Desktop Alerts are Evil

The Desktop Alert might look innocent, but in practice, this Outlook feature has a huge destructive effect over your work efficiency. Let’s understand why we think we need it so desperately, why it has bad effect over our work and how we can easily disable it for improving our work flow.

Why does the desktop alert interrupt us?

The desktop alert is an email notification – it notifies us when a new email message arrives. At first glance, it seems like a great feature – we can know in real time whenever a person has sent us an email.


Once we receive the email notification, we immediately shift our focus to it. We just can’t help it – it pops up in front of our face. I have done this experiment dozens of times with many different people – it didn’t fail even once – people always shift their eyes down-right (the default popup location) whenever email notifications pops up.

Once it has caught our attention, it means it has interrupted what we are currently doing. Please don’t start with the “I’m a multitasking person” thing – there is no such thing for most of us (think you are multitasking? think again). We might be good in context switching – moving between tasks quickly, but there is no such thing as real multitasking for humans. And there is a minimal time for this context switch – even if you think it is couple of seconds, it is more.

So we got the interruption and now the question is how quickly we are returning back to our current doing. We are reflexive creatures, which means our instinct is handling interruptions on the spot. Some of us are weaker and some of us are stronger, but we all fail in this case eventually. The solution here is avoiding the interruption from the first place.

Let’s assume we are one of a kind and we have this bulletproof-interrupt-resistance quality. However, we often work with other people during our day and those people are not bulletproof-interrupt-resistance like us, which means that the desktop alerts on your computer interrupt them and damage your work quality (since you need them to be in focus on your mutual work, and not on email notifications).

There is another factor for desktop alerts – the embarrassment factor. Did you ever participate in a presentation of someone that had a desktop alert popping up in the middle of the presentation? You can immediately see that everyone stop following the presentation and are now trying to figure out what the email is all about. Sometimes those emails are private and therefore embarrassing the presenter. It happens.

If we reached this point and you are still not convinced, let’s take do numbers. I assume we all get at least 30 emails a day and we work 8 hours. This means we are getting 3-4 email notifications per hour, which means one interruption every 15 minutes. Now let say you are in a leading position which means your email traffic is at least 2-3 times higher. This means an interruption every 5 minutes for the entire work day. Sounds “very efficient”…

If you are strong enough, you would lose your focus for a while and return to your work while reducing your work efficiency at least by 10%. If you are not strong, you would completely lose the control over your time, because the email notifications would dictate what you do and when you do it. I assume you all familiar with the guideline to look at your Inbox 2-4 times a day. If you use desktop alert, you have no chance of getting even close to that guideline.

“But I must read Alice’s and Bob’s emails on the spot”

No you don’t. Really, you don’t. I’ll say it again – “y-o-u  d-o  n-o-t”.

Most emails don’t need immediate attention. Moreover, many items on emails are solved by themselves if you let them “rest” a bit. Email is not an IM (Instant Messaging) medium. Let’s not forget that.

If there is a specific topic that is super urgent and you are waiting on an email for update on that matter, then I would say the following:

  • This should happen super-rarely (again, we are talking about the need to read an email ~5 seconds after it was received) and therefore it should not dictate how you work.
  • In such case, I would strongly suggest to try a different medium to communicate that urgent thing. For example, the phone, the WhatsApp, the organization IM (e.g. Microsoft Lync), a 3rd party IM (e.g. Skype), etc.

Now let’s disable this annoying thing


  • Go to File
  • Go to Options
  • Go to Mail
  • In the “Message arrival” section, uncheck the “Display a Desktop Alert” checkbox


Published by

Erez Morabia

I’m an engineer and a leader in the computer software industry which is passionate about leading teams, embracing new technologies and improving soft skills for work efficiency.

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