The black hole that is instant messaging notifications

How often are you sitting at your computer, working through a piece of work requiring your deep focus and attention — only to have the familiar tone and accompanying coloured icon appear on your favourite corporate instant messaging platform.

You glance over to look at the message preview and sure enough, it’s nothing important enough to warrant your attention right now.

You shift your focus back to the task at hand, and then suddenly — you ask yourself “where was I …”

The allure of the red circle

The human brain loves novelty — colloquially known as ‘bright shiny object syndrome’⁶. We love the dopamine hit that arrives when we see that notification arrive — and are all too happy to shift our attention away from our current work in the pursuit of others.

Deep inside — we all know about the impacts of not getting into what Cal Newport termed ‘Deep Work’³. We’ve heard all about the costs of task switching⁴, the impact of high utilization on queue lengths⁵…

…but even with this knowledge, our primitive reward-driven brains still easily and quickly lose focus when that red dot comes along.

What we need to develop — is to develop our Attentional Intelligence⁶. That is, our conscious ability to:

Effortlessly but ‘mindfully’ notice where attention is at any moment and to intentionally choose where you want it to be.

So how do we do that?

Getting into The Zone

What we need, is to get into a state of ‘Flow’¹ — aka. getting into the zone. In it, we enter an almost timeless state where our “whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.” — Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Key to this is obtaining focus — and that pesky notification icon does nothing to assist with this. What we need is a shortcut to that Attentional Intelligence⁶ — and here we must make brave choices to create an environment for flow.

It is how we choose what we do, and how we approach it, that will determine whether the sum of our days adds up to a formless blur, or to something resembling a work of art¹

So what does that bravery look like?

Disable those notifications

What we need, is to follow the four key rules of Deep Work³, which aim to:

  1. Build rituals and routines for working deeply — By incorporating the Pomodoro technique, and tools like
  2. Train your mind — By establishing deadlines to create the necessary pressure for flow¹
  3. Use Digital Media Selectively — By disabling notifications, and being selective about when and how you review your digital communication
  4. Limit Shallow Work — By ruthlessly prioritizing using the Eisenhower’s principle, best applied using Stephen Covey’s Time Management Matrix⁸

So go ahead — turn off those notifications. Being cognizant of where you spend your limited time and focus — by not being a slave to your notifications


  1. Csikszentmihalyi. M (1998), Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life, Basic Books; 1 edition
  2. Cho. J, Lee. H, Kim. H (2019), Effects of Communication-Oriented Overload in Mobile Instant Messaging on Role Stressors, Burnout, and Turnover Intention in the Workplace, International Journal of Communication
  3. Newport. C (2016), Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Piatkus
  4. Monsell, S. (2003). “Task switching”. Trends in Cognitive Sciences.
  5. Rubin. K (2012), Essential Scrum, Addison-Wesley
  6. NeuroCapbility (2012), Taming Distraction By Developing Attentional Intelligence, Neuro Capability
  7. Covey. S (1989), 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Free Press

Information technology program and agile transformation leader, change catalyst, and educator.