New research has proved beyond doubt that constant notifications can cause stress and anxiety, decrease productivity, and have a detrimental impact on our levels of focus.
Notifications can overtake our lives
Our lives are increasingly being taken over by ‘pings.’ Whether these be notifications from the food delivery company, the taxi company advising your driver is outside, or one of your many Whatsapp groups springing into life (again!).
Whatever it is, we cannot seem to get through an hour of the day without someone notifying us about something. Given all those smartphone notifications, it’s no wonder that we often lose focus on what we are doing.
Your phone doesn’t even need to ping to distract you. There’s solid evidence that shows that the mere presence of your phone, whether it is switched to silent or not, is enough to divert your attention.
All this presents us with a dilemma. How can we reclaim our focus without missing all the other important (and perhaps, not so important) stuff going on in our daily lives?
This time can add up
We could ask ourselves – does this really matter? Well, when you add up the time spent dealing with all those notifications, those pings can really add up. Estimates vary, but the average person is said to check their phone around 85 times daily – roughly once every 15 minutes.
In simple terms, this can be summarised by saying that every 15 minutes or so, there is a propensity for your attention to wander from what you’re doing. Although this may not be harmful in itself, research shows that it can take several minutes to regain your concentration fully after an interruption caused by your phone.
If you’re not doing anything particularly important. being distracted and refocusing is not a problem per se. But if you’re driving, trying to study, work, or spending time with your family, such distractions could potentially lead to more significant problems fairly quickly.
Interruptions take two forms
Notification pings from your phone are what experts term “exogenous interruptions.” This term relates to something external around you which has caused or is causing the interruption.
It is not uncommon for us to become conditioned to feel excited when our phones ping. This feeling is the same as when something happens to us that makes us feel pleasure, driving us to want more of it and feel disappointed or frustrated if we don’t receive it.
Even if we place our phones on silent, it has been found that this still does not solve the interruption issue. This phenomenon is covered under the second type of interruption, that of endogenous interruption.
Consider every time you were working on something and your attention turned to your phone, whether it ‘pinged’ or not. You might have resisted the urge to pick it up and browse to see what is happening, yet you couldn’t help but look anyway.
In this situation, we can become so strongly conditioned to expect a reward through a hit of adrenalin or dopamine that each time we look at our phone, we don’t need to wait for a ping to trigger the effect. These impulses are powerful.
Consider how many times during the time you’ve spent reading this article you have either wanted to or actually have checked your phone.
Try giving your brain a rest
So given the number of notifications we receive daily, what do all these interruptions mean for our cognition, mental health, and general wellbeing?
There’s increasing evidence push notifications can be linked to decreased productivity, poorer concentration levels, increased distraction, and even mood swings. But we need to consider whether there is any evidence that our brains are working harder to manage the frequent switches in attention.
One study of the brain waves of a group of individuals found that those who described themselves as heavy smartphone users were more sensitive to push notifications than ones who said they were light users.
After receiving a push notification, heavy users were found to be significantly worse at recovering their concentration on a task than lighter users. Although push notifications interrupted concentration for both groups, the heavy users took much longer to regain focus.
Frequent interruptions from your phone have also been found to lead to feelings of stress. This results from a sense of obligation to respond. Frequent smartphone interruptions are also associated with increased FOMO, or the ‘fear of missing out.’
Furthermore, suppose you are the type of person that gets distracted by your phone after responding to a notification. In that case, any subsequent procrastination in returning to a task might also leave you with feelings of guilt or frustration.
There’s certainly evidence suggesting the longer you spend using your phone in unproductive ways, the lower you tend to rate your wellbeing.
How can I stop the ‘need’ to check my phone?
Switching your phone to silent will not instantly fix the problem, especially if you’re already a well-developed frequent checker.
What’s needed is a behavioral change, and that’s not easy to achieve. It can take several attempts to achieve a lasting difference. There are also some simple, practical steps that you can take to help the process along.
The first, and possibly the most obvious, step to take is to turn off all non-essential notifications.
In addition to this first step, here are some other things you might try to reduce the number of times you feel you ‘need’ to check your phone:
- Charge your phone overnight in a different room than your bedroom. Notifications can prevent you from falling asleep and repeatedly rouse you from essential sleep throughout the night.
- Interrupt the urge to check and actively decide if it will benefit you at that moment. For example, as you turn to reach for your phone, stop and ask yourself if this action is serving a particular purpose or simply creating a distraction
- try the Pomodoro method to stay focused on a task. This involves breaking your concentration time into manageable chunks (for example, 25 minutes) and rewarding yourself with a short break (for instance, to check your phone) between chunks. You can then increase the length of time between rewards.
Stop checking your phone!
The long and short of it is that although you might feel compelled to check your phone repeatedly, it is likely that few notifications require your immediate attention.
Indeed, there are probably none or almost none that require you to turn your attention away from what you are currently engaged in.
Although the prospect of turning off notifications or even putting your phone on silent might horrify you, such feelings have to be offset against the benefits that might be attained from doing so. Give it a try – you might be surprised by the results.
Do you feel you spend too long on your phone? Are you easily distracted by notifications? Tell us more in the comments below.