Sustainable sacrifice: Taming phone notifications

  • Lionel Windsor
  • 12 September 2016

I keep hearing heartbreaking reports of burnout among Christian ministers. Christopher Ash’s book Zeal Without Burnout is a very short but very good biblical and pastoral reflection on the topic. He talks about his own experience of burnout, and includes lots of stories from others in Christian ministry. He argues that we should be thinking in terms of ‘sustainable sacrifice’, i.e. “the sort of self-giving living that God enables us to go on giving day after day” (p. 26). Even his chapter titles are nuggets of gold:

  • We are creatures of dust
  • We need sleep and God does not
  • We need Sabbath rests and God does not
  • We need friends and God does not
  • We need inward renewal and God does not
  • A warning: Beware celebrity!
  • An encouragement: It’s worth it!
  • A delight: Rejoice in grace, not gifts

Burnout prevention

Ash’s book has motivated me to start a series of posts about how I try to put ‘sustainable sacrifice’ into effect on the ground. In the series, I’m going to describe and reflect on some of the habits and personal organization structures I’ve developed over the years. These habits and structures help me to serve Christ and his people, given my own limitations and the frantic pace of modern life, without getting too stressed or burnt out. Most of the time.

I’ve developed a lot of these habits and structures the hard way: through my failures. They’re specific to my own situation, so if you think any of them are worthwhile you’ll have to adapt them. And please realize that I don’t have a perfect system that always works. But it does help me a lot.

Please note that these are just habits and structures. They won’t achieve anything by themselves. The most important things are: to keep coming back to the gospel of God’s grace in prayer and dependence on him; to keep being godly in your life; and to teach God’s word faithfully. The habits and structures are meant to help you do these, not to be a substitute for them.

Taming the phone by minimizing notifications

My phone keeps trying to take over my life. I can’t blame it—that’s what it’s been designed to do. But because I’m Christian and minister of the gospel, God is supposed to be in charge of my life. So one of my jobs as a Christian minister is to work out how to use my phone without being used by it. A key way to do this is to minimize notifications.

Notifications are those sounds, vibrations and little red numbers on icons, pop-ups and friendly slide-in-and-out banners that apps use to get my attention. Notifications are often useful because they tell me when something needs my immediate attention. The problem is, the phone and app developers have their own ideas about what needs my immediate attention. And those ideas are usually driven by their profits, not by my needs as a Christian and a minister of the gospel.

Notification overload

Phone designers (in my case, Apple), along with the app designers, rely on me for their income. If I stop paying attention to their devices and their apps, they lose money. So they maximize notifications. They always set the default notification setting as ‘on’, and they notify me about whatever they can, as often as possible.

This is an effective strategy for them, because it plays on two of my key motivators: fear and desire.

Firstly, fear. When a notification appears, it instantly plays on my FOMO (fear of missing out). The notification implies that something, somewhere is happening that might be important. I’d better stop and check it out, right now.

Notifications also play on my desire. A notification tells me that something else might be more gratifying than the thing I’m currently doing.

My fear and desire, then, work in tandem to motivate me to act on the notification. And even if I choose to ignore the notification, it adds a tiny bit to my fear of missing out, and hence my underlying stress. If it keeps happening, day after day, the stress accumulates. My life ends up becoming a continual game of exhausting emotional whack-a-mole, all in service of somebody else’s business model.

Minimizing notifications

How do I fight this? It’s pretty straightforward. I opt-out before I opt-in. That is, by default, I turn all notifications off. Then I choose, deliberately and sparingly, to turn certain notifications on. Which notifications? The notifications that are clearly relevant to my life as a Christian and my role as a minister of the gospel. My task is to bring God’s word to people, and to love those in my care. So I only switch on notifications where I need to be immediately informed about something in order to do these tasks. And every time I install a new app, I make sure its notifications are ‘off’ unless there’s a very good reason to turn them on.

My notifications

Here are all the notifications I currently have switched ‘on’ on my phone:

  • Incoming phone calls (including Facetime)
  • Incoming text messages
  • Calendar reminders
  • Reminders from Omnifocus (my task management system)

That’s it. All other notifications are off.

Does this sound a little extreme? Does this strategy mean I miss out on important things (e.g. emails)? Actually, no. I’m able to minimize my notifications so much because I also have what David Allen (of Getting Things Done fame) calls a ‘trusted system’. That is, I have a whole set of other habits and structures so I won’t miss out on anything important.

For example, in my current ministry role as a teacher at a theological college, I really don’t need to be informed as soon as someone sends me an email. I’m not a professional email answerer. However, I do check my email at regular times, and I have a system for getting to inbox zero each time I do check my email. This means I feel in charge of my email, rather than feeling that my email is in charge of me. This massively reduces my email-related stress. I do the same for Facebook, etc.

In some of my future posts on this topic, I’ll describe individual parts of my trusted system. For now, I just want to make the point that deliberately minimizing notifications is really helpful for a life of sustainable sacrifice.


I’d like to acknowledge my brother-in-law Paul, who loves this kind of stuff and keeps feeding me with ideas and tips. Paul first introduced me to Getting Things Done. If you’re interested in learning the principles of this system, check it out. I’ve also benefitted from Matt Perman’s book What’s Best Next. This book applies the principles within a biblical and theological framework, and has some very helpful correctives to Getting Things Done from a Christian perspective.

This article is combined from two posts originally published at Lionel’s personal blog, Forget the Channel, with Lionel’s permission.