Are push notifications wearing us out?

Is your watch vibrating? Your yoga pants pulsing? Your bra buzzing? It’s just your apps talking to you on your wearables, every minute of the day.

These days, wearable technology is all over – all over us, that is. From the now-ubiquitous smartwatches, fitness trackers and smart rings to more cutting edge wearable clothes like socks that critique our jogging style, yoga pants that bark if you can’t get your downward dog in shape, and underwear that can automatically cool your home down when your body heats up, we’re physically plugged into a 24/7 technological feedback loop. Data goes out, and data comes in – often in the form of buzzes, chimes and beeps.

This incoming data ranges from the ostensibly desirable – say, our heart rate and blood oxygen levels – to the much less so – imagine ecommerce notifications that some obscure tchotchke you once ironically browsed is now on sale. But what are all these notifications doing to us, especially once they’re literally attached to our body?

Interestingly, both wearables and push notifications were designed on a similar guiding principle: to save you from always checking your phone. Back when it was still considered impolite to leave your phone on the table throughout dinner, wearables were discrete, and took the shape of pendants or hidden attachments for your analogue watch, so that you would only be notified when something really important arrived. Likewise, push notifications would let you know when it was essential to check – otherwise you could put your phone away.

Of course, that’s not how it worked out. As any marketer will tell you, their something is always important. As a consequence, push notifications proliferated. Data for wearables is hard to come by, but recent statistics show that the average US resident receives up to 46 push notifications every day just on their phone – a device they spend nearly 4 hours a day on.

Wearable notifications are just one more part of the symphony of distraction we endure every day. When many of our devices claim to increase our productivity, notifications on these devices are proven to do the opposite. The switch-cost effect describes the mental energy costs every time we have to switch our attention back to our task after a distraction. In one study, students taking an exam performed 20% worse after receiving a string of text messages on their phones than a control group with their phones off. And wearables might magnify this switch cost effect: smart watches have been shown to be more distracting than mobile phones while driving, according to a 2021 study.

And interestingly – or more depressingly – even the information we want may be making us worse off. As one study showed, if our fitness tracker (even falsely) tells us we’re getting bad sleep, it can negatively affect our moods and concentration, provoking anxiety and yes, more bad sleep.

In the face of notification overload, what can we do? You could try the philosophical route, and simply try not improving yourself with a smart device of any sort. But if you truly love your wearables, you could either limit notifications or opt for notification-suppressing tech, like Deutsche Telekom’s tongue-in-cheek smart underwear that can put a couple’s phone into Do Not Disturb mode – but only with each person’s consent, of course.

Or you could go the tech minimalist route, with an explicitly anti-smartwatch like Moser & Cie.’s Swiss Alp Final Upgrade. This “Alp Watch” is a mechanical watch designed to strongly suggest the Apple Watch itself, complete with an inky black dial in Vantablack. As the company urged in their promotional campaign, “Get a life, and upgrade to mechanical watch”. Get a life, and, we might add, get some sleep – and you can do that without your wearable telling you to.