I own a Pebble Steel which I got for Christmas a couple of years ago. I’ve been very happy with it so far. I can control my music player from my wrist, get notifications and a summary of my calender. Recently, however I’ve stopped wearing it. The reason is that constant streams of notifications stress me out and not wearing it makes me feel more calm and in control.

As you can imagine, trying to do a PhD and be a CTO at the same time has its challenges. I struggle with the cognitive dissonance between walling off my research days to focus on my PhD and making sure that the developers at work are getting on ok and being productive without me. I have thus far tended to compromise by leaving slack running and fielding the odd question from colleagues even on my off days.

Conversely, when I’m working for Filament, I often get requests from University colleagues to produce reports and posters, share research notes and to resolve problems with SAPIENTA or Partridge infrastructure (or even run experiments on behalf of other academics). Both of these scenarios play havoc with my prioritisation of todos.

Human Multitasking

Human Multitasking is something of a myth — as is the myth that women can multitask and men can’t. It turns out that we are all (except for a small group of people scientists call “supertaskers”) particularly rubbish at multi-tasking. I am no exception, however much I wish I was.

When we “multitask” we are actually context switching. Effectively, we’re switching between a number of different tasks very quickly, kind of like how a computer is able to run many applications on the same CPU core by executing different bits of each app — it might deal with an incoming email, then switch to rendering your netflix movie, then switch to continuing to download that email. It does this so quickly that it seems like both activities are happening at once. That’s obviously different for dual or quad core CPUs but that’s not really the point here since our brains are not “quad core”.

CPUs are really good at context switching very quickly. However, the human brain is really rubbish at this. Joel Spolsky has written a really cool computer analogy on why but lets just say that where a computer can context-switch in milliseconds, a human needs a few minutes. It also logically follows that the more cognitively intensive a job is, the more time a brain needs to swap contexts. For example, you might be able to press the “next” button on your car stereo while driving at 70 MPH down the motorway, but (aside from the obvious practical implications) you wouldn’t be able to perform brain surgery and drive at the same time . If you consider studying for a PhD and writing machine learning software for a company to be roughly as complex as the above example, you can see why I’d struggle.

Push Notifications

The problem I find with “push” notifications is that they force you to context switch. We, as a society, are slowly training ourselves to stop what we are doing and check our phones as soon as that little vibration or bling noise comes through. This has a very harmful effect on our concentration and ability to focus on the task at hand.

Mobile phone notifications are bad enough but occasionally, if your phone buzzes in your pocket and you are engrossed in another task, you won’t notice and you’ll check your phone later. Smartwatch notifications seem to get my attention 9 times out of 10 — I guess that’s what they’re designed for. Having something strapped directly to the skin on my wrist is much more distracting than something buzzing through a couple of layers of clothing on my leg.

I started to find that push notifications forcibly jolt me out of whatever task I’m doing and I immediately feel anxious until I’ve handled the new input stimulus. This means that I will often prioritise unimportant stuff like responding to memes that my colleague has posted in slack over the research paper I’m reading. Maybe this means I miss something crucial, or maybe I just have to go back to the start of the page I’m looking at. Either way, time is a’wastin’.

The Solution

For me, it’s obvious. Push notifications need a huge re-think. I am currently reorganising the way I work, think and plan and ripping out as many push notification mechanisms as I can. I’ve also started keeping track of how I’m spending my time using a tool I wrote last week.

I can definitely see a use case for “machine learning” triage of notifications based on intent detection and personal priorities. If a relative is trying to get hold of me because there’s been an emergency, I wouldn’t mind being interrupted during a PhD reading session. If a notification asking for support on Sapienta or a work project comes through, that’s urgent but can probably wait until I finish my current 30 minute reading of this paper. If a colleague wants to send me a video of grumpy cat, that should wait in a list of things to check out after 5:30pm.

As for now, I’ve stopped wearing my smart watch and my phone is on silent. If you need me and I’m ignoring you, don’t take it personally. I’ll get back to you when I’m done with my current task. If it’s urgent, you’ll just have to try phoning and hoping I notice the buzz in my pocket (until I find a more elegant way to screen urgent calls and messages).