Productivity tool or voices in your head?

01:53, Aug 22 2012
Pop-up notifications
HEY, YOU: Are pop-up notifications handy for Getting Things Done, or do they drive you crazy?

I'm a bit of a notifications junkie.

I love having those little messages pop up in the corner of my desktop to keep me informed of what's happening in the world.

On my Mac I rely on pop-ups for incoming emails and instant messages as well as upcoming calendar appointments. I also follow a few RSS feeds so I can keep an eye on breaking news.

Without notifications the world seems awfully quiet in my home office, that eerie kind of quiet like when the power is out and the fridge stops humming. Without notifications I also tend to miss important things because I've become so reliant on them.

The danger with notifications is they can turn you into a bit of an information junkie, adding to your stress levels and making it harder to let go of everything and focus on a complicated task. So they can simultaneously make you more and less productive. I guess the goal is to aim for that Zen state where you're in a zone and everything just flows. I've found that knowing how to achieve that state and how to maintain it is one of the keys to productivity, especially when you're your own boss. I find sitting in a cafe with coffee and The Dandy Warhols in my headphones is my perfect Zen working environment for writing, as long as I don't cross that line from productive to manic.

As a fan of notifications I was quite interested to see a global notification system baked into Mac OS 10.8 "Mountain Lion". It still has a long way to go to match the flexibility of Growl, which is frustrating because flexibility and personalisation is the key to developing your own perfect notifications system. The fact that the GrowlMail plugin for Apple Mail was once again broken is frustrating, although it looks like the project isn't dead after all. Thankfully the Herald plugin for Apple Mail has made the leap to Mountain Lion so I can ditch Apple's limited offering and once again enjoy the flexibility of fully-featured email notifications.

As someone who is hopelessly dependent on notifications I often wonder why they aren't more popular and why some email clients have been so slow to embrace them. I see notifications as a productivity tool because they let me glance at an incoming email to see if it needs my attention right now or if it can wait. They might distract me for a moment, but it's less of a distraction than switching to my email client every time it makes a noise only to discover that the message wasn't important. I guess it's a bit like caller ID on your phone, letting you know which calls you need to take and which can go through to voicemail.

I've long been interested in the work philosophy of Getting Things Done, which offers productivity advice for people looking to work effectively. One of the key tenets of Getting Things Done is to keep several todo lists, which I find useful to help me focus when the workload seems overwhelming. Another key tenet is the "two minute rule" which specifies that if a task will take less than two minutes then do it now to get it off your todo list. Detailed pop-ups make it easier for me to quickly judge what falls under the two minute rule, what should go on my todo list and what can be ignored.

The trick to notifications is deciding what's important and what's not. For example, I'm not notified when friends post to Twitter or Facebook. The signal to noise ratio would make it impossible to get any work done, so I limit pop-up notifications to posts aimed at me (which actually arrive as email alerts).  I am notified when new emails and voicemail messages arrive, although I like the fact that Herald lets me choose which sub-folders in my inbox are ignored. That way I can use server-side filtering to send certain emails to folders which are ignored by my pop-up system.

Depending on the way you work, pop-up notifications could be a blessing or a curse. How do you achieve your Zen productivity state?