It officially started during that strange and mystical stretch of time now known as the first lockdown, when negative news notifications were at an all-time high and the only way to have a drink with your mates was through the Houseparty app, which would be inexplicably gatecrashed by strangers.
I was inundated with infection stats, digital book club invites, viral memes that no one would have found at all funny at any other time, and work emails postponing just about everything. I wanted an off switch for the world – but I settled instead for switching off my notifications.
But if I think back even further (hard: did life exist before the C-word?), this idea first sparked in 2019, when a now ex-boyfriend told me he had been living without phone notifications for years. I was impressed. Not least because our early digital courtship had been composed of rapid, quickfire texts and voice notes. “So how have you been staying on top of our messages?” I remember asking. “I just check the things that are important to me,” he said. “Like your texts.”
The reasons for turning off your notifications are numerous: better focus and concentration, being more present, better sleep, feeling in control of your life. When people who are still at the mercy of pings, rings and push notifications ask me how it all works, I paraphrase my ex: “You just check your phone as and when you need to.” My friends look horrified. But in this era of constantly breaking news, keeping them on seems like self-flagellation. Allowing yourself to become panicked by yet another depressing political update as it unfolds, or the news that your ex has had a baby, is like having an extra voice in your ear saying: “You’re worthless, no one loves you – and you’re doomed!” I actually like to schedule in some time for self-loathing around 7pm on Sunday instead of having it forced upon me ad hoc by my phone, thanks very much.
If you’re too scared to switch everything off from your phone’s main settings, you can try apps that limit time on certain apps, or just switch off notifications individually and ease yourself in gently. It can happen in stages. First you can try your big social media ones: Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, et al. Chances are you won’t actually miss the empty feeling that comes from browsing the lives of others and hearing awful news 24/7.
Then if you’re feeling braver, go for your email notifications. Friends who work as business managers, editors and lawyers tell me that there’s no way they could do that for fear of missing out on an important message and jeopardising their whole career. “I could be deemed negligent and get sacked,” the lawyer said, before admitting that his work phone never goes off and that he has notifications on both his personal and work phones. But are we ever paid enough to be on call 24/7? (Actually, the lawyer probably is). Surely, setting aside a slot in your day to respond to work messages is more time-efficient than frantically picking up your phone every time it goes off and distracting yourself from other urgent tasks?
WhatsApp seems to be the one most people can’t let go of. Turning off notifications there for me involved both the push ones and the read ones. I still remember Googling “how to read a WhatsApp message without people knowing”, which involved putting my phone on airplane mode then opening the message, to ensure the blue ticks (which signal a message has been read) did not appear. But no more!
My mum still has this panicked sense of duty to respond to all texts immediately. “They’ve seen that I’ve seen it now!” she says. I tell her to switch off read receipts as I’ve now done, but she refuses. She also still has all her phone alerts on full volume, which is a very particular form of notification obsession favoured only by the over-50s.
WhatsApp is also funny because once you turn your read notifications off, it means you’re freed from the tyranny of seeing whether your message has been read by others, but they might still worry about you knowing if they’ve read yours. “Sorry I saw your thing and didn’t reply,” a friend said to me recently. Don’t apologise, I said, I’ve turned off all read notifications. The shackles are off for both of us now. Finally, we can dance.
Georgina Lawton is the author of Raceless: In Search of Family, Identity, and the Truth About Where I Belong