Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Internet Addiction

2 Ways to Avoid Notification Overload and Digital Fatigue

Here's what to do when our phones are too close for comfort.

Key points

  • Overwhelming, incessant streams of alerts can cause distractions, raise anxiety, and add to digital fatigue.
  • Physical barriers can help prevent notifications from drawing us in.
  • Positive reinforcement can be a powerful motivator, making a task not just bearable but also rewarding.
Julian Christ / Unsplash
Source: Julian Christ / Unsplash

Phones are an indispensable part of our lives—they are a portal to the internet, a source of entertainment, and our digital companions. According to a report by Statista, we downloaded a total of 255 billion mobile apps in 2022, which is an 80 percent increase from 2016.

This widespread adoption of apps leads to a particularly pernicious problem: notification overload. Receiving notifications for calls or text messages is one thing, but we must ask ourselves: Is it important to be notified each time a shopping app announces a sale or when a YouTuber uploads a new video? Although most apps offer the ability to selectively turn notifications off, many users are not familiar with these settings and rely on an always-on-or-always-off solution like the silent mode, which can cause them to miss important information in an attempt to tune out the noise.

Overwhelming and often incessant streams of alerts can cause distractions, raise anxiety levels, and contribute to digital fatigue. A 2023 study suggests that online fatigue is a key reason many of us feel frustrated with and apathetic toward our devices. This is especially true in a post-COVID-19 world:

“Screen-time-wise I think that I have become more addicted to my phone now than I was before. But that is also because every time I want to talk to somebody, I’m dependent on having my phone to check their reply, right?” one participant of the study expressed.

Many of us lean heavily on phones for both personal connections and vital updates spanning from news to work tasks. While notifications keep some users in the loop, for others, they’re indispensable reminders. Rather than just silencing notifications, we must find a balanced approach.

Here are two things you can do to navigate notification overload with prowess.

1. Put Physical Barriers Between You and Your Phone

Physical barriers play an important role in preventing notifications from drawing you in with every buzz and beep. We can draw parallels from a classic study published in the International Journal of Obesity, which found that the proximity and visibility of food significantly influenced consumption.

Just as individuals consume more chocolates when are visible and close to them, having a phone within easy reach can lead to increased screen time due to the constant barrage of notifications.

In the study, the researchers found that transparent bowls led to higher candy consumption. Similarly, a visible phone screen can lure you into its user interface with enticing app icons and message previews. By putting a physical barrier between you and your device, you can exercise self-control and be mindful of when and why you check your notifications. Here are two examples of physical barriers that can help:

  • Place your phone face down or in your pocket. This ensures you have to pick it up or retrieve it from your pocket to glance at a notification.
  • Use a smartwatch. You can set up your smartwatch to only let certain apps notify you. You can then leave your phone on silent for as long as you’d like, knowing that you aren’t missing crucial information.

2. Harness the Power of Positive Reinforcement

Instead of perceiving notification management as a tiresome task, treat it as a personal challenge. The idea is to train your brain to associate the act of limiting screen time with a positive outcome.

Positive reinforcement can be a powerful motivator, making the task not just bearable but also rewarding. It’s about striking a balance between staying informed and reducing digital fatigue stemming from notification overload.

Start by categorizing your apps into “essential” and “nonessential.” Essential apps might include those related to work, phone calls, or crucial text-messaging services. Nonessential ones could be gaming, entertainment, or social media.

Each day, assign a set period when you can sift through nonessential notifications. Every time you successfully limit your interaction with nonessential notifications to this designated period, give yourself a reward. It could be a short break, your favorite snack, or even a few minutes of a relaxing activity. Over time, this positive feedback loop reinforces the behavior, making it easier to maintain. Remember, it’s not about avoiding notifications but managing them mindfully.


In an age saturated with digital alerts, managing notifications is crucial for maintaining mental clarity and well-being. By employing simple psychological techniques, we can reclaim our focus and create a healthier relationship with our devices. It’s a journey toward digital mindfulness, ensuring technology remains a tool, not a taskmaster.

More from Mark Travers Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today