A few years ago I wrote about my communication protocol – the four channels of communication that I was willing to use, and which of them had to be used for which purpose when trying to get in touch with me. After a little bit of training, everyone in my life adapted, and it’s worked great since then. Although the people who pick up the phone in the Ometria office do sometimes feel awkward telling people that “Ivan doesn’t take incoming calls of any kind – please see his blog.”
There was a fundamental reason for creating that protocol. I had returned to complete one more year at Cambridge University, studying mathematics, and I was on 14-hour study days since I was coming up to the exams. I wanted to become a learning machine, and that meant that all distractions needed to be removed. I banned myself from computer games, and sugar, my two vices, for the entire year. The day after I finished my exams, I annihilated a packet of chocolate digestives, and Diablo III, but back to the point.. I was aware that I was just as easily distracted as anyone else, and that the best option was not to fight the distractions, but to simply remove them from my life.
Distractions, I realised, fall into two categories. The “vices”, like my sugar and computer game addictions, and the “foductivity” distractions – see what I did there – that make you feel like you’re doing something productive. Both work in the same way, by releasing endorphins that make you feel better, and conditioning your brain to anticipate this release. Everyone knows the banal example of tidying your room before doing your homework – well the twenty-first century version is getting to inbox zero before starting anything.
Vice distractions can, with willpower, be forcibly removed from your life. There is simply no need for them. With an important enough goal, and the dedication to achieve it, the mind can successfully choose to live without them. Foductivity distractions however cannot. Not completely. That room still needs to be cleaned. Just not when you should be doing your homework.
So my communication protocol was an attempt at reducing these secondary distractions to a manageable level. Since then, my phone has always been set to fully silent – it collects missed calls, but never interrupts whatever I’m doing. No email client I use is set to alert me – no beeps, no vibrates, no notifications. The only interruptive communication I’m willing to accept is Google Hangouts, which lives within my Gmail. If I’m checking my e-mails, and someone Hangouts me, I’ll see it – it’ll interrupt what I’m doing. But all I’ll be doing is checking my e-mails, so that’s fine.
For close to two years, this strategy worked extremely well. There were three types of device – computers, tablets and phones – that had functionality that could interrupt my day, and all of that functionality was switched off. It got to the point where I would actually feel sorry for people whose phone rang in a meeting, and who had to apologise for it. It felt great.
But then, a few months back, everything changed. The number of device types expanded. Along came Google Wear. As a fully-Googled individual, with my personal life managed entirely through their suite of productivity tools, and Ometria’s workplace collaboration as well, I pre-ordered the very first one and got it as soon as it was released. And it was good. Suddenly I had all of this information without needing to take my phone out of my pocket. Emails, Hangouts, Tweets, all vibrating on my wrist. It all seemed very exciting. My normal watches were deprecated immediately.
But as the weeks passed, I started noticing that strange feeling that I hadn’t had in years. That feeling that something wasn’t quite right. That feeling that my fight-or-flight reflex was always powered up. My body is sensitive to just about everything, and I’ve always had allergies, so I’ve grown used to spotting when something doesn’t feel right. And it wasn’t. I was hooked on the notifications again. When I didn’t get one for a while, I’d check the watch, scrolling through the tabs in case I could find something new and interesting. It was exactly the same feeling as when I had a phone that would notify me of every single message, email and phonecall.
I use a lot of devices – two computers, one at home and one at the office, two tablets, one for work and one for leisure, a phone, and now a watch. And it’s only going to get worse – it’s only a matter of time before my fridge tries to tell me I’ve got an email. So I started considering a slightly different protocol. Instead of a communication protocol, I created my personal notification protocol. I mapped the devices that I used, the types of communication I received, and the kind of notifications I was or wasn’t willing to have. This protocol is going to form the basis for any future device types that appear, whether fridges, or robot assistants.
Email. No notifications, ever, on any device. I check it between my meetings, which typically means once every one or two hours. I will delete the irrelevant ones first, then respond to any that take only a few seconds, and then consider whether I have time to respond to any that take a significant amount of thought or writing. If I don’t have time they are saved until the evening, or the next morning.
Calls. No interruptive notifications on any device. I trialled having my watch vibrate. The big difference between the phone ringing and the watch ringing is how quickly you can see who is calling and mute it, so I thought it may be possible to reintegrate call notifications back into my life. After a few weeks of Sky TV calling me daily, that strategy was cancelled as resolutely as my Sky subscription. Back to no notifications. When I check my email on my phone, I automatically see if anyone important recently called me. At worst, it’ll be an hour or two before I call them back. Although, more likely, I’ll wait for them to email me so I can respond asyncrhonously.
Text messages. No interruptive notifications on any device. Hate them with a passion. So inefficient, so outdated, and need to actively be considered as they are not part of my daily routine. If you send me an email, I’ll see it, because I check my email to live my life. But if you send me a text, I probably won’t reply straight away, and then it will be hidden in the bowels of my phone, until one day I get another one, and see yours there below it. After PAs, people sending me text messages is my number two pet hate. I’m actively considering setting Tasker to send an auto-response saying I am no longer willing to respond to texts, please email instead.
Google Hangouts. Now we’re talking. Sound notification on home computer, and visual notification on all devices. Why are they better than SMS? Because it appears in my Gmail. So when I check my email on my computer, I will see them. I don’t need to remember anything, I don’t need to do something additional, I just carry on with my day, and will be certain to see your Hangout next time I check my email on my computer. The reason I have sound at home is because my wife will Hangout me in the morning when she wakes up. She’s on her phone when she wakes up, she knows I’m in the living room reading or on the computer, and it’s just so much better than the option of shouting across the flat.
Having this protocol achieves two things. Firstly, it removes foductivity distractions. Ooh I just got an email and checked it, that’s 20 seconds extremely well spent. None of that. The second is that it removes the need to think. Thiking is fun, but it’s also hard – we do a lot of it, and our brain can’t do an infinite amount. So if you’re running at capacity, then you need to choose what you think about. I don’t want to think about checking all sorts of communication streams. And I don’t want to think about what kind of notifications I want on new devices. So this is my notification protocol. This is how I chooose to live. Try it – you’ll feel happier, more creative and more productive than you can imagine.