A man standing with an umbrella under an app badge at 9,999+
Curtis Schlak

The Bane Of The Badge

Monday, June 3rd 2024

This story does not have a happy ending. It ends with a cliffhanger like so much of life does. Caveat lector. [1]

Airplane mode

I am curious to the point of (hopefully) innocuous nosiness. Nowhere brings this out in me more than on an airplane.

I was on a flight, yesterday, heading home from a convention. My attention wandered around the cabin because curiosity. I like to see what other people are working on in the strange, cramped confines of an airplane cabin.

The person across the aisle from me had an iPad set up on his tray. What did I notice?

  • More than 9,000 unread emails
  • More than 2,000 unread messages

I see this kind of thing a lot on people’s phones and computers. Every time I see outrageous numbers like that, I can’t help but react with silent expletives of disbelief. I cannot imagine having 2,000 unread messages. That’s 2,000 messages that people have sent to the person that they just ignored.

Maybe those are 2,000 bot SMS messages from companies and PACs. Maybe those are 2,000 two-factor authentication codes.

There’s no way I could ever live like that.

Fucking badges 2,092

I find badges hard to ignore. That is literally their reason for existing. They are there to alert us that SOMETHING NEEDS OUR ATTENTION!

Each time I see a badge on my computer or phone, I feel that I’ve failed a little because there’s something that I should pay attention to that I’ve missed. The bigger the number in the badge, the bigger sense of failure I feel.

I really don’t like feeling like a failure.

As a matter of fact, that’s likely the biggest motivator in my life: not feeling like a failure. I’ll go to great lengths to not feel that.

Inbox Zero: Badge Battle One

When I first because a part of the C-suite, I was given the prize of a Blackberry. It was the first time I was connected all the time to my work email.

This is where I met my first badge: the number of unread emails.

I found myself fighting to keep that badge under 10 all the time. That is not good gamification. My new goal was reducing the number in the badge, not actually processing the content of the emails. Instead, the email Inbox just filled up with “read” emails.

I was developing bad behavior. (JDL is a great researcher in developing good behavior.) After mishandling a couple of important emails from the CFO, I realized that I needed to change. I needed something more than removing the badge. I also needed to manage my emails in an appropriate manner.

Hello, Inbox Zero. Inbox Zero is just a collection of “skills, tools, and attitudes that can help empty your email inbox - and then keep it that way.” In summary, they are:

  • Use an email DMZ
  • Delete messages you’ll never respond to
  • Use filters for noisy emails
  • Set aside 15 minutes each day to curate emails

Those are great tips. Here are some that I also have discovered personally or from the practices of other people:

  • Use a service to create email aliases for easy prioritization (I use Proton Mail and DuckDuckGo)
  • Use a junk email address (I use Yahoo!) for crap that you don’t need to immediately respond to
  • Only use Gmail for stuff that has no personal stuff in it (I know that’s hard)

When I have an email in an Inbox, I know that it requires my attention. This keeps the cognitive load of priorities low. Here’s the breakdown of my email junk right now.

  • Proton Mail
    Business and personal emails
    2 emails in the Inbox:
    • A digital gift card I need to use
    • An email that needs a response
  • Outlook
    School email
    0 emails in the Inbox
  • Gmail
    Used to interact with Google apps
    0 emails in the Inbox
  • Yahoo!
    Shopping and junk email
    ? emails in the Inbox
    (20 years of junk)

I spend 30 minutes each week making sure the content of the Inboxes for Proton Mail, Outlook, and Gmail remain relevant.

And most of all, empty.

Being able to open my email and seeing nothing lets me breathe deeply.

An empty Inbox is an eliminated stressor.

This isn’t OCD

I had a very good friend at university. We both were in the math program and spent a lot of time together. He was very interested in the knapsack problem. He was the kind of smart that made me feel like I was a BFR. [2] We would sit and study and drink coffee and eat fried zucchini. It was great.

My friend had compulsions. One example: after he’d put things in his backpack, he would have to zip the zipper three times. Once he’d done that, he would tap all the zipper pulls on his backpack three times counting the taps under his breath. “One. Two. Three. One. Two. Three.” He couldn’t not do those taps.

That’s an example of OCD. I want to make sure that you understand that because the term “OCD” is often used to make “a stigmatizing mockery of a serious condition by reducing it to a neurotic adjective.” In most cases, people just mean a “hardened habit”. [3]

I hate (bad) stress

I don’t have OCD. What I have is an out-sized aversion to bad stress. I defined “bad stress” as:

Stress that doesn’t make me perform better

Here are ways that I reduce bad stress in my daily life:

  • I leave early for places, so I don’t have to rush
  • I keep an empty email Inbox, so I don’t feel overwhelmed
  • I schedule alerts for mundane routine jobs, so I don’t have to remember to have to do them
  • I clean as I cook, so I don’t feel like the kitchen is a mess

Rushing somewhere does not make me perform better. It just annoys me.

Emails just polluting my Inbox makes me feel like I still have stuff to do even when I don’t. That’s just silly.

I use (good) stress

I like “good” stress. It’s just the opposite of bad stress. It’s stress that makes me focus and do better. Examples of good stress in my life are:

  • Deadlines to keep me focused on getting shit done
  • Teaching people to allow me to have a deeper understanding of topics
  • Public speaking to get me excited about a topic
  • I use the Pomodoro Technique to give me regular rest without interrupting flow

Good stress keeps me going. Good stress allows me to practice “structured procrastination”. Good stress makes me better.

Slack is a garden of bad stress

I detest Slack.

Slack proclaims that it is “Made for people. Built for productivity.”

No. Not for me. For me, Slack is built for using Slack.

Slack distracts me with all its badges, with all of its demands for attention.

I really like working with people. I really like conversations and interactions. I love collaborating with people. When someone sends me a message, I feel that I should respond as quickly as possible. When someone sends a message in a channel, I feel that I should read it as quickly as possible.

When I don’t, there are badges. So many badges.

At some point, there are so many unread messages across so many channels, I find myself drowning in the cold waters of failure. Because I’m not able to give people my immediate attention I feel guilt.

That’s not how I want to feel.

All the other things

I called out Slack, but I could have used Discord, Instagram, LinkedIn, Xwitter, Podcasts, News, just anything with a badge that interrupts me or causes me to feel overwhelmed.

I want to remove all of that from my life.

Reclaiming the calm of good stress

My phone is an Apple product. (Sorry, Bart.) My desktop computer is an Apple product. I have heavily customized the Focus feature for the Apple ecosystem to remove badges from my apps when I shouldn’t see them. Here’s how I’ve done this to keep me in the good stress zone. The ones in bold are the built-in modes.

  • Work mode
    Badges disabled
    Notifications enabled
    What causes notifications?
    • Work contacts’, family’s, and friends’ messages
    • All email (not junk) and Slack
  • Personal mode
    Badges disabled
    Notifications enabled
    What causes notifications?
    • Family’s and friends’ messages
    • Personal email and food delivery
  • Do Not Disturb mode
    Badges enabled
    Notifications disabled
    What causes notifications?
    • Just one person
  • Sleep mode
    Badges disabled
    Notifications disabled
  • School mode
    Badges disabled
    Notifications enabled
    What causes notifications?
    • School contacts’, family’s, and friends’ messages
    • School and personal email
  • Open Time mode
    Badges enabled
    Notifications enabled
    What causes notifications?
    • Family’s and friends’ messages
    • Almost everything
  • Creative Time
    Badges disabled
    Notifications enabled
    What causes notifications?
    • Only one person

As you can see, I’ve added three new modes and customized them for the specific kind of work I want to achieve. Each of the people or apps that I’ve let through are there to alert me of something important for my work at the time, or for socioemotional support.

You can see that I have badges enabled for some of those modes. When I’m in Open Time, I will look at all of the badged applications and see what I’ve missed. But, when I’m in modes that I really need to focus in, when I’m doing something creative (like programming or writing) there are no badges. There are only notifications that I can address in bulk when I take a break.

It barely works.

It takes effort.

I’ve also completely disabled badges for my Yahoo! junk mail app. I can check it once per day. That’s enough.

Look. I’m not a Luddite [4]. I really enjoy technology because it allows me to do fun and creative things. We have learned, though, that so many things about the way we interact with computing machines leads to poor mental health, loneliness, and the loss of joy.

I like good mental health. I like camaraderie. I like joy.

I have found that somewhat goofy things like the modes above can help me stay in an environment of good stress.

There’s still bad stress in my life. There are still badges.

I’m trying.

Optimize your good stressors

I don’t expect that anything that I do will be applicable to your life. I am an odd duck. I will do things for myself that others think are wacky.

What I hope for you is that you can use this framework to start categorizing different things in your life as “good stressors” and “bad stressors”. I hope that you can identify those bad stressors and figure out ways to minimize their effect on your daily adventures.

This is not a “10 habits of successful people” kind of thing. This is a “maybe you can use this as a way to live a self-examined life” kind of thing.

There is an optimism and hope that can come from removing bad stressors one at a time from your life.

I hope for your increased optimism and hope. Let optimization feed your optimism.

  1. 1.Fancy Latin for "let the reader beware."
  2. 2.Big fucking rock, something that my drill sergeants used to accuse us of being in Basic Training
  3. 3.See this article on Psychology Today to understand the difference
  4. 4.A pejorative applied to technophobic people