You’ve uninstalled apps you don’t need and turned off notifications for the ones that shouldn’t be allowed to interrupt your workflow and derail your focus. What about the apps and notifications that made the cut? How do you process interruptions so they have as little impact as possible? Deal with them right away so they don’t pile up!

As always, visit the Tidy ’24 Calendar to review what we’ve covered so far this month (or this year).

Apps Week 3: React Immediately

We spent the first half of this month eliminating or reducing the things that weren’t important. Hopefully, everything that’s still there qualifies as important, and therefore deserves our attention.

(If that doesn’t seem accurate as you continue with this month’s tasks—if you still feel like the apps you’re using or especially the notifications that demand your attention aren’t important, consider reviewing Week 1 and Week 2 again to see if there’s more you can cut out.)

For the notifications that still come through after your culling and filtering process, your task is straightforward: react immediately.

The OHIO Principle

Reacting immediately is a specific application of what’s sometimes called the “OHIO” principle, meaning “Only Handle It Once.” The idea is that any information that has your focus should be dealt with right away rather than taking even more of your time and attention in the future.

Practically, this doesn’t mean every task or project, no matter how big, gets done start-to-finish as soon as you begin thinking about it. In this context, the OHIO principle is more about how you deal with little things that come up throughout the day, especially unexpected things.

For example, let’s say an email comes in and generates a notification on your phone because you didn’t turn off email notifications last week. Your attention shifts, and you see the sender and the subject line. Now, what do you do?

For better or worse, you’ve been interrupted. At this point, there are a few different Options.

  • Option 1: You could dismiss the notification and do nothing with the email. This choice indicates that it shouldn’t have distracted you in the first place. You might want to add a rule or filter in your email tool, so similar messages are automatically filed into a different place that won’t trigger notifications. Most email tools have this functionality; it might take some time to set it up, but it’s worth it. I allow email notifications to be sent to my phone, but only about 10% of what I receive is allowed into my primary inbox, which triggers those notifications.
  • Option 2: You could ignore the notification entirely, planning to return to it later. This choice means you’re treating your notification system as a passive extension of your inbox, which is not what it was designed for. You can check and read your email whenever you want to, right in your email app; don’t let attention-grabbing notifications derail your focus if you don’t intend to do anything with them.
  • Option 3: You could take the OHIO approach and process it immediately since it already has your attention. Having seen the sender and subject, you might be able to delete or archive the message right away without even opening it: order confirmations, shipping confirmations, or promotional emails you aren’t currently interested in are prime candidates here. One of my favorite little joys is long-pressing on an email notification that just arrived and deleting it after taking note of whatever bit of information it passed along. I never even have to look at it in the context of my whole inbox.

Reacting immediately doesn’t always mean full closure on a task. Sometimes, a notification arrives where following up completely can’t happen right away or would take a lot of time–even hours or days. The OHIO principle doesn’t mean we have to do it all right away; it simply means we should take the information in that distracting notification and put it wherever it will be most useful for our future selves instead of setting it aside for another time. The notification is what we’re handling right now, not necessarily the entire task.

Consider Your Future Self

So what would it look like to put something where it will be helpful for your future self?

Imagine that a notification arrives saying that you have a credit card payment due in 10 days, BUT you’re waiting to pay that until after you get paid at the end of this week. Rather than letting that notification stick around for a week or dismissing it and hoping you remember on your own, take 30 seconds and add a dated task to whatever to-do system you set up for yourself a few weeks back during Tasks Month. Just write “Pay credit card bill” for the task name and pick some weekday between when you get paid and when the bill is due. Then dismiss the notification, and you’re done!

That distraction is now gone, and the simple follow-up task related to it will return to your attention once you’re ready to act on it.

Reacting immediately with the OHIO principle tends to push us towards dealing with what’s right in front of us at the expense of what’s important, so it’s good to have some guardrails. The simplest one is the “two-minute rule,” which means if you can’t finish a task in two minutes or less, it should go on your to-do list or calendar instead.

Action Steps:

  1. When a notification appears and grabs your attention, identify what you have to do–your next action–as quickly as possible.
  2. If you can do that action fully in two minutes or less, do it. If not, put it on your to-do list or calendar, depending on whether it needs to be done at a specific time.
  3. Dismiss the notification.

Aim to maintain an empty set of notifications on your device. If you can do it for an hour, try for the whole day. If you can do it for a day, try for the entire week. The main goal is to practice dealing with interruptions quickly so you don’t have to worry about them later.

One hint for next week: if you find yourself being interrupted more than you anticipated, note which apps or services are most to blame. We’ll use that information to make adjustments and figure out how to do even better.

How Does This Help?

This exercise helps in multiple ways. First, it encourages avoiding procrastination. We’re often tempted to put off something that can be done easily right now; the longer it sits undone, the guiltier we feel about it, and the less likely we are to get to it. If we would simply take the 30 seconds (or two minutes) necessary right now, we’d not only get it done but also avoid that low-level stress as we think about it later.

Second, this teaches us to break apart tasks into small enough pieces to work on. One of the action steps requires figuring out the next step for the notification that has interrupted you. It’s not always obvious, but it will become easier if you force yourself to give it your best shot every time. It’s okay not to do everything all at once. It’s even okay not to do anything right away, as long as you use the information in front of you to give your future self instructions on how and when to proceed.

Third, it very quickly highlights the source of interruptions. Even after the first two weeks of Apps Month, you may encounter more distractions than expected. Consider what changes you might make to further silence unimportant distractions (disable or reconfigure notifications) or even entirely uninstall offending apps.

Who Does This Help?

If you manage a giant collection of notifications spanning multiple days, constantly scrolling through the list to find what’s more important, this week’s task should provide a refreshingly clean slate.

Who Does This NOT Help?

This exercise will have little impact if you get few notifications. However, making quick decisions and dealing immediately with notifications can still remove the weight of undone to-do items.

Quick Review

For week 3, your task is to react immediately. When notifications come in, identify the next action and either do it immediately (if two minutes or less) or put that next action on your calendar or to-do list. Finally, dismiss the notification. Try to keep your phone clear for as long as possible!

If you have any questions about this week’s task or anything else about digital organization, comment below or use the contact form.

Happy data-taming!

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