Although the pace of our lives has slowed down exponentially over the past 9 weeks while we've been in lockdown, our virtual social lives have never been more thriving. Whether it's daily zoom calls or way-more-active-than-usual Whatsapp groups, we've become even more glued to our devices than before. As if that was possible.
But earlier this year, when Sade Taiwo, a 24-year-old social media consultant, felt she was starting to drown in instant messaging responsibilities, she had an epiphany that she says has improved her mental health no end: she should switch off her Whatsapp notifications.
"I couldn't put a figure on the amount of notifications I was getting each day, but I remember being at work and looking at my phone every 45mins or so. The red notification icon was staring back at me with double digits," Sade tells Cosmopolitan. Being in more than 15 group chats (from old workplace friend groups to current ones, family chats, holiday group chats and more) Sade began to feel overwhelmed. "I couldn't keep up. It almost became a daily task to tick on my to do list," she says.
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I turned off my WhatsApp notifications at the beginning of 2020 and haven’t looked back, I reply when I feel like it and when I want to. Being available 24/7 is not healthy.— sade (@sxdetxwo) April 30, 2020
Sade found the app's notification icon particularly jarring, with the alarming red colour creating "a sense of urgency to respond". Either being deep in concentration at work, trying to wind down from work or - as an introvert - just not in the mood to have a full conversation over text, the pressure to address the notifications became draining. "I was accessible 24/7, and it made me feel like I didn't have a moment to myself," she shares.
What Sade was experiencing was a feeling psychologists call 'learned helplessness'. "Messages pop up when apps receive alerts in accordance to our settings, and this can result in us feeling bombarded, triggering feelings of what psychologists call ‘learned helplessness’. We hit overwhelm," explains Clinical Psychologist, Dr Anna Mandeville. "Over the course of a day, notifications are an interruption affecting our focus, performance and even sleep."
"I was accessible 24/7, and it made me feel like I didn't have a moment to myself"
In response to this, Sade made the decision to reduce the amount of time she spent on my phone at the beginning of this year. "After some evaluating I realised that I had grown a dependence on my phone and was a slave to its constant push notifications," Sade tells Cosmopolitan. She began to notice that her Whatsapp notifications were distracting, were preventing her from being able to focus on herself, making her feel out of control and enabling her need for instant gratification from her phone. So, she made the choice to switch them off - and the improvement was almost immediate.
"I adjusted like a duck to water. I am not someone who experiences FOMO so I can't say I missed anything. I found myself responding with more intentional messages instead of seeing the mass of notifications and not responding at all," says Sade. Noticing the difference, she then turned off push notifications for most of her other social apps, including Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn, which gave her some much-needed control back.
"At first, I felt slightly disconnect from the cyber world; the device which I had literally had by my side since I was 14 was no longer demanding my attention." But although it felt uncomfortable at first, Sade quickly grew to enjoy the feeling of her newfound freedom.
"Turning my Whatsapp notifications off has significantly helped with focus and productivity, and I don't worry about missing an emergency because if something is really that important, people will just call."
"Turning off your notification for apps like WhatsApp, instead opting to go in and read messages at a time that is convenient to you, can help you boost your sense of ‘self-efficacy’," explains psychologist Dr Mandeville.
"A bit like inviting people over rather than constantly having guests knock on the door. We wouldn't automatically let random guests in. That way, you are in control and your phone is working for you rather than being a distraction and a drain," she adds.