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Why Push Notifications Aren’t Always Evil

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Push Notifications Good Sometimes

At Asian Efficiency, something that we say over and and over and over again is that we want to Pull our data instead of having it Pushed to us as notifications.

But this an oversimplification – and in this quick guide, we’re going to go over some deeper specifics.

Push is the idea that whenever data is available out there in the cloud, it is sent by the cloud/server to our devices, without us requesting it.

Pull (or “fetch”) is the idea that the data is out there, but it won’t be pulled to our devices until we request it, which is usually done by opening an app.

In general, push is only evil when it interrupts us and breaks our focus – otherwise, it’s actually an amazing and very useful technology. It follows from this that push can be good… sometimes.

It’s great when we need timely information, and we don’t want to switch from what we’re doing to request the data from the cloud.

In fact, the general rule for when push is good is this:

When Push provides timely, needed information without breaking our flow of thought and focus, that is a good thing.

If you use that as your starting point and then customize your apps and notifications accordingly, push and yourself will get along really well.

Let’s look deeper into specific desktop and mobile apps and what should and shouldn’t be set to push or not.

Desktop/OS X Notifications

Desktop OS X Notifications

We’re going to be talking about OS X here, as the more recent incarnations have push functionality and a built-in Notification Center. Windows 7 as far as I remember doesn’t have any notifications of this particular sort, and I have no idea about Windows 8.1 – in fact, I don’t know anyone who actually uses Windows 8/8.1.

The basic rule for Desktop is this: there should be NO push, or more specifically, no notifications.

The reason for this is because when we are at our desktops, we are usually focusing on high-value work, and don’t want to be interrupted.

As you can see, in my OS X Notification Center, I literally have NOTHING.

Desktop Notification Center

The only reason Calendar appears there is I like to have it on quick reference so I can see what appointments I have during the day.

Desktop Calendar Notification Center

Tip: You can bind Option + “=” to quickly slide in the Notification Center as in the screen above.

Now I do have badges and banners set for different things.

Badges are that little red circle with a number in them that you sometimes see on application icons.

Desktop Badge App Icon

Banners are the little slide-in events in the top-right of your screen.

Desktop Banners

I turn badges on for IM programs (but leave banners off). The reason for this is that sometimes I’ll be away from my computer, and I want to be able to glance at my dock and see what messages I may need to reply to.

Here’s how you leave badges ON:

Desktop Badges On

I turn banners on for:

And that’s about it. What all these apps have in common is that they have some functionality here – files are moved, copied or uploaded. I like being able to set a number of files to upload to a website, go do something else then get a quick notification when it’s all done.

Growl is the exception here – it is essentially a program that provided notifications before Notification Center existed. I use it to pipe Spotify song track changes into Notification Center’s banner functionality.

Here’s how you leave banners on:

Desktop Banners On

Note: It isn’t explicitly mentioned, but we’ll assume that you don’t have your mail program running all day and notifications/badges/banners for it are turned OFF. The exception is if you’re in Inbox Warrior mode.

Mobile Notifications

Mobile Notifications

Note: I’ll be using iOS terminology here as that’s what I’m familiar with, but the same applies for Android and other mobile platforms.

First things first – when you’re working, your mobile/cell should be on silent, or away from your desk, or face-down.


  • If I need to receive an important call, I’ll leave it on ring.
  • If I want to know about something via message but don’t want to break focus on what I’ working on, I’ll put my phone face-up, on silent and in my periphery – I’ll notice the screen flash when I get the message.

The reason for this is that our psychology is wired for use to pay attention to notifications. When we see notifications for an app… we want to check it – whether that’s on the lock screen, a badge icon, a banner or an alert. It therefore makes sense that we control what we see.

iOS Terminology for Notifications

Here’s a quick guide to the terminology used in iOS’ notification settings:

iOS Notification Settings

Click to enlarge

Alert Style
This indicates how we receive a notification – be it through a banner, badge or not at all. For most cases, it should be set to None or Banners.

The exception is your calendar, which you will want to set to Alert.

Badge App Icon
This shows that red number in a circle on the app icon that indicates how many notification we have for a particular application.

You’ll probably want to turn this off for everything except messaging apps. The reason to leave this on for messaging apps, is so that you can see where you’ve received messages and handle them when you do check your phone.

You should turn badges off for mail. Messaging is one thing. But opening the door to email (which takes longer to handle) is something completely different, especially if you don’t have good email handling habits.

This is a sound that rings when you get a push notification.

My suggestion is to leave it off for everything except messaging apps, but some people like it for other things too.

Show in Notification Center
This indicates that a notification will show up in the swipe-down notification center in iOS.

Best to leave this on only for messaging apps.

Show on Lock Screen
This indicates that a notification will show on your lock screen (when your phone is off/locked and you press the home key or power button once).

Again, on for messaging apps and calendar, usually off for everything else.

What Apps Should Have Notifications?

As you may have gathered from above, the only apps that should have notifications turned on for your phone are messaging and calendar apps.

Calendar apps – this just makes sense. You want to know when events happen, and having them on lets you use strategic reminders throughout the day.

Messaging apps – also makes sense. Your phone is a communication device, and you want to be notified (even if not immediately) when people want to contact you.

For me this includes:

There are also some special case apps that you may want to leave notifications turned on for in some form or another. Note that most of these apps won’t send notifications unless it’s timely and relevant anyway.

  • AirBNB. For replying to messages to secure accommodation when traveling.
  • Easy Taxi. For getting a cab.
  • Uber. For getting a cab.
  • Eventbrite. For attending events.
  • Passbook. For various concert/other passes.

You may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned any social networks like Facebook and Instagram. I personally think it is bad practice and poor productivity to get notifications for likes or comments or mentions. In fact, I don’t even have these apps on my phone anymore. I do keep Facebook Messenger on as it’s a communication tool, but if I want to check Facebook… I have to do it on my desktop, which is rare.

You’ll also notice that Mail is not included in the list of messaging apps. As with the desktop, email can be a nebulous black hole that sucks away your time, so you want to control it as much as possible. Turn off notifications for mail, remove the badge app icon and only open Mail when you know you have time to scan through it.

The last app category I want to mention is games. Sure, games are fun. But boy do they like to send useless notifications – no notification a game send is THAT important in the overall context of your life, and game developers are mostly just using them to get you back into the game and engaged in it to kick up their advertising impressions. You can safely leave notifications off for all games.

(Or, implement the rule that we came up with at Asian Efficiency – iOS games, only if they’re on iPad. No games allowed on the phone.)

iCloud, and making it confusing

Here’s where it gets a little confusing.

If you’re using iCloud or Google’s suite of apps, you’ll want to set the Push function to ON in your phone (it’s under Settings > Mail, Contacts, Calendars). As such:

iOS Push On 1 iOS Push On 2

This is so that your contacts, calendar etc all get pushed in real-time on your phone and everything is updated and in-sync without you needing to worry about it.

What you don’t want though, is to be notified of every update.

So… leave push ON. But turn badges, banners, alerts and notifications OFF.

In Closing

The general rule is this:

  • On desktop, notifications are OFF unless they facilitate your workflow.
  • On mobile, notifications are ON for messaging, and OFF for everything else.

Comments and questions? Ask away!

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Posted by Daniel  | May 12, 2014 at 4:50AM | Reply

Totally agree with notifications for OS X. The notification center is an awareness tool — it guides attention. In this sense, the “shows your alerts … without interrupting what you’re doing” is a fundamental misunderstanding on Apple’s part on how human attention works.

Posted by Aaron Lynn  | May 12, 2014 at 7:13PM

I think a lot of app developers also need to realise that people don’t need notifications for absolutely everything.

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