Notification Madness

Loads of notification bubbles Loads of notification bubbles

What’s the first thing you see when you use your iPhone? On a typical day you might wake your iPhone to a backlog of half a dozen or so notifications. Maybe you have three email notifications all of which aren’t important, perhaps one or two from a free game you stopped playing months ago frantic to let you know about a new 99₵ character skin, or occasionally a twitter notification that another of the hundred thousand spam accounts has followed you. If you are fortunate you may notice somewhere in that wall of noise is a text from a loved one or an important calendar reminder.

When you finish mentally parsing through the laundry list of unimportant notifications (or just ignore them out of exasperation) and finally unlock your iPhone you’re probably greeted by a sea of red notification bubbles. Which ones are actually meaningful to you again? You can’t remember. You think again that you really should just do whatever these apps want you to do so those obnoxious bubbles would all finally go away but the thought of going through them all (most of which you don’t care about) is more trouble than it’s worth so you ignore them instead to save yourself from further stress.

This is a day in the life of the typical iPhone user and this hostile, stressful environment it creates is entirely avoidable. It doesn’t have to be this way. Your lock and home screen can be a comforting place that knows what you care about like an old friend, let me show you how.

Before We Begin

It’s important to first note that if the story above sounds like you it is not your fault. Apple is famous for their poorly implemented notification system and the fact that you have to manage notifications entirely yourself is living proof that their current solution is wrong. While it’s rumored that improvements are coming soon in iOS 9 this summer you don’t have to wait, with just five minutes you can take control back.

Making the Change

Open the Settings app and tap on Notifications. In there you should see a list divided into two main groups: “Include” and “Do Not Include”. You’re going to want to focus only on the items in the “Include” group since those are the apps that currently have permission to send notifications. For each of the apps in this group I recommend you follow this process:

  1. Ask yourself if you want notifications from this app. If the answer is yes, ask yourself again if you really want notifications from this app. As an example, I asked myself this with the Mail app and realized that there were only certain people I genuinely cared about getting notifications from: my family. Because of this, I turned off notifications for anyone other than them1. I read all email every morning and night on my computer and any truly urgent matters are sent via text messages so I gain no benefit from my Mail app spreading unnecessary stress throughout the day for every single email I get.
  2. Depending on what you decided above, either:
    • Turn off the notifications completely by tapping on the app in the “Include” list and sliding “Allow Notifications” off. You will never get notification banners or red bubbles from that app again.
    • Keep notifications on for that app.

Not All App Notifications Are Equal

You’re bound to have chosen to keep at least some of your app notifications on which is perfectly fine, but we can take this one step further. Not all app notifications are equal and you can turn on or off certain notification components for each app depending on how important they are to you. This can be easily understood by looking at the four independent pieces that make up the broad term “notification” in iOS, all of which are accessible by tapping on the app in the “Include” list:

  1. Notification Center: This is the pull-down view accessible anywhere that was introduced in iOS 7. Enable this for app notifications that you don’t want to have disturb you but you do want available in a unified place when/if the mood strikes you to see if anything new is going on. I enabled this for Mail from non-VIPs, Overcast (my podcast player of choice), Facebook, and a few other low priority notifications. To turn off, tap on “Show in Notification Center” and select “No Recent Items” or any of the other options to turn on.
  2. Lock Screen: This is what you see when when you wake your iPhone (the “Slide to Unlock” screen). Enable this for app notifications that you want to be made aware of the minute you begin using your iPhone. I enabled this for apps that I think have important notifications like Messages, Phone, Calendar, and others. Use the “Show in Lock Screen” slider to turn on/off.
  3. Badge App Icon (Notification Bubbles): These are those round, red bubbles that are displayed on the upper right-hand corner of apps that have withstanding notifications. In general, I enable this for apps that have Lock Screen notifications since I deem the importance of Lock Screen and Badge notifications to be equal. Remember, think hard about enabling this and Lock Screen notifications. If everything is important, nothing is, so enable in moderation. Use the “Badge App Icon” slider to turn on/off.
  4. Sounds: Sounds are whether or not notifications can alert you through sound or vibrations. This should be the least-used option as this is the only one of the four that will actively interrupt you. As such, enable with great care and purpose and disable with extreme prejudice (remember, these will be interrupting time with loved ones, work, etc.). I have sounds enabled for only Messages, Phone, Facetime, Calendar, and Reminders since their notifications are ones that require my direct and immediate attention and may hold unpleasant consequences if I don’t. Use the “Sounds” slider to turn on/off.

Determining which of the four to enable/disable for each app is where you can truly regain control of your iPhone. No longer will you be at the mercy of what it deems is important but what you think is important. This by no means is a perfect science, what works for me may not work for other people. You may find yourself going to Settings occasionally afterwards to tweak notifications for an app or two and that’s perfectly fine, that’s all part of the process of determining what works for you and what doesn’t. Eventually though you will have a setup that makes your iPhone understand and respect what you value and that alone makes the process worth it.

  1. This can be achieved with the little-known VIP feature in Mail. Read more about how to use VIP to achieve a similar result here↩︎