The constant buzzing and ringing. The screen lights up dozens of times per hour. A page-long list of small rounded rectangles, too big to scroll through, that fill our lock screens.
Notifications have outlived their usefulness – at least most of the time. What started out as a way for apps and the operating system to let us know something important, something you want to act on now, has been abused by app developers to almost constantly beg our eyes. It’s the attention economy.
So now we’re all stuck in a terrible purgatory. We check our phones hundreds of times a day to see what that last noise was about, or we ignore them and possibly miss something really important. To mangle a line from The Incredibles: When everything is critical, nothing is.
Fortunately, iOS has everything you need to manage your notifications. Focus Modes are the newest tool in the toolbox, but I think it’s too complicated. Setting up multiple Focus modes is a powerful and flexible thing, but it requires a fair amount of time and attention, and most people have shown themselves unwilling to spend on taming 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, narrowing them down to just a handful a 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 to, rather than a tutor or a needy child begging for attention.
This is my method of managing notifications. It takes about 10 minutes to set up, and then only a few seconds when you install a new app.
How to drastically reduce notifications without missing anything
Time to complete: 10 minutes
Required materials: iPhone or iPad
Open the Settings app and go to Notifications
We’re going to be doing most of our work in the Notifications section of the Settings app. Open Settings and scroll down to Notifications. On the top, you can customize how they appear and set up Scheduled Summaries. But we are interested in the list of apps under the Notification style column.
Go through all your apps and adjust notifications
This will take some work, but it’s a one-time thing. Go through the list of every app on your iPhone and tap each app. You’re presented with a long list of options: whether to deliver immediately or wait for your scheduled digest (if you’ve set one), how to display alerts, and more.
For the majority of your apps, you just have to disable the “Allow notifications” settings by default. That’s right, most of your apps don’t need to send you notifications at all! You can just catch up on what 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 what it has to tell you the next time you want to open the app.
The rule of thumb: should you act immediately?
The rule of thumb for changing your notifications is: should I do something about this right away? Leave your notifications on for apps that provide critical “you need to do something about this now” information. Apps like home security systems, phone, messages and other messaging apps, wallet, weather… these all provide the kind of notifications that you may need to act on immediately.
Almost everything else can and should be turned off. If you’re not sure, you can choose to turn off notifications for that app. You would be surprised how many things you do not to miss.
Make notifications less intrusive
For some apps, it can be helpful to know that the app needs your attention at some point, but not right away. Maybe you want to know you have unread emails, but you don’t need a popup and sound and vibration when a new email arrives, for example. Maybe your fitness app has a reminder for you that you don’t even need to look at for a few hours.
These select few apps can easily notify you in a much less intrusive way.
Start by disabling lock screen alerts and banners (so you don’t get a popup while you’re doing something else), and consider removing them from the Notification Center as well.
Disable sounds, but maybe leave them on Badges. That way you won’t be disturbed when an app has something to tell you, but you’ll see the little red circle with a number in the corner of the app icon.
With these changes, you’ll probably find your phone interrupting you a fraction of the time. That is good! Notifications are turned on by default with every new app from unless it’s something that provides critical time-sensitive information that you need to act on right away. Remember these two golden rules:
Apps should only notify you if it’s for you must act immediately. Everything else you can just see if you open the app on your own terms, of course.
If you want a reminder for another app that it has a notification for you, turn off all banners and sounds and rely on badges as a visual reminder to visit the app.
Those who really want to get fancy with managing notifications might want to dive into the focus modes. You can set custom modes that come on automatically or at specific times, at a location, or when you open a specific app, and change which notifications are allowed or not. It is a more flexible system, but also more complex.
The bottom line is that iOS is advanced enough that you don’t have to suffer through an endless stream of notifications that you don’t care about. With a little work, your phone can be slimmer, your lock screen cleaner, and your life a lot quieter.