It’s time to rethink how many notifications your phone is showing you

How to tame your endless alerts.

We rely on our smartphones to stay in touch with the world at large. But the more apps you download, the more notifications you receive, until the flurry of incoming alerts makes it difficult to pick out the updates you actually care about—or to concentrate on anything outside your phone. To balance staying in touch with staying sane, you need to control the number of notifications you see.

Fortunately, your phone can help, allowing you to set Do Not Disturb times, control which apps have permission to interrupt you, and more. We’ll guide you through adjusting the relevant settings on Android, iOS, and within individual apps, and recommend some third-party programs to stem the flow of information.

Android settings

In recent years, Androids—particularly the latest version of the operating system, Oreo—have added extra options for managing your notifications. You now have more control over which apps and events can send you prompts, and how these messages appear on the screen.

To start configuring these controls, open Settings, go to Apps & notifications, and tap Notifications. If your phone runs an older version of the operating system (anything before Android Oreo), just navigate directly from Settings to Notifications. On this page, you can select an app to customize its notifications. Decide whether it can show you alerts, what sounds those notifications make, and whether they’ll appear on the lock screen.

Oreo users get extra management abilities. For example, you can now snooze notifications: When an alert appears, either on the lock screen or in the list of notifications at the top of the screen, drag it to the right, and a clock icon will appear. Tap the clock icon, and you can set the notification to temporarily disappear, and then reappear at a set date and time.

Android Oreo also lets you break down an app’s alerts by category, so you can receive nudges for certain activities but not others. In Gmail, for example, you can set notifications to show up only when email rolls into your work address, not your personal one (or vice versa). For this feature to work, individual apps must support it, so if you’re hoping to test it out, start with the Google apps, which have all been updated.

Do Not Disturb mode is another great way to control notifications. When the mode is active, it can prevent alerts from making any sound or from appearing at all (although they’ll always show up in the status bar at the top of the screen). Enable the mode manually by using two fingers to drag down from the top of the screen, then tapping the Do Not Disurb icon.

You can also customize Do Not Disturb mode by visiting Settings and then selecting Sound. From this configuration page, you can choose certain times for the mode to be enabled automatically—perhaps you don’t want to be disturbed while you’re sleeping, during work hours, or on the weekend. You can also permit certain notifications, like alarms or calls from important people, to grab your attention even when Do Not Disturb mode is active.

iOS settings

Over on iOS, Apple also lets you take full control over your notifications. In Settings, open up the Notifications pane to find all the options you need. You can turn notification previews (the short snippets of information that appear with each alert) on or off, and configure each of your installed apps individually.

Tap on an app to set whether that program gets to display alerts at all. You can also decide whether the app icons on your home screen can display those little badges that announce your number of unread messages. For example, the badge on your Mail app shows just how many emails you still need to open.

Further down, you can choose whether notifications from an app appear on the lock screen, and if they do, whether they show up as temporary or permanent banners at the top of the display. For example, you might want to keep notifications from your most important apps at the top of the screen, so Facebook updates won’t distract you from important work emails.

For each app, you can also keep notifications but disable their sounds. This control is independent of the phone’s master volume settings. It allows you to stay on top of your messages, while avoiding distracting alerts from apps that aren’t actually that important.

Like Android, iOS also features a Do Not Disturb mode, which you can access from its entry in the Settings app. Open up the Do Not Disturb screen to manually enable the mode or to give it an automatic schedule. You can silence all alerts (on iOS, Do Not Disturb just affects the notifications’ sounds, leaving all the other app-notification settings in place), or just those that appear when your phone is locked. As before, you can also allow your favorite contacts to transcend the Do Not Disturb rules. And iOS 11 adds the ability to make Do Not Disturb mode kick in automatically when your phone senses you’re driving.

Individual app settings

In addition to those system-wide settings, many apps on your phone have their own specific notification settings. For your most important apps, take the time to pick through your options and tailor them to suit your own preferences.

While we can’t cover every single app here, we’ll review a few examples. Take Twitter for one: Tap your avatar on top left, hit Settings and privacy, and then tap Notifications. From this menu, you can configure which activities cause an alert and which don’t. You could turn notifications off for, say, people liking your tweets, but keep them on for replies.

In Gmail, meanwhile, tap the menu button (the three horizontal lines on the top left), then Settings, then your email address to tweak notifications. You options will vary depending on whether you’re using the app on Android or iOS. On both platforms, you can opt to receive alerts only for messages that Gmail has labeled as important. On Android, you have the added ability to enable or disable alerts for all your other Gmail labels as well.

Not every app will give you this much control over your notifications. Some don’t let you customize your alerts at all. Others simply let you mute notification sounds to make them less intrusive, or control the number of alerts you can see at one time.

A lot of instant messenger apps, like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, also let you mute particular conversations. In WhatsApp, for example, open up a conversation thread you don’t want to hear from for a while, then tap the menu button (the three dots on the top right) and choose Mute notifications. A dialogue box will pop up, offering to block all alerts from the thread for eight hours, a week, or even a whole year.

Third-party apps

With so many notification settings available on Android and iOS, plus inside the actual apps themselves, third-party app developers don’t have too much to do. Still, you can find some useful tools.

For instance, Freedom for iOS lets you take full control over your alerts across all iOS devices as well as your computer. You can set quiet times, block specific apps, and more. The price starts at $2.42 a month, but if you’d like to test out the app, you can start with a free trial.

Over on Android, the free Notification Blocker provides a more basic but still effective alert-stopping service. For example, you can prevent alerts from appearing at the top of the screen from moment to moment. Instead, you catch up on all the ones you’ve missed in bulk at the end of the day.

We can’t provide a one-size-fits-all solution for managing your notifications. Instead, you need to play around with all of the options we’ve mentioned and see what works best for you. With so much potential customization, you should find at least a few ways to tame your notifications and limit your phone’s monopoly on your attention.

David Nield
David Nield

David Nield is a tech journalist from the UK who has been writing about gadgets and apps since way before the iPhone and Twitter were invented. When he's not busy doing that, he usually takes breaks from all things tech with long walks in the countryside.