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We want to feel connected. We want our interactions with others to feel real and valuable. We want to collaborate. We want to have fun and be entertained and engaged. We want access to information and we want it now – often overlooking the source or its legitimacy, in the process.

When I started getting interested in the web and coding in the ’90s, the internet seemed like this cool, new, super-fast way to communicate with anyone around the world. The point was basically conversation and collaboration.

Somewhere along the way, though, our focus shifted from conversations to “posts”. The point was no longer to collaborate, but to simply post something, often based on nothing, and wait to see if it gets some kind of passive reaction. Social media apps are all set up this way.

Deep down, we still want conversation, though, so all these apps also include some form of private messaging. ‘You don’t want to leave our beautifully curated platform to send messages. Just do it while you’re here. We’ll even notify you so you never miss a message. We’ll also sprinkle in some notifications for other things too, such as when someone else likes something else that you might like. You’ll love it!‘

This leaves us with too many ways to send and receive legitimate messages. On a recent Sunday, a coworker sent me a message in WhatsApp. I absent-mindedly swiped it away, because I get too many unimportant messages in WhatsApp. Later, this person sent a follow-up on Messenger (where I have notifications turned off, due to too many unimportant messages), later SMS (to my work phone, which I don’t check on the weekend), and finally work e-mail (which I also don’t check on the weekend). It was all the same message because I hadn’t responded to the first one, which I had kind of ignored as not important because I get too many unimportant messages in WhatsApp.

Then there’s the issue of people’s weirdly fierce brand loyalty – like refusing to use WhatsApp and only using Messenger (they’re both owned by Facebook), forcing people who want to stay in touch to make sure they include that person’s choice of messaging app in our growing, dizzying arsenal of messaging apps.

Now I’m just overwhelmed. There’s an app for everything and they all want attention multiple times a day. So I turned off most notifications. But the apps are still there, so the next time I open them, each one is panicking that I haven’t acknowledged 30 missed things since the last time I opened the app. The main problem isn’t even that there are way too many notifications. I can always just ignore them all. The problem is that there are too many notifications that don’t matter, causing the few notifications that I might actually care about to become either lost in the noise or given the same attention as the noise as I seek to find them.

This doesn’t make me want to be more dilegent about checking messages. This makes me want to stop checking anything.

So what’s the solution? I don’t want to stop using my phone, but I definitely want less noise and higher quality interactions. Here’s what I’m doing:

  1. Boundaries. I dictate when I look at my phone and for what. This means turning off notifications for most apps, leaving my phone in a basket by the front door when I get home, only allowing notifications from priority contacts, etc.
  2. Private Messaging. I use SMS and e-mail. It’s all I need.

For everything else (Social media, chat apps, basically anything with messaging capability), I’ve turned off notifications and set up just 20 minutes per week (much in the same way I schedule downtime) to sift through it for any genuine conversation I can take back to SMS or e-mail.

In a way, maybe that’s the beauty of PM. It’s a lot easier to ignore than a series of texts from someone I actually want to hear from. Now, instead of a neverending deluge of meaningless notifications, by turning it off, it’s like a frontline defence against stuff I don’t want to read.

As for killing time when I’m just sitting around, waiting for lunch at a restaurant or waiting for a meeting to start or waiting for the elevator to come, I’m filling these awkward moments by texting friends just to ask how they are or firing off a quick e-mail to some pals to find time for drinks.

I want more genuine conversation and less one-way attention-giving/receiving.