Take control of your computer’s annoying pop-up notifications

Save your productivity. And your sanity.
A woman leaning over a laptop computer, annoyed, with her hand on her forehead.
It's time those notifications stopped bugging you. Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels

Notifications pop up on your computer screen to tell you about important security updates, messages from friends, or even tweets. But if you enable alerts from all of your applications, the barrage of new information can overwhelm and distract you at the worst possible times. That’s why operating systems like Windows and macOS come with built-in controls for taming the number of messages that intrude on your screen. Here’s how to configure which apps can display alerts, set times when interruptions are forbidden, and clean up that list of notifications.

On Windows computers

Microsoft’s Windows notifications appear in a panel on the right side of the screen called the Action Center. To pull up all your notifications in one place, click the Action Center icon, a small dialog-box symbol in the lower right-hand corner. As alerts about completed virus scans or new emails come in, they show up in pop-up boxes in the lower right-hand corner. You can dismiss them individually by clicking the Dismiss X button in the top-right corner. Or empty the list all at once by clicking Clear all notifications.

Beyond dismissing read notifications, you can take more control over which alerts appear and when. Open the Start menu, click the Settings button (the cog icon), and choose System followed by Notifications & actions. A batch of toggle switches will appear. These let you decide whether notifications should appear on the lock screen and, more important, enable or disable certain alerts. For example, you might choose not to receive Windows hints and tips or updates on new features.

Further down the screen, you’ll see a full list of apps and system utilities, like volume adjustments. Turn off the toggle switches next to each one to prevent it from sending notifications. As a last resort, you can block all notifications by turning off the Get notifications from apps and other senders switch. However, rather than disabling them completely, we recommend you turn off only distracting alerts or those that come from unimportant apps.

You can also dial down the level of distraction for some apps without switching notifications off altogether. To exert this more granular control, click the name of the app rather than its toggle switch. On the next screen, you can decide whether they should include a sound and how many of them can appear in the Action Center at one time. You can also determine how visible the alerts will be. For example, if you switch off Show notification banners but leave on Notifications, you won’t see the app’s alerts as pop-ups, but they will still appear in the dedicated Action Center panel.

In addition to individual app settings, you can set up certain windows of time when no notifications are allowed to disturb you. Go back to Settings, open the System page, and select Focus assist. This setting has three modes: with Off, all notifications run; with Priority only, only notifications from priority apps come through; and with Alarms only nothing except for pre-set alarms will appear or make a sound. Choose a mode and then, if you’ve opted for Priority only mode, click Customize your priority list to configure which apps are most important.

Further down the screen, you’ll see settings for automatically turning on one of the Focus assist modes at certain times. You can also order it to kick in when you’re duplicating your display or playing a game.

On macOS computers

Apple’s macOS features a similar suite of notification options, although everything works slightly differently and (of course) has a different name. For instance, alerts appear in the Notification Center, rather than the Action Center. To make it visible, click the Notification Center icon (a bulleted list symbol) in the top right-hand corner of your display. When you open it, you can switch between Notifications, where you view your alerts, and Today, a list of widgets and other information (such as upcoming calendar events).

When a new notification comes in, a pop-up dialog appears briefly in the top right corner of the screen. These boxes often let you take action, so you can use them to accept an incoming call or install a pending software update. Alternatively, dismiss the notification by clicking the X icon to its right. Click the X icon at the very top of the panel to dismiss all the notifications at once.

To adjust your notification settings, click the Settings icon (the cog symbol) at the bottom of the Notification Center panel or open the Apple menu and select System Preferences followed by Notifications. Here, you’ll see a list of all the applications that want to show notifications. Click any of them to change the notification settings for that particular app.

You can either turn off notifications or adjust the way they appear: as banners that disappear automatically or alerts that stay on screen until you dismiss them. Set whether those messages appear in the Notification Center by ticking or unticking the Show in Notification Center box. This gives you some flexibility—you could, for example, hide a program’s pop-up notifications but have those alerts stay in the Notification Center, waiting for you to check on them. In addition, you can determine whether notifications should appear on the lock screen, sounds should play, and badge icons (tiny alerts that show up over the application icons in the launcher) should appear. These settings let you limit the number of notifications you see on an app-by-app basis.

To switch off alerts for all apps at once, select Do Not Disturb. When this mode is active, no pop-ups or notification sounds will bother you. You can turn it on and off manually with the toggle switch at the top of the Notification Center. Or set this mode to begin and end automatically at certain times of day, perhaps when you know you’ll be asleep or working. In addition, you can disable notifications when the Mac display is off or you’re mirroring the screen to a television or projector.