Are you exhausted from all your notifications? You’re not alone: notifications aren’t what they used to be.

Once upon a time your phone would only chime when an actual human had something to say to you, but these days apps “notify” you of all kinds of irrelevant crap that you didn’t ask for. Call it notification inflation—Lyft informing you of a discount, Facebook pointing out potential friend recommendations, even news websites tricking you into allowing notifications you don’t actually care about.

You can, and should, reduce this. We’ve written about how to disable notifications everywhere, and you should take the time to turn off notifications from any and all apps you don’t care about. But why is this happening in the first place? To figure that out we should talk about sheep.


Notifications and the Tragedy of the Commons

Imagine a pasture, shared by an entire village. Everyone in the village can graze sheep there at no cost, but the pasture can only sustain so many animals.

You, as an individual, stand to gain with every sheep you add, because more mutton means more money. At the same time, however, every sheep added makes the pasture less sustainable for everyone—including yourself.

What do you do?

This is called the Tragedy of the Commons. It’s a term that describes a situation in sharing resources when individuals acting in their own self interest make things worse for everybody involved. And that’s more or less the situation happening in your notifications tray right now.

Your attention is a finite resource, because there are only so many hours in the day. Every app on your phone is fighting for as big a chunk of that finite resource as possible, because attention is what ad-supported companies need in order to make money. Notifications are an easy way to get you to open an app you haven’t looked at in a while, which is why apps push out so many more notifications than they used to.

But the more all these apps push out irrelevant notifications, the less likely you are to pay attention to any notifications. This is particularly true for the less tech savvy among us, who eventually give up on looking at their notifications entirely.

This doesn’t stop app developers from putting more proverbial sheep in the pasture. To quote Garrett Hardin, the American ecologist who coined the term The Tragedy of the Commons in the 1960s, this rarely ends well:

Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit—in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.

That might be a little over-dramatic for your notifications tray, but you get the idea of the economic forces at work here. It can get overwhelming

But you’re not powerless.

Take Control Yourself of Your Notifications

If you want your notifications to work like they used to, only showing you things you actually care about, you can get there. It just takes a little work.

We’ve written about how to turn off notifications everywhere, and you should absolutely learn about all the tools for your platform. Here are a few platform specific guides for stopping specific apps from showing you notifications:

Turn off all notifications for any apps you don’t want notifying you about stuff. Be ruthless about it, because every notification you don’t want might obscure one you actually do.

But what about those apps where you get a mix of useful and useless notifications? For those, you’ll need to find ways to cut back the crap inside the app itself.

Take Facebook, for example. By default, it likes to notify you about everything: when someone likes one of your posts, tags you, or leaves a comment; friend recommendations, nearby events, and so on. Some of these you might care about, some you might not.

Happily you can customize Facebook notifications and only see the things you care about. It just takes finding and tweaking a few settings. Facebook is far from the only culprit here, and most apps offer similar customizations. Use them: it’s a little bit of work, but the resulting peace is well worth it.

Photo credit: MikeDotta/, Baronb/

Profile Photo for Justin Pot Justin Pot
Justin Pot has been writing about technology for over a decade, with work appearing in Digital Trends, The Next Web, Lifehacker, MakeUseOf, and the Zapier Blog. He also runs the Hillsboro Signal, a volunteer-driven local news outlet he founded.
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