Notifications Are the New Distractions

Why you should create whitelists and leave your phone in your office

Posted Jul 13, 2015

One of the most effective things I’ve done to get my phone to defend rather than attack my attention is to turn off as many notifications and alerts as possible. I started this a couple years ago, and now consider it essential. In their natural state, smartphones act like children: they're demanding, they have little ability to distinguish between important and unimportant things, and if you ignore them it's a tragedy.

To make my phone more discerning, I've created a super-quiet ringtone for people who aren’t on my “call in case of zombie apocalypse” list, while the people who really matter in my life, in contrast, get the opening bars of Derek and the Domino’s “Layla.” The virtue of this practice is that I can more easily ignore calls from people who I might or might not want to talk to, or might or might not have the bandwidth for. (This article provides an overview of why this is good practice. For iPhone users who want to try this for yourself, here’s how you set up whitelists, and here’s how you create custom ringtones.)

A new study from Florida State researchers provides confirmation that this is a practice worth adopting.

In an experiment, they had about 150 undergraduates take a test measuring their attention levels. In the test, students had to watch a screen and press a button every time a new number appeared, unless the number was 3. Measuring their response speeds, and whether they mistakenly press 3, give you a measure the attention level of the participant. You can see an example of the screen below:

Sustained Attention to Response Test

Here’s the abstract:

It is well documented that interacting with a mobile phone is associated with poorer performance on concurrently performed tasks because limited attentional resources must be shared between tasks. However, mobile phones generate auditory or tactile notifications to alert users of incoming calls and messages. Although these notifications are generally short in duration, they can prompt task-irrelevant thoughts, or mind wandering, which has been shown to damage task performance. We found that cellular phone notifications alone significantly disrupted performance on an attention-demanding task, even when participants did not directly interact with a mobile device during the task. The magnitude of observed distraction effects was comparable in magnitude to those seen when users actively used a mobile phone, either for voice calls or text messaging. 

In other words, just knowing you got a call or text can be almost as distracting as talking on the phone. Or as The Atlantic explains,

The researchers found that performance on the assessment suffered if the student received any kind of audible notification. That is, every kind of phone distraction was equally destructive to their performance: An irruptive ping distracted people just as much as a shrill, sustained ring tone. It didn’t matter, too, if a student ignored the text or didn’t answer the phone: As long as they got a notification, and knew they got it, their test performance suffered.

“Our results suggest that mobile phones can disrupt attention performance even if one does not interact with the device,” write the study’s authors. “As mobile phones become integrated into more and more tasks, it may become increasingly difficult for people to set their phones aside and concentrate fully on the task at hand, whatever it may be.”

You can add this to the discovery that distraction in the classroom is contagious as another reason to encourage students to go device-free, and to encourage people to leave their phones in the office during meetings.

But this study raises something else important. By now we're pretty attuned to the idea that technologies can have a negative impact on our ability to focus and concentrate, and this study is one more data-point in that body of work. My last book, The Distraction Addiction, explained why technologies can be so seductive, and how we can learn to use them more mindfully. In my new book, on rest and its role in the lives of creative people, I've realized that the same technologies don't just affect our ability to focus; they seem to erode our capacity for mind-wandering, too.

Now, many people have regarded mind-wandering as unimportant, or even destructive; and there's no disputing that dwelling on bad things in your life, or worrying about bad futures, isn't good for you. But there's now a growing recognition that mind-wandering can be a positive, too. Michael Corballis notes that mind-wandering can stimulate thinking about the future, and help us become more resilient; a whole group at the Wellcome Hub is studying the value of rest and mind-wandering in today's busy world; and as Mary Helen Immordino-Yang puts it (quoting Charles Darwin's neighbor John Lubbock), "rest is not idleness:" our capacity for mind-wandering and our creativity seem to be connected.

So in its way, while it's harder to predict the benefits of mind-wandering, we should respect and cultivate it, just as we appreciate the value of attention. And it provides yet another reason to learn to use technologies that respect our states of mind, rather than disrupt them.