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Notifications 2: You turned them off, right? What about the deeper truth?!

Okey dokey. Time for a bit of honesty! I have turned my notifications off when I am at work, at least the notifications that come from the devices themselves! What I find much more challenging are the notifications from within that trigger me to check out my various communication channels to see what is going on!

If you had been watching me writing the first part of this blog (see you would have seen me wince, cringe even, as I was telling you to turn your notifications off. The wince was one of embarrassment as minutes before, and not long after, I would have taken myself off on a tour of my email accounts (x3), Slack channels (x3), LinkedIn page, Whatsapp groups (several), and texts. No notification alerted me to do so. Yet I still did it. What the hell is going on?!

Well, for me what is going on is that I am playing a role in a story that I am telling myself about incoming communication, and how I respond to it. This story has been told for years with a changing narrative as my professional and personal life has evolved. Over time I have started to believe my story as describing facts, or at least things that have a predictable cause and effect relationship.

Have no fear! I am not going to inflict my life story on you! Suffice to say it spans a period that starts before email was a thing. I’ll just pick on a few key points in the evolution of my story to illustrate that transition from experience to belief, to assumption, towards presumed fact.

I’ll take you back to a point in my career, a good few years ago yet well into my professional journey. Email was endemic and I found myself coping with 100s of messages a day with a spam count of zero. I actually quite enjoyed the quick fire, intense periods of communication in dealing with all of them. My story started to take a shape that this was a good way of communicating, of getting a job done. Another plotline was that this was helping other people out too.

Without noticing it this story changed more towards this being the right way to get the job done and, what’s more, the volume of email was evidence of the quality of my outputs. In fact, another narrative joined the story around this time, one shared with a lot of other people. It is the narrative that says to be effective at work, at to be recognised as such, you have to be seen to be busy. ‘Busyness’ and the associated ‘presenteeism’ plagued the workplace back then. It still does now even though Covid-19 may have altered the way it shows up.

It was the start of the time when any conversation with colleagues might have gone like this ‘How are you?’ ‘Rushed off my feet with not time to think, what about you?’ ‘Oh man, crazy, just not enough hours in the day, must catch up properly about that work we are collaborating on’, ‘Yeah sure, when time allows. I’ll send you an email’. I am prepared to bet you might be wincing now! It was a time of busy, busy, busy where an email screen scrolling at the speed of light as new messages came in was something of a badge of honour. The more unread messages beneath the heavy print on screen the better!

Of course, you only realise this when it stops and that is blissfully what happens when you change jobs. There is a period where you are almost off grid. In one of my changes of role this happened for about a week. You would think it would have been a blessed release. Not a bit of it. My story was that success was indicated by all of the things I described above, and it was unsettling not to have that heavy font validation from a full in-box.

I found myself in a space where I could focus, I could think, and it was unsettling in the extreme. What was really good for me was that I did notice this feeling and chose to be curious about it. I brought my story from deep beneath my consciousness into a place where I could think about it properly, consciously. My conclusion was that I wanted to change my story to recognise all the other methods that validated the quality of my work. It was great learning, long lasting too.

Fast forward to the time when I set up my own coaching business. After years in full time employment I was, all of a sudden, cut loose from all the workplace structure that I was familiar with. The fact that I had made the choice to do so did not alter how much of a jolt to the system this was! The difference between success and failure was now all down to me. The development a pipeline of work was all down to me. The delivery and impact of that work was all down to me.

I felt this keenly early. My story developed again into one that linked activity in any of my various communication channels related to new work opportunities. This was either directly, in the form of a new enquiry, or indirectly in the form of feedback on work completed that might eventually lead to repeat business. You can probably see how I might start telling myself the story that the more activity across my various communication channels the more effective I was being as a solopreneur!

Our ability to create stories to make sense of things is one of our best assets as well as being one of our greatest perils. On the one hand it is bright and clear, on the other dark and impenetrable. In all cases these stories can come to explain or justify our habits, behaviours and beliefs to ourselves. More often than not they have just enough truth in them to make them utterly compelling, at least to us!

There you go then! Do turn those notifications off. Do notice what you think and feel as a result. Spend some time going through the story that you are telling yourself.

I’ll leave the final word on this to Nancy Kline, author of the Time to Think books, who has written over many years about the importance of how well we listen to each other. She talks about how interruptions in conversation have a negative impact on the thinking of those being interrupted. More recently she has included thinking on interruption from notifications in her latest book The Promise That Changes Everything: I Won’t Interrupt You. The following extract, from an article Guardian,

‘Then, as if interruption by each other were not enough to minister to the diminishment of our independent minds and the shrinking of meaning in our relationships, enter smartphones. More accurately “hurtphones” or “stupidphones”. With their built-in servicing of platforms that colonise our attention, they slap our brains into stupidity. Relentlessly distracted, our thinking begins to haemorrhage.’


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