If you were to send me an email right now, a number of things would happen. My wrist would vibrate. My pocket would vibrate, light up, and make a sound. A pop-up would appear in the corner of my laptop screen. A counter next to a small icon of an envelope would increase in my Google Chrome window. I'll twitch and squirm and swear in frustration but I need all these things to happen, I swear. Still, I probably won't answer your email.
I'm starting to realize I might have a problem.
My notification setup isn't automatic. It's not something I just stumbled into by virtue of having a phone and a laptop and a smartwatch; it's a hell I've meticulously architected for myself, in fleeting fits of organizational mania over a number of years.
- My phone's settings are carefully tweaked so that it always issues a vibration, but couples it with a calculatedly awful notification sound called "Ariel," only when it is appropriate. Like when I'm at home or have headphones in, but only out loud in the office after 8 o'clock. I chose that sound specifically because it is sharp, percussive, and short. After all, I have to hear it all the time. By now I'm pretty sure the sound raises my blood-pressure on its own.
- On my laptop I've got a Chrome extension for Gmail pop-ups, and another for mirroring my phone notifications to my screen. Occasionally this means I get doubles; two pop-ups for the same email—often with other calendar and text notifications mixed in—cascading down the right side of my display, over other windows with notifications of their own.
- The smartwatch is easy; I just set it to vibrate whenever anything happens ever EVER.
The idea is that no matter where I am or what I am doing, I will be notified. I will always have some device on me that will do the job. When that fateful all-important email rolls in—as it occasionally does!—I will be ready to take action. The reality is that I just spend 10-12 hours a day gawking in front of a computer screen and all these things just fire off in unison. Virtually every display I own, loudly alerting me to the same damn thing I'll ignore.
I've been a procrastinator my entire life, a hideous one, like so many writers are. To the point, I have emails that are weeks overdue that I should be responding to right now. Chains in which I have used the phrase "Sorry for the delay!" multiple times. It's bad. Like, really bad. Emailing and just generally keeping in touch with people is the worst part of my job, and the part of my job that I'm worst at.
It doesn't even have anything to do with the work part of it, though. My best friend—the dude who will be the best man at my wedding? His texts go unanswered for days. Emails (plural!) from my parents rot in my personal inbox for weeks. Their voicemails go unlistened for months, garbled Google Voice transcripts barely glanced at, just to make I won't miss any surprise funerals. I am extremely hard to get in touch with but I am exceedingly easily notified; I know about everything the fucking second it happens and I never do anything about anything.
I think I'm starting to figure out why I do this to myself. I think it's about the illusion of control. With my insane Rube Goldberg machines of notification I can spend one unusually motivated Sunday afternoon optimizing the notification system I'll use for months to come. One that will ostensibly help when I'm feeling less on top of things even though instead it just makes me more overwhelmed. There's also a twist to it that's punitive; I'm rubbing my own nose in my laziness and social fear every single time an email comes through. I was raised Catholic, after all.
But still, at the very heart of my being there's a simpler, easier answer. One I know to be false but somehow believe is true. That with one more gadget—a smart ring, or some glasses with a screen, maybe some sort of anklet—I might be able to pull it all off. That with five gadgets screaming at me, or six or seven or eight, my addiction might miraculously become its own cure. That I might answer the email promptly, respond to the text with even so much as a smiley. That maybe I'd answer the phone instead of staring slack-jawed at the unknown number while everything I own buzzes and blinks around me as helpfully and uselessly as it can.
So send in the gadgets.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby