Life hack: make sure your phone only distracts you when it’s important

The problem with notifications

A while ago, a friend of mine tweeted “My favorite life hack: turn off all notifications on your smartphone. (Keep SMS if you’re cowardly and mail if you’re a complete chicken)” My first reaction was “eh, right” but a second later I thought “this is brilliant! You just keep them in the notification center.”

The problem with notifications is that every app and their mother wants to send you notifications. It makes sure that you keep using the app, which is important for apps that rely on advertising, in-app purchases and apps that are parts of networks that rely on a lot of active users. If you use a lot of apps, like I do, your phone quickly turns into something that resembles a pinball machine rather than a phone: buzzing, vibrating and making noises. But what good does it do? It draws my attention from what I’m doing right now. This is sometimes good, if what my phone is drawing my attention to is important. Like a text from my boyfriend. But the more apps you allow to send you notifications, the bigger the chance that the thing I’m being notified about is something that can wait.

Google are on a smart track here, where notifications are context based rather than always on. But until Apple gets with the context game (and they’d better, because if they don’t the’ll go the Microsoft way) there’s no way of knowing if the buzz in my pocket is because of something important, or something trivial.

So I turned off (almost) all notifications in my phone. But before we get to that, I’d like to go through what the notification styles really mean.

Banners, alerts, badges – what does it all mean?

The notification settings is one place where Apple have failed with the simplicity that is their trademark. Different apps will have different settings (for example, you can choose sound and vibration patterns for some apps, but not for most) and it’s unclear how the events affect each other. If you choose “alerts”, will they show up when your phone is locked? Does an app have to be “in the notification center” to be able to alert you? Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve always had a hard time figuring out what is what in the notification center. Here’s a run-through:

Notification settings in iOS
These are some of the settings you can change for how an app can notify you of events, in this case the Phone app

The alerts can be divided into three types:

  • alerts that are pushed to your screen when you’re currently using your phone (your phone is not locked)
  • alerts that only show when you request it (the notification center that you access by swiping down from the top edge of the screen when your phone is unlocked)
  • alerts that show up when your phone is locked.

All three types can also be accompanied by a sound and vibration. You can also choose whether each app should show a little red circle with a number indicating how many events that app has for you.

A closer look at the different notifications

This is the notification center in the iPhone. Here you will see notifications from all apps for which you set “Notification Center” to on. If you haven’t changed the default “5 recent items” for the “Show” option, you see the five latest notifications from the app here.

Notification center in iPhone 5

Banner notifications. These are the ones that pop up at the top of the screen for a few seconds when you’re currently using your phone (meaning your phone is not locked). If your phone is locked, you will not get these – but you still can choose to let them show on the lock screen of your phone and/or in the notification center. The advantage of these is that they show you a preview of the alert (for example the content of the text message) without being too intrusive. You can immediately decide whether it’s important enough to quit what you’re currently doing to switch to the app. The alternative to banner notifications are alert notifications.

Banner notification in iPhone

Alert notifications. These come up when you’re currently using your phone (meaning your phone isn’t locked) and require you to interact with them before they go away. These do not appear when your phone is locked. I see very little point in these notifications – there are few things so urgent that I have to quit what I’m currently doing on my phone and take care of them. One example when they would be useful is calendar reminders.

Alert notification in iPhone

Badge App Icon. These are the small red circles with a number showing how many notifications this app has for you.

Badge app icon in iPhone

Sounds. By default, sounds are accompanied by a vibration. For most apps, you can only choose whether the alerts will be accompanied by sound or not (sound on or off). For the apps that only have sound on/off you can’t choose which sound should be played, nor which vibration style should be used.  For some apps (phone, messages, the default calendar, mail accounts, reminders) you can choose which sound should be played, and you can choose vibration pattern. Sounds can accompany any alert style. You can also choose only to use sound/vibration and nothing else.

Lock screen. If you allow an app in your lock screen (show in lock screen on), the alerts will show when your phone is locked. This is independent of whether any other alerts are enabled. Immediately after an alert shows up in your lock screen, the “slide to unlock” function changes to “slide to view”. I find this very irritating for  apps where alerts are more FYI (“someone liked your photo on Instagram”) than actionable (Text asking “What do you want for lunch?”). The function goes back to “slide to unlock” once the screen goes to sleep mode. You can always slide the app icon in a lock screen alert, in the same manner you can slide the arrow in the lock function. This takes you directly to that app. This is handy when you have several alerts from several apps.

Lock screen notification in iPhone

Let your phone distract you only when it’s important

Like I wrote, I turned off almost all notifications in my phone. The default setting for any app is that it’s only allowed in the notification center. That way, I can turn on more intrusive notifications for apps that are more important. Here are the other notification styles and which apps are allowed:


Phone, Reminders, Calendar. I use Reminders (the app) for a reason, to send messages to my future self. This is true for meeting reminders from the Calendar app for example.


Messages and Mail from VIP contacts. Banners are intrusive, and if you accidentally tap them you switch apps. But they do show a preview of the alert, and this is perfect for messages – I can immediately decide whether that text needs an action asap.

Lock screen

Phone, Reminders, Calendar, Messages. All apps that are allowed to send me Alerts or Banners are allowed here, no other.


Phone, Messages, Calendar, Reminders and Mail from VIP contacts. I don’t want my phone to sound or vibrate unless it’s important. I turned it off for mail, since I get mail so often that my phone would vibrate and make noises every five minutes.

Badge App Icon

I allow a lot of apps to show badge app icons, but not all. For example, I use the default mail app for e-mail, and I can see how many e-mails I have on that badge, so I don’t need the Gmail app to show it. I can easily ignore badge app icons, but if you’re stressed by them I’d advice you to turn them off altogether.

Advanced vibration tip

Did you know that for the apps that you can choose sound for (Phone, Mail, Messages, Calendar, Reminders) you can also choose a vibration pattern. And you can create your own vibration patterns. If you have multiple e-mail accounts (private and work for example) you can set different sounds and vibration patterns for each account. If you use the VIP contacts function in the Mail app, you can set a separate sound/vibration for these. This would allow you to tell who you got e-mail from just based on the vibration – no need to get the phone out of your pocket if it’s not a VIP.

How do you use alerts? If you have tips, I’d be happy if you shared them!

Photo Credit for header image: Vectorportal via Compfight cc.