Using Windows 11

Managing notifications and eliminating distractions

Windows 11 is capable of displaying notifications from apps, services, and Windows itself, alerting you to incoming messages, alarms, and events that require your attention. These notifications can pop up as banners in the lower-right corner of the primary display; they also show up in the notification center, a pane that appears at the right side of your screen when you swipe in from the right (on a touchscreen), press Windows key+N, or click the clock on the right of the taskbar. In addition to hosting notifications, this pane includes a collapsible calendar as well as a pair of features that you can use to eliminate distractions caused by, among other things, notifications.

Figure 3-17 shows the notification center with two notifications and Do Not Disturb turned on. Notifications are grouped under headings corresponding to the notifying applications.

Figure 3-17

Figure 3-17 Notifications are a useful way to stay on top of events. To lessen their potential as a source of distraction, use the Do Not Disturb feature (top) or start a Focus session (bottom).

You can respond to notifications in various ways. If you hover the mouse pointer over a notification, a Close button appears in its upper-right corner, with a Settings button (three dots) just to its left. Click Close to dismiss the notification. If you click on the body of the notification, the relevant action occurs. For example, clicking on an email message opens it in the associated app (Mail or Outlook, for example); clicking on a message from Snipping Tool telling you that you’ve successfully captured a screenshot opens the Snipping Tool app with the capture available for immediate editing. Acting on a notification in this fashion removes it from the notification center immediately.

If there are more notifications from a single app than will fit in the notification center, a small message at the bottom lets you know how many additional alerts are available. Click that message to expand the list and see all available notifications. You can click the Close button to the right of any heading to close all notifications in that group.

Click Clear All, in the top-right corner of the notification center, to clear all notifications immediately.

Customizing notifications

The options for controlling which apps and services can deliver messages to the notification center are available in Settings > System > Notifications, as shown in Figure 3-18. The Notifications section at the top of the page contains an On/Off switch that allows you to shut off all notifications. If you leave notifications enabled, use the checkboxes below that switch to eliminate sounds associated with notifications and to control whether messages are displayed on your lock screen.

Figure 3-18

Figure 3-18 Use the switch at the top of this page to suppress all notifications.

Turning off all notifications is a fairly drastic step. A more measured approach if you find the volume of notifications excessive is to adjust settings for each source. You can make this adjustment directly from the notification center by clicking the Settings button to the right of a group heading. That action opens a menu like the one shown in Figure 3-19.

Figure 3-19

Figure 3-19 Use this Settings menu to quickly adjust notification options for a group that’s currently visible in the notification center.

If you decide you don’t really need to see notifications from Snipping Tool, for example, click its Settings button and then choose Turn Off All Notifications For Snipping Tool. If, on the other hand, you want those notifications to be treated with high priority so that you see them above other notifications, even when Do Not Disturb is turned on, choose Make Snipping Tool High Priority.

For more granular control over notifications on an app-by-app basis, click Go To Notification Settings from this menu. That opens a page like the one shown in Figure 3-20.

Figure 3-20

Figure 3-20 Every app, service, and system function capable of sending notifications can be fine-tuned using settings like the ones shown here.

Most of the options in this page are self-explanatory. If you don’t want notification banners to appear briefly in the lower-right corner, clear the Show Notification Banners box. (A jargon note: Windows calls this type of alert “toast,” because of the way it pops up, like a slice of bread from a toaster.) Conversely, if you want to see notification banners as they arrive but you don’t need to see the ones you missed, clear the Show Notifications In Notification Center box.

The three options under the Priority of Notifications In Notification Center heading allow you to roughly sort the contents of this pane by importance. Set your must-see notifications to the Top option; use High for those you want to see near the top; everything else is categorized as Normal.

On a well-used Windows 11 PC, dozens of apps and services, as well as Windows features such as USB and Bluetooth, are capable of sending you notifications. You can curate what you see in the notification center by scrolling through the entire list at the bottom of Settings > System > Notifications. Turn the switch to Off for any app you never want to hear from, and then go through the individual settings to adjust the behavior of alerts from those that are allowed to send notifications.

Eliminating distractions

Notifications are designed to get your attention. That’s a mixed blessing if you’re trying to do something that demands your undivided attention, like finish a high-priority work project or play a game against a skilled online rival.

For those instances, two features are especially useful: Do Not Disturb and Focus.

Do Not Disturb does exactly what its name promises: When you click the Do Not Disturb button at the top of the notification center (or go to Settings > System > Notifications and turn on the corresponding switch), Windows temporarily suppresses toast-style notifications, sending them directly to the notification center. The only exceptions are incoming voice and video calls (including VOIP calls), reminders (you don’t want to miss an appointment because you were busy playing Halo), and notifications from any app you set as High Priority. To adjust these settings, open the Notifications page in Settings and click Set Priority Notifications.

Windows 11 can turn on Do Not Disturb automatically. By default, it does so when you’re duplicating your display (on the theory that you’re probably delivering a presentation and don’t want your audience to be distracted by your notifications), when you’re playing a game, or when you’re using an app in full-screen mode. Do Not Disturb is also on automatically for the first hour after a Windows feature update, when the system is busy doing housekeeping tasks.

You can adjust these settings and also specify times when you want Windows to remain quiet. You’ll find these options on the Notifications page in Settings. Expand the Turn On Do Not Disturb Automatically section and configure the options you see there. In Figure 3-21, for example, we’ve told Windows to turn on Do Not Disturb between 11:00 PM and 6:00 AM.

Figure 3-21

Figure 3-21 Windows turns on Do Not Disturb automatically when it senses you don’t want to be bothered. You can set your own “quiet hours” here.

The Focus feature (which was known as Focus Assist and before that as Quiet Hours in Windows 10) is a productivity-focused feature designed to minimize interruptions from your computer for a specific period of time while you concentrate. The idea is that you will focus your attention, uninterrupted, for a burst of productive activity.

To start a focus session, open the notification center and look for the controls at the bottom of the pane, below the calendar. By default, a focus session lasts 30 minutes. Use the plus and minus buttons to change the time, if necessary, and then click Focus. If you set a session for more than 30 minutes, as we’ve done in Figure 3-22, Windows offers to give you breaks.

Figure 3-22

Figure 3-22 Use focus sessions to increase your productivity by hiding notifications and other distractions for a set period of time.

When you’re in a focus session, Windows turns on Do Not Disturb automatically and suppresses notifications and badges on taskbar buttons. To help you stay focused, Windows displays a minimalist view of the Clock app with a small timer and a Stop button that allows you to end the session early. By default, this timer shows a simple circular progress indicator; you can click to expand it to show the full time remaining in your session. When your focus session ends, Windows lets you know by interrupting your train of thought with (naturally) a notification.

To configure these options, go to Settings > System > Focus. Note that you cannot adjust these settings while you’re in the middle of a focus session.