There’s been a lot of chatter lately about the inadequacy of notification systems on mobile devices. Of all that I’ve read, I’d say the most honest take is by Ben Brooks, who acknowledges that it’s a problem that may not be solvable at all. When you reach an unsolvable problem in life it usually just means you're working on the wrong problem.

The two main types of notifications

Personal notifications are a means of programing our future selves to do the bidding of our present and past selves: task reminders, calendar alerts, etc.

External notifications come from machines and other people: new email, social network activity, and low batteries, to name just a smattering.

Personal notifications are reminders to do important things, but they’re often received with anxiety. External notifications are usually just the opposite: they create a temporary, artificial kind of pleasure, but they’re rarely useful.

The real problem with personal notifications is us

A personal notification is a reminder to do something – probably something not fun enough to do without being jabbed in the ribs.

The human mind isn’t like a computer. The human mind will not unconditionally accept a set of electronic instructions and act.

The human mind can become desensitized. It can choose to selectively ignore. It can choose to interpret things differently in different emotional states. It can choose to be overwhelmed and pissed off. It can choose to be apathetic to a cause that was important three days ago.

When setting personal notifications, we regularly make the assumption that nothing will change between the time we set the ding and the time it sounds, even though that very thing happens with alarming regularity.

The real problem with external notifications is us

It’s worth repeating: the human mind isn’t a computer. It was designed well before the computer era. It cannot multitask like a computer.

External notifications are distractions a thousand times more than they’re useful. The one or two really useful instances aren’t worth the attention expense of the countless others. Quite honestly, I don’t think the utility rate of external notifications is high enough to rationalize their existence at all.

But the human mind is not rational. It has a love affair with immediacy. And so it makes a decision to leave external notifications on.

Solving the notification problem, really

A single operating system design that solves all notification problems for all people is a mirage. Accommodating more notifications or making them better organized isn’t a real solution. In fact, I think that only exacerbates the problem.

Is a system capable of displaying twenty notifications superior to one that can only display one at a time? Is it solving a problem or enabling one?1

The solution to the notification problem isn’t a technical one.

The way to solve your own notification problem is to simply spend more time planning and reviewing so that you don’t schedule instructions on top of each other. And if it’s notifications that come from external sources that give you trouble, you might just consider turning those off altogether. Are they really worth it?

You might be surprised how much your future self can get done when you give it fewer instructions and just get out of its way.

  1. As someone who had an Android phone for over a year and recently switched to the iPhone, I’ve not only seen but lived both approaches to notifications. Both are great and bad in their own way, but given that I prefer fewer interruptions to more, the current iOS take fits me better because it requires me to impose more of my own judgement on notification scheduling. OmniFocus gets a lot of credit here too.