a text.

This is an example of how our devices physically affect us.

The real challenge, though, comes in when our devices start affecting us psychologically.

Take a look at these notifications below.

I wonder what Sydney is going to say.

If you see your phone screen light up with these notifications... what are the odds that you won't open the Tinder app?

The idea that a hot date is about to say something is pretty exciting. Who knows? It could go well, really well.

If I had to take a wild swing at it, you would probably be thinking things like:

  • I wonder what she's going to say
  • Is she going to go out with me?
  • Am I seeing her tonight?

And you start feeling the anticipation and excitement of her response and can't wait to see how it all plays out.

But here's the real gut punch: when you get notifications saying that she's typing...

then a few minutes go by...

...but no message ever comes through.

Ouch.

Do you see the problem?

Here's the thing.

You just went through a roller coaster of emotions with absolutely zero human interaction.

Instead of a real person giving you anxiety, excitement or joy, you received all of these emotions from one thing and one thing only: the notifications on your phone.

The fact that your potential hot date was thinking about you and writing to you gave you a spike of dopamine. The "feel-good neurotransmitter".

She doesn't actually have to say anything to trigger this reaction. Just knowing that she's 'thinking about you' is good enough to get the happy brain juices flowing.

I know that.

You know that.

But... the tech giants have always known that.

And they exploit the f#@k out of this 'brain-hack'.

This is the reality that we live in now.

The notifications we receive are just one of the many ways that algorithms use the dopamine centers in our brains against us.

Here's an example of how Instagram does it:

"Instagram’s notification algorithms will sometimes withhold “likes” on your photos to deliver them in larger bursts. So when you make your post, you may be disappointed to find less responses than you expected, only to receive them in a larger bunch later on. This use of a variable reward schedule takes advantage of our dopamine-driven desire for social validation, and it optimizes the balance of negative and positive feedback signals until we’ve become habitual users." (Source: Dopamine, Smartphones & You: A battle for your time)

Basically, notifications are now evil. Or at least have the capacity to be.

(Never thought that'd be a sentence I would say out loud #2020isNotMyYear.)

Hearing things like this is what made the idea of The Notification Free Life so compelling to me. I had to at least try it.

And try it I did.

In this post, I'd like to share my experience of living the Notification Free life for the last 6+ months with you.

What is the Notification Free Life? (and why it matters)

As you may have already guessed, the Notification Free life means turning off all notifications on your devices.

Especially on your phone.

This includes turning off vibrations and sounds as well.

The problem with our phones (and why they're bad for us) is that they have the ability to call for our attention... and they get creative with it too.

You gotta admit, some of these are pretty funny.

Companies test their messaging to see which notifications get them what they want most — your time and attention.

And, of course, all this happens for the all-mighty advertising dollar.

The more these companies can glue you to their apps, the more advertisers will to pay them for running ads.

Funny notifications are one of the best ways for companies to serve your time and attention to their customers — the advertisers.

Yes, you are the product.

Well, your time and attention is at least.

When you go notification free, one of the first things that happens is you reclaim your time and attention.

And, for once, perhaps in a really long time — you are back in the driver's seat of deciding what you want to focus on...

...and what you don't.

I'm unavailable, sorry.

Do you remember a time when cavemen and cavewomen were on call, ready to be reached at the drop of a hat?

Instantly available to pick up the phone, respond to a message, a DM, a snap, a text, an email, a tweet, (you get the idea).

Those magical, ancient times were actually as far back as the 90s.

(And, if I'm being honest, also during cave-people times.)

For thousands of years, humans were never on-call.

But now we are.

We're expected to be glued to our cell phones all day long and respond as soon as possible.

I've actually received this text message:

"You update your snap before you respond to me, I see how it is!"

I don't know if it's sad or hilarious that this message was sent by a guy friend of mine.

I know, I know...

I'm generalizing here but you usually don't expect guys to throw these kinds of tantrums.

Anyways, getting back to the point.

It's interesting to see what kinds of messages, calls, emails, and other "important things" you're really missing out on when you have your notifications turned off.

Short answer? Not much.

Humans are vain, have an ego, and like to feel important.

It's a psychological trigger we all have. It's part of who we are.

Big tech knows that and exploits this trigger to the max.

But they don't stop there.

Another psychological trigger we all have is scarcity.

We value things that are limited and in short supply.

Like the 399 Enzo Ferraris that were sold based on the scarcity principle before they even started making them.

Yes, they only made 399 of these cars.

Why?

No idea.

If they could make 399, they could clearly make more.

And they did.

There was a 400th one made and donated to the Vatican for charity.

So they made 400 of these cars in total and stopped there (presumably).

The problem is If they continued to make more, you wouldn't have the pleasure of owning a rare, limited-edition, luxury sports car now would you?

The Enzo Ferrari — only 399 400 were ever made. Because: reasons.

It's the same reason why the Yeezy 2 "Red October" sneakers had an average resell price of $6,075 USD in 2019.

Just for comparison, the original price of these shoes was $250 USD.

Yeah... wtf indeed.

Call it what you want, it's human nature.

It's how we all are.

I don't know if I'd even buy these for $250...

This doesn't just apply to things, we value people who seem to be unavailable as well.

(This has got to be ringing bells for some people out there.)

Whether they're emotionally unavailable or physically unavailable (like celebrities), we want what we can't have.

That's a huge benefit of the Notification Free life.

When you're not glued to your phone and responding every second of the day, people realize that you're someone that's 'hard to get a hold of'.

And they value your time more.

Your time and attention becomes something valuable because it's not readily available.

Dare I say, it becomes scarce.

And when people do get a hold of you, they want to make it count.

If you struggle with feeling like everyone's doormat and are tired of feeling like people don't value you, try this bad boy on for size.

If you do try it out for this reason, first of all, you have my sympathy. I'm sorry people treat you like that. Second of all, let me know how your experiment goes down in the comments below. I'd love to know if it helped.

Legitimate Reasons to Keep (some) Notifications On?

Shane taught me the Notification Free Life in his course focus&action.

You have no idea how gratifying it is to see missed messages from Shane and reply with something like:

"I am sorry. I was working away and didn't check phone / slack."

I'm not being mean.

Just saying that it has happened a few times here and there.

I find a sense of poetic justice in the fact that Shane has to deal with the downsides of the Notification Free Life. 

I wonder if he regrets teaching it to me now haha.

This actually leads me to the first legitimate reason to have notifications turned on:

1. Work Meetings and Important Deadlines

I almost missed a few scheduled calls because I had no idea that they were about to start in 10 minutes. There were a few times where I (by-chance) remembered that I had a call coming up and needed to prepare for it.

Would've been funny to just miss it altogether (and would've made for a better post) but sadly, I made the calls on time.

BUT...

I decided that when God made calendars, he did it so I didn't have to remember every single meeting that I have coming up. That's why I turned on notifications for my calendar.

As for Important Deadlines. I use the Reminders app on my phone a lot to (surprise surprise) remind me of things that need to happen at a specific time.

I suppose I could use my calendar for this as well. But it gives me a pure sense of joy to be able to mark a task as 'completed' on my phone. That's why the Reminders app is also allowed to notify me.

2. Personal and Family Reasons

My parents aren't always in the same time zone as me.

My dad was recently working in Brunei. The time difference was 12 hours from Toronto to Bandar Seri Begawan (capital of Brunei).

If I missed messages or calls from my parents on WhatsApp, I would have to wait for the next day to get in touch with them.

Same thing happened when my parents were in DRC (Congo) and India. My parents are older now and I want to be there for them more. So I turned on notifications for WhatsApp.

Bad idea.

WhatsApp — owned by perhaps the most evil corporation on Earth: Facebook — is annoying as hell with notifications.

If you turn them on, they will send as many as possible. They so desperately want your attention, it feels dirty. I'm looking at you Facebook Messenger — it does the same thing!

I was stuck in a dilemma now. I wanted to know when my parents messaged / called me but I didn't want notifications from anyone else.

I would love to tell you that you can customize WhatsApp and choose exactly who you get notified by. But then that would mean that WhatsApp (read: Facebook) offers a free tool that's actually meant to help you.

Obviously not.

That was sarcasm. (Archer fans, anyone?)

What worked for me in the end was to disable all visual notifications and only turn on message sounds.

Yes, it rings for every message that I get (excluding the muted groups and people). But you know what, I'd rather hear a sound go off, than experience a roller coaster of emotions from a phone screen.

Wait. Wait. WAIT!!!

I can just hear you saying 'this guy is full of sh*t, he clearly gets notifications.'

All is not lost my friend. I didn't get defeated by life's demands and notifications. As a matter of fact, there is one simple magical trick that allows me my freedom back:

Turning The Phone on Silent

When I put my phone on silent...

Game over.

That's it.

I win.

I beat the tech giants at that very gratifying moment. Because I know that (for better or worse), I'm completely unavailable now.

I don't get any notifications pulling me away from the things that I'm doing. I don't get phantom vibrations, annoying sounds, or visual cues desperately begging for my attention.

I reclaim my time and my freedom.

The point I'm making is that having audio-only notifications turned on is not a bad idea. As long as you have the ability to completely turn them off.

Because, at times, I do want to hear the phone ring. Especially when I'm expecting an important call. Or waiting for the Uber Eats delivery guy to call from the lobby so I can let him in.

(It's the Uber Eats delivery guy... that's the important call I'm waiting for.)

Also, for this to work, vibrations have to be turned off. Because they still make a noise even when you physically toggle the silent switch on your phone.

If the phone is vibrating (making noise) when you want it to be silent, then it's still calling out for your attention.

That's a big no-no.

When vibrations are turned off, that's when the 'Silent' feature actually does what it's supposed to do and turns the phone on silent.

And you can enjoy all the freedom time you want.

If you look close enough, you can see that she's not holding a phone.

The biggest benefit I've reaped from having my phone on silent is that I can do whatever I want without interruptions.

I can get completely immersed in whatever I'm working on at the time.

It is normal for me to sit down and do deep, focussed work sessions for 3-4 hours at a time. Without feeling mentally exhausted or burnt out.

Here's one of my favorite quotes of all time:

"It's not the hours you put in, it's what you put in to the hours that make all the difference." — Jim Rohn

Jim Rohn is right.

I used to pride myself on my ability to work 10-12 hours a day.

But I wasn't really getting much done. Because I was checking messages, Instagram, and whatever else that popped up on my phone.

And also doing a bit of work every now and then.

It's surprising to see how much work you can actually get done in 4 hours if you're able to focus and remain uninterrupted for that time.

If focus is something you struggle with, I recommend checking out 90 Heroic Minutes. Shane will show you how to do a focussed, deep work session for 90 minutes straight.

Anyways, I didnt become a millionnaire or get rich over night. But my ability to focus and get meaningful work done, that pushes me towards my goals, has increased by at least a factor of 10.

Limitations of the Notification Free Life

Living Notification Free doesn't mean that you can't get addicted to social media, messaging, dating apps, etc.

The difference is that you can control how often you open them.

If you start spending more time on them, you end up opening them a lot more often than you would like to admit.

(Guilty as charged.)

I went through that phase recently.

I realized that I was opening the web app version of Instagram, WhatsApp, Text, Slack, etc. multiple times a day.

These things can still get to you and can get you addicted.

Living Notification Free can only do so much if you don't make the choice to stop being a user.

Once I realized my behavioral pattern, I made the choice to not open these apps as much.

My guess is if I had notifications turned on, I wouldn't have realized that I was getting hooked on my phone again.

Because I would be too invested in what was happening and looking forward to the notifications. Happens to every one of us when we're expecting texts or responses.

It took me about a week and a half to notice what I was doing and take corrective action.

I chalk this up to a limitation of the Notification Free life. Because it's not a magic bullet that will fix my behavior.

Ultimately, I am responsible for my own behavior and how much I choose to interact with my phone. And the various apps that want my attention.

But, I only have this choice when I have the notifications turned off.

Because, when I have notifications turned on, my relationship with my phone is reactive.

The phone buzzes, rings, lights up and I react and see 'what's going on here?'.

If I have notifications turned off, I don't even know what's going on. Until I proactively make the choice to go and check it out.

Personally, I'd rather make the choice to check my phone vs. the phone demanding that I check it.

Conclusion

If I had to recommend the Notification Free life to anyone, 100% I would (and I do).

It's like being able to see the matrix around you once you've been successfully unplugged.

You can see people who are not in control of their own minds. Their attention and (perhaps worst of all) their ability to focus. That's what's at stake here.

In the last 6+ months, I've found that I have become calmer and more centered (on average) than before.

I've been happier with myself and the quality of life I have. And I've been less prone to emotional reactivity and anger — these are huge for me personally.

I feel like I am in control of my mind again.

I am able to have conversations with people I disagree with and I'm able to be present with people and hear them out.

One of the best compliments I get from people is that they feel heard when they talk to me.

I can focus for hours on end until I get a task done without feeling mentally drained or burnt out. And that gives me the confidence to know that if I set a goal, it's just a matter of time till I hit it.

I don't think I can quantify the effect the Notification Free life has had on me. But what I can say, with absolute certainty, is that it's been extremely net positive.

And there's no way I'm going back.

This is how I live now.

What do you think of all this? Would you give the Notification Free life a try for a couple days? I would love to hear your reasons for why or why not.

Thank you for your time and attention.

Abhi

PS. If you are thinking about trying out the Notification Free life, would you like a quick 1-page guide to get started? Let me know in the comments and I'll send it over to you.


Abhi Chand

About the author

TK

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  • Great article, Abhi! Well-written & engaging!

    One big “take-away” for me is that this process puts YOU in control! You — the “user” — decide just how much notifications you receive…

    Like you — being distanced from your parents — many people have family responsibilities (from very young children to aged parents/grandparents) they MUST be available for, whether it’s emergency notifications or regular reminders!

    The process you’ve described also encourages self-examination & creates the opportunity to be completely honest with one’s self. As you pointed out, one can always circumvent any system, but at least it gets one thinking about WHY they might be trying to “cheat!” 😀 LoL!

    Well done! <3

    • Thank you, Karen! Appreciate your comment 🙂

      Yes, you’re right. Going Notification Free puts you in control. Checking notifications, messages, etc. usually put us in a reactive state. And that reactivity is usually negative. If you’re not exposed to notifications, etc. then you don’t end up getting in that negative state.

      I think being honest with ourselves is very difficult but also necessary to make real, lasting positive change. And it’s ok to ‘cheat’ a system per se, as long as you know why you’re doing it. I agree with you there.

      Thanks again 😀

  • Stein Varjord says:

    Hi Abhi,
    I’m enthusiastic about this topic. I’ve adopted a very restrictive notification policy from “the beginning of time”. Actually I don’t even allow them the positively charged name “notifications”. I use names like nuisance, disturbance, noise, nagging, and such. I insist on those names to others too. If I hear the word “notification” I’l go off on a rant, just to brainwash people. 🙂 I find it makes it clear for them why I have turned it all off and deleted apps I have no use for. Some seem to have been inspired a bit by it.

    The reason for this attitude is that I’m old enough (60) to feel fine about being arrogant in chosen contexts. The important people know I love them anyway. Also decades of being annoyed by distraction makes you gradually loose your patience with it. Especially since I have a form of “ADHD”, (which in reality is a kinda useless diagnosis.) Anyway I’m very easy to distract, so I need to be fanatic about defending my peace of mind.

    When it comes to the phone, it has zero entertainment apps. All types of messages are on silent and no vibration. If anybody sends me a message, they know it means I’ll read it in the evening or tomorrow or so. If they don’t know, they’ll find out. If they need to reach me quicker, they can call. Calls are mostly allowed, with sound and vibrations, but if the wrong people call or the right people call but without a good enough reason, I will tell them clearly enough to make them not wish to repeat it.

    Examples of my selectivity: Twitter. “Somebody somewhere has said something!” Why the f*** do I care? Garbage app, deleted. Same with Instagram (never signed up) and the Facebook newsfeed, (never go there, but use some FB features like groups.) Slack: “Lots of people said a lot without getting anywhere”, and I have to read it all for that result? No way! Get to the point, or shut up! Deleted.

    I also ditched TV 15ish years ago. I have screens of course, but they only show what I tell them to show. Well, actually what my girlfriend tells them to, but whatever. 🙂 Anyway, our initiative, not the screens. You can easily be a veggie with that too, but far less a waste of time and so much easier to leave. TV uses FOMO as its core engine. With our non TV screens we know the same will still be there tomorrow, and next year. Just turn it off. No stress.

    I’m a very soft, considerate and social guy, in person, but the electronic facade is that of an angry old man. “No trespassing! I’ll shoot!” It really does work for me and my surroundings, family, friends, work. They’re so used to it that they don’t even think about it. They know what I really am and how to easily reach me if needed.

    • Hi Stein,

      Sorry for the late response. I really appreciate your well thought out comment.

      To me, you’re coming across as someone who values his time. Especially, the way you describe how “decades of being annoyed by distraction makes you gradually lose your patience with it”. I can fully see that and understand it. I wish more people would realize this sooner… that they’re virtually not in control of their time unless they proactively choose to do so.

      “Somebody somewhere has said something!” Why the f*** do I care?” <-- This is one of the GREATEST quotes I've ever read hahaha. I love it! You're absolutely right about all these BS social media apps, most of them are useless, to be honest. For me the most impactful part of your comment is the last paragraph: "I’m a very soft, considerate and social guy, in person, but the electronic facade is that of an angry old man. “No trespassing! I’ll shoot!” It really does work for me and my surroundings, family, friends, work. They’re so used to it that they don’t even think about it. They know what I really am and how to easily reach me if needed." How crazy is it that you have to point out that you're a 'soft, considerate, and social guy' just because you refuse to succumb to the status quo. To me, THAT bothers me the most about just how much tech has taken over our lives and reality. Thank you so much for your comment and I am very sorry for the super late response.

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