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Calm Notifications

The default in our society is to have a bunch of pinging buzzing & blinging notifications on.

A lot of people who have started thinking about this have decided to turn them off, and instead check at specific times, like once or twice a day.

What I’ve noticed happening in my own life as I try this is…

It’s fine if it’s stuff I don’t care about. Back when I had an office job, I would check email once a day, just after lunch (my boss tried to convince me to at least check it in the morning—and if I could’ve figured out some way to only show me “urgent” mail in the morning, I would’ve.), and batch through everything. My job was writing computer programs, and I wanted to get to that first thing in the morning.

The bigger the batches, the easier it is to be kind of ruthless towards some of it. So it was great, going through those thirty or so emails a day and being like… maybe one per week would be relevant to me.

When I do care about the mails, though, this solution is awful because what ends up happening is checking, checking, checking. (It’s especially bad if I have more than one thing to check, because what always ends up happening even though I intellectually know that this is bad, is that I check one thing, then check the other, then back to checking the first, then checking the second etc. It’s psychologically much easier to check one thing, and then know that I’ve seen it all.)

I’m old so when I first started using email, there were no notifications for them. I had to actually go check. When notifications became viable (because cheaper bandwidth and background processes), they were such a weight off my shoulder. Instead of me always having to go check, the email would just… would just let me know when there were something to care about, and the rest of the time I could relax and forget about it.

This isn’t just me having rose-tinted memories of the past. I’ve gone back again and again and re-experienced systems where there’s no notification, only active checking. Most new systems or forum I join have this property—checking rather than notification. It’s still stressful.

It becomes something I need to remember to do, and the reward for remembering, and checking, is… the clock just resets, the task isn’t done. I still have to check again soon enough. Plus the random dopamine hit of sometimes seeing something cool to read, a little surprise.

The slot machine approach to computing. At-will checking is awful.

Girl, Interrupted

What we don’t want out of a notification is interruption. A less important activity is not allowed to interrupt a more important activity. When I have a face-to-face conversation with a co-worker, I shouldn’t get distracted by a blonging computer behind me (or in my pocket).

What about scheduled checking?

I was successful with the routine of only checking my work email once a day, just after lunch. That just required me appling some discipline.

Hold on a minute, though. Why should I do work — even if the work is easy, like having the discipline to only check once a day — that the computer could much more easily do? Just set up the computer to check & notify at the slower rate. Once a day, or whatever.

Two types of info

I like to divide incoming information into… what do I want to have push access to me, vs what do I want have pull access too?

Push access is something like a personal email. I want it to get through to me.

Pull access is something like a novel or comic book, especially when I don’t have any projects that depend on me reading the thing.

For the pull access stuff, I like to have several, uh, “layers” or “rings” of how eagerly I want to read it. Do I wanna skim every post of a particular blog? Or is it one that I care less about and only wanna go and check every once in a while, like “Ho-hum, I really do have some extra time, I’ll go see if So-and-so have posted something?”

There’s a lot of email that I have filtered to only go into the “pull access” reader. I even use a different app for those particular emails. (Sort of inspired by the “Feed” in, but I have my own implementation.)

For the push access stuff, I want something that doesn’t blog or ring or disturb me. Just something that shows up in the corner of my eye.

A simple number

So that’s what I went with. A number in the corner of the computer screen that reflects the number of unread, personal (i.e. after all the filtering) emails, if any. If there are zero, which there are most of the time, there is no number.

When I’m away from the computer, or not at home (I don’t have a smartphone), I don’t see it.
When I’m browsing or reading news, or writing something casual like these blog posts or other email, I do see it.
Then again, when I really wanna focus on writing something important, I can hide it. I can toggle the visibility of the number with Meta-B.

This is perfect for me. Really happy with that. I don’t feel the urge to check check check when I’m away from home—I’ve learned to associate email with computer. I don’t need to constantly glance at the corner—my eye just notices the number popping up, via peripheral vision. It’s completely silent and when I am focusing deeply I don’t even see it until I take a breath and unfocus. It’s perfect.

Why I set that up

For a while I didn’t have any phone, and that’s when I realized I had to set this up. In the past, people had been able to text or call me for urgent messages, and now they couldn’t. They could only email. (This was several weeks, until I ended up getting a dumbphone.)

So obviously since I do want to both encourage and reward people for using email to contact me since that’s what I prefer, I want to be somewhat on the ball there.

I don’t even think about it when I’m not at the desktop, but when I am, I can reply right away. Best of both worlds.

By contrast, to stuff that I need to remember to check, that’s constantly gnawing on me.

I like to create scrapers and put it into sources I am already looking at, for example my feed reader, so that I only need to remember check one thing. That’s a work in progress, though. I don’t have enough scrapers for everything.


Since writing the preceding part of this text, I started using urlwatch for things that don’t have a feed. I’ve had “write a bunch of scrapers and checkers” on the backburner but now I don’t have to do that myself anymore. Wow, what a load off my mind to have the computer do the checking for me instead of having to do it myself.♥

Notifications can be distracting but they can also be relaxing, is the gist of what I’m trying to say here. Heavy use of filtering and sorting so that non-important things get to notify more rarely.

Silent Deferring

Today (2021-04-14) I set up a system using [nmsync] and [] that catches a bunch of email searches, currently 26 lines in .nmsync.tags, and hides them until next morning when they all pop in at once.

Checking is bad, batching is good.

Checking manually is bad. It’s better to be able to relax and know that if something cool comes in that I’ll see it right away, I don’t have to fret about missing anything. It should notify me silently; I should see it if I’m at the device but it should not call me to the device if I’m not.

Batching is good, but, if I put interesting stuff in there I’ll get tempted to check it before it’s due. Put boring stuff in the batch and I’ll go through it all next morning.

So I’m working on setting up a five-tier system:

  1. Only phone-calls from people I know and deliveries. I will hear it even if I’m doing something else.
  2. Interesting emails, IRC mentions, Fedi mentions. I will see it when I’m at a good context for it (e.g. I’m already at the computer) and it won’t bug me otherwise.
  3. Things I do need to look at mid-week, but, it can wait until the next batch. Will be held off until next morning and at that point will be treated as tier 2.
  4. Things that I def don’t wanna miss but isn’t urgent at all. I’ll have Calibre wrap it up into an ebook and read it on Sundays.
  5. Things that are no more important than any given book in my to-read–pile, just something that can be cool to occasionally leaf through.

This fifth and last category is a problem right now. Because since there is no notification, I go check it manually, and if there’s nothing new, I’ll re-read (or re-listen to if it’s a podcast or video). I guess one solution is to promote some of it to tiers two through four, and give up others. It’s not too bad, because it generally tends to eat into bookreading/TV time (i.e. evenings and late afternoons) rather than work time.