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Getting notifications under control

As this sentence was being written, about a dozen notifications just happened.

It used to take some effort to get machines to tell us stuff. A digital alarm clock wouldn’t wake you until you told it what time, down to the minute. If a phone automatically started telling you what appointments to expect that day and how the weather would be, you called an exorcist (from another phone).

But we’ve come to take for granted that our ever-smarter tools (phones, computers, email) and even those with modern brain transplants (TVs, refrigerators, cars) are telling us stuff all the time. Honestly, you can’t shut them up. They feel you must know how many emails have arrived since the last time you checked, whether it’s time to change the water filter, who’s replied to a Facebook post you commented on last week.

If you wanted to lump all these messages together, you could just call them “notifications,” which is a catch-all term if you own an Apple or Android phone. In recent years, the way phones and tablets organize all of the alerts and updates from different apps into one neat, front-and-center, at-a-glance display has become a major mobile feature. A well-organized set of notifications can make you feel like you’re on top of what’s going on and plugged into the now. A messy notifications list is a pirate ship plank’s walk into deadly, chaotic seas.

Notifications, though, are part of a larger problem: interruptions. Perhaps you have found a way to shield yourself from the increasing number of pings and prods, the dings and distractions. For the rest of us, it’s a struggle; what if you miss an important text message? Or a flood warning? What about an email from the boss or news of a sale from your favorite store’s mobile app? How do you balance all that with the need to reclaim your time, attention and physical space from external intrusions?

Let’s explore some approaches you can take to taming notifications if you feel that way, too.

• Going cold turkey: On your more personal digital devices (phones, computers, tablets) you could consider turning off notifications entirely and seeing whether it brings you peace of mind.

On Windows PCs, Macs, iOS, Android and other mobile devices and on social networks, your settings or control panels will have an option for turning off notifications. On most recent smartphones, you can go in and control notifications for individual apps and how they appear on your main screen. You may decide as you go to re-enable notifications to bring back only the ones you need, but wiping the slate clean and living that way for a few days may be a good place to start.

• Hit the worst offenders first: Maybe you’re fine with some notifications, but you’ve noticed others dominate your day, such as reminders of new emails or a calendar app that blasts a ringtone when an appointment arrives. Get rid of the most frequent, annoying offenders and see if that improves your life.

Some apps won’t let you off so easily. Facebook’s Messenger app, for instance, will tersely remind you every time you open the chat program that you should have notifications enabled. It’s pushy like that.

• Cut devices from the loop: You may need constant alerts and reminders if you lead a fast-charging, busy life, but you may not need to see the same notifications on all your devices all the time. If you’re a heavy Mac/iPhone user, for instance, you may find yourself seeing the same notifications on your computer, phone, tablet and, if you have one, Apple Watch. You could cut the iPad out of that cycle if it’s not a device you frequently use all day.

One other advantage to this – if you ever get sensitive private messages or anything not safe for work as an alert, do you really want that stuff flashing on the home screens of multiple gadgets at the same time, including devices that are out of reach?

• Seasonal adjustments: It may take a little more effort, but handling notifications in a situational way has its advantages. For instance, you could only shut off notifications when you’re on vacation or on weekends. You could add notifications that are reliant on location (these are called “geolocation” or “geofenced” alerts) when you’re traveling to tell you when you’re near a popular attraction or historical landmark.

• Keep them on: Keeping all notifications on could potentially enrich your life, making it more likely that you’ll answer errant email messages and that you won’t miss an impromptu Periscope broadcast from a close friend before it disappears.