How to Use Notifications to Achieve High Productivity


2016-07-03_14-40-12In today’s world, as an ambitious hard-working person, you are cursed. With the help of mobile, internet and cloud technology, you give yourself more to do than professionals in prior generations ever imagined. One of the problems you face is how to interrupt yourself when you get lost in a critical task.

If you have ever watched the TV show The West Wing, you may have noticed that the President employed the perfect administrative assistant. She never forgot anything, possessing a skillful way of interrupting her boss: the most powerful person in the world. Her message was simple: “Stop doing this, start doing that.”

These interventions kept the President on track with his plans for the day. Without them, he’d be operating blind. Eventually he would fall into chaos, a fact backed up by recent McKinsey research showing that admins make a measurable difference to an executive’s performance.

Unfortunately, most professionals, including those in Jamaica, no longer have administrative help. Even some that do, complain that their admin can’t be trusted to act like the character from the West Wing because his/her time management skills are not up to par. The fact is, administrative support is increasingly seen as a nice-to-have perk that can be cut, rather than a requirement to achieve high productivity.

In today’s world, you must be prepared to go it alone.

On the flip side, books like Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Deep Work by Cal Newport show that your best work takes place when you are able to devote total attention to a challenging task in a single sitting. In the cases where you are able to tackle the problem without being overwhelmed, you are pushed to use your best skills.

Unfortunately, these moments are becoming increasingly rare.

In today’s workplace interruptions are not only tolerated, they are encouraged: in some companies, it’s seen as rude to try to isolate yourself from others, no matter how critical the task. In others, answering every bleep, vibration and pop-up from your mobile device or laptop is seen as being “attentive”. The absolute worst corporate cultures actually reward employees who answer their email the quickest.

The problem is that once you enter the states of “Flow” and “Deep Work” you are likely to lose track of time. Furthermore, research shows that it’s futile to try to watch the clock while you’re being this productive. You end up multi-tasking by executing the task and watching the

clock at the same time. A better solution is to automate your interruptions.

This is the point where your device can actually be helpful. Like most people, you probably have an ad-hoc set of notifications set up on your smartphone, tablet and laptop. They sound off at random times, responding to a number of apps and system settings. You don’t understand how, or don’t have the bandwidth to fix them all. To survive, you adopt one of two extremes.

Perhaps you respond to every single signal your smartphone makes. According to researchers, this tactic is a fine way to simulate the symptoms of ADHD, ruining your productivity.

Most of us just ignore them all, hoping we don’t miss something important. Here’s a better alternative.

Step 1 – Turn Off All Notifications
Begin by leaving on the ringing of your phone and turning off everything else. Take a few days to re-accustom yourself to the relative silence. You are re-training your nervous system to tune back into your smartphone.

Step 2 – Make a List of Necessary Notifications
As your week progresses, notice which notifications you cannot do without. Separate permanent needs from one-time accidents. For example, just because you picked up an urgent email in 2014 based on a ping from your phone, doesn’t mean that you should keep this notification turned on. You may be making an error psychologists call a “Hasty Generalisation.” Set aside this list.

Step 3 – Catalog Situations Where Interruptions Are Necessary
Make a table of different locations and the actions you frequently take. Here is an example:

notified self table gleaner

Step 4 – Turn On Notifications You Absolutely Need, One at a Time
Today, most devices offer ways to customize notifications so they only appear at certain times with a distinctive blend of sounds, vibrations and pop-ups. Wait a few days between turning each one on so that you can get accustomed to this new way of paying attention.

The end result will be one you may appreciate. For the first in a long time, you will have a device whose notifications are tuned to your needs. You won’t have an actual administrative assistant, but your smartphone will now be playing an essential role that helps you to be your most productive.

Francis Wade is the author of Perfect Time-Based Productivity, a keynote speaker and a management consultant. To receive a complimentary document with links to his articles from 2010-2015, send email to