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Productivity guru David Allen preaches the importance of getting things off our minds – where they haunt us – and onto lists. These days, electronic lists come with bells and whistles: Notifications that remind us at perhaps inopportune times of the things we are supposedly getting off our mind.

“When you outsource your memory to other devices, you’re not only helping relieve the stress of remembering. But also adding to it,” content marketer Jory MacKay writes on the blog of RescueTime, a time management software.

“With every workplace tool suddenly sending you reminders, this once-humble feature has shifted from a source of calm to just another interruption.”

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How many interruptions? You may want to keep track for a day or week. Christina Gravert, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Copenhagen, did and found on a typical day she would be interrupted 20 to 30 times by notifications. She notes in Behavioural Scientist that reminders range from the trivial (apps that coax us to drink water or sit up straight) to the consequential (annual notices to file your taxes or update your retirement plans for the year). Some are not set deliberately by us but come from people and organizations we are connected to.

“When deciding whether we want to schedule or receive reminders, we have to weigh the benefits of reducing our cognitive load and remembering with certainty against the costs of feeling distracted, annoyed, and guilty. For instance, well-meaning messages from my gym telling me that they ‘miss’ me during a stressful period at work make me feel bad about myself without getting me to act,” she says.

Mr. MacKay argues the sheer number means we’re more likely to miss the ones we actually want to pay attention to or, when coming from an external party, lead us to unsubscribe from a list we otherwise genuinely relish. He points out that in trying to control reminders you are fighting the best interests of the app developers who provide these tools. “The goal of most tech companies is to increase their daily active users. In other words, they want you to use their product, app, or tool more often and more regularly. And one of the most time-tested ways to do this is through reminders and notifications,” he writes.

He stresses the solution is not to go back to writing your to-do list on the back of your hand like in high school. You need to take control of your digital accessories. Here are some of his tips:

  • Google Calendar: Turn off event reminders and instead send a daily rundown of your agenda to your e-mail under Settings/Event notifications/Daily agenda.
  • iOS: In your device settings, select Reminders and then deselect Show in Notification Center, Badge App Icon, and Show on Lock Screen to remove all visual reminders from apps.
  • Other digital reminders: Use your device’s Do Not Disturb mode to block out notifications for a set period of time. All your reminders and notifications will be waiting for you when you toggle it off.

And after pondering your own struggle with notifications, take some time to consider the impact when you are sending out reminders to others as part of your work. Prof. Gravert, in a study with colleague Mette Trier Damgaard, found that reminder e-mails to donate from a charity helped increase one-time donations by 66 per cent but an additional reminder increased the rates of unsubscribing from the mailing list by 76 per cent.

Quick hits

  • Career coach Pamela McLean notes that comfort feels good but courage contributes to greatness. Spend the next 10 days tracking small acts of courage and notice the impact those moments created for you and others.
  • Consultant Bill Treasurer defines three types of courage: Try courage, the willingness to overcome inertia and take action; trust courage, resisting the temptation to try to control other people; and tell courage, the bravery of voice.
  • Executive coach Shubha Apte urges you to respond to conflict instead of reacting to it; listen to what the other person is saying so you can understand the reasons for the conflict. Don’t try to resolve conflict with an attitude of “only the strongest will survive.”
  • To keep your goals on track requires discipline. Content marketer Nicolas Cole says it helps to surround yourself with disciplined people – we are often a reflection of the five people we spend the most time with – and start each day by reading books on self-discipline for 20 minutes.
  • When work gets slow, we can become slow in how we undertake tasks. Productivity expert Elizabeth Grace Saunders advises setting time limits for the day’s activities, turning what might be a boring day into a series of mini-sprints.

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