Notifications Suck, But Infinity Pools Are a Really Big Problem

by John Zeratsky

When Jake and I talk with people about making their iPhone distraction-free, the conversation always starts with notifications: alerts, buzzes, beeps, pop-ups, and the million other things that try to steal your attention.

Turning off notifications is a great start. Actually, I think it’s a little bit nuts to leave them on. Carrying around a smartphone with all the notifications enabled is like tuning your television to CNN, cranking up the volume, and then leaving it on all the time while you try to work, hang out with your family, drive a car, read a book… you get the idea.

But if you feel like you’ve lost your ability to focus, and you want to reclaim the time wasted on mindless browsing and pull-to-refreshing, disabling notifications is not the solution.

See, notifications are actually pretty easy to ignore. The world is full of distractions, and you learn to tune them out. When you walk down a busy city street, or drive along a billboard-lined highway… or yeah, even work with the television on in the background… you learn to focus despite all the distractions.

While notifications are a nuisance, there’s a far more insidious type of distraction lurking in our devices: Infinity Pools.

On the other hand, this type of Infinity Pool is totally cool. Photo by Vin Crosbie.

What are Infinity Pools?

Infinity Pools are always-on, effectively infinite sources of information and entertainment. Things like:

  • Pull-to-refresh apps (Facebook, Mail, Instagram, Twitter, etc)
  • Video streaming services (YouTube, Netflix, HBO, etc)
  • Even web browsers (Safari, Chrome, Firefox, etc), which provide on-demand access to pretty much all the information in the world.

I call them “Infinity Pools” because you can dip back in at any time. There’s always more water in the pool.

Even if you disable notifications on your smartphone and close email on your computer, the Infinity Pools are always there. They’re ready for you, and there’s always something good: breaking news, beautiful photos, answers to a question.

But they can be too much of a good thing. Keeping Infinity Pools on your phone is like having a casino in your house. If you’re addicted to gambling, it’s a disaster. Even if you’re not, it’s still damn distracting! (And most of us are addicted to our phones.)

What happens when you shut off Infinity Pools

When I removed Infinity Pools from my iPhone in 2014 (inspired by Jake’s Distraction-Free iPhone experiment), the results were pretty amazing. After an adjustment period—I must have dug into the Settings and re-enabled Safari a dozen times that first week—I had reclaimed the time I spent on mindless refreshing, scrolling, and browsing.

I was surprised how that time added up. I spent it on some cool projects: design sprints with Slack, Digit, and Blue Bottle Coffee. Writing, publishing, and promoting Sprint. My wife and I completed a major upgrade of our sailboat, then took six weeks to explore Southern California by sail. I read twenty-four books in 2015 and twenty-nine in 2016. I felt less busy and more productive. It was cool.

But the benefits weren’t just from the time I had created by going distraction-free.

The real power of removing Infinity Pools is making better use of all my time. I was more focused and more productive at work. I was more present with friends (no longer reaching for my phone to look up some trivial fact). And, it might sound weird, but I started to enjoy the world more: noticing things, appreciating the city, admiring nature.

Here are the exact steps I take to keep Infinity Pools under control. Some are one-time actions, and others are everyday things. Taken together, they’ve completely transformed my relationship to technology—and my ability to spend time on things that matter.

How I keep Infinity Pools under control

On my phone…

Uninstall Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and anything else I can pull to refresh. I still use Twitter on the computer, but it’s no longer something I compulsively check. Instead, I use it to promote my work, share interesting links, and respond to readers.

Uninstall reading apps like New York Times, Nuzzel, Flipboard, and anything that’s effectively infinite. I kept Feedly because I only follow about a dozen sites and there’s an obvious end when I’m caught up. I use Pocket, but it’s becoming more and more infinite as they focus on helping people find stuff to read. 🤔

Remove my email accounts. I do have one dummy account that I only use for sending email.

Disable Safari, the ultimate Infinity Pool. (Use Settings › General › Restrictions to turn it off). This one is kinda nuts. And it was definitely the most challenging adjustment. Secret tip: When I really need to check email or Twitter or something, I turn Safari back on. It’s my pressure-release valve.

On my computer…

Sign out of email, Twitter, and Facebook. This creates a speed bump that slows down and eventually breaks the habit loop. It’s intentionally annoying.

Close all tabs when I’m not using them. This is especially important at the end of the day—it makes it easier for me to decide how to spend my time the next morning.

Hide the bookmark bar and new-tab “launcher.” I don’t want anything that can divert my attention. (I really like the Earth View from Google Earth new-tab extension in Chrome.)

If you want to reclaim time for things that matter, think beyond notifications. Consider the apps and websites that passively fragment your attention, even when they don’t actively steal your focus.

For me, removing the pull-to-refresh slot machines from my life and getting Infinity Pools under control has made a world of difference. I encourage you to give it a shot.