I was just checking the time… 30 minutes ago. Now I’ve answered 4 friends on Messenger, checked my email, glanced over an article, and researched how sushi was made through the years. It all started with a single notification…
Have you ever tried to do something on your phone and found yourself brainlessly scrolling social media 10 minutes later? Has this happened to you today?
I can check my notifications while waiting for the bus to arrive ( good ), or while on the train ( fine ), or while waiting for that program to start ( bad ), or while waiting for the code to compile ( bad, programmer, bad! ), and so on. The problem becomes when the checking becomes habitual and any small gap of time is filled with useless activity.
Yes, useless. Sadly most notifications are useless. Texts or instant messages are by no means a real-time medium ( the irony ) and email is even less so. Bulk checking your messages on your own terms is much more productive than letting apps and other people control your focus.
And now even Macs and PCs have extensive notification support. Software developers are quickly adopting and trapping our attention without us having to even reach out for our phones. Even the hand that reaches for the phone usually has a smartwatch vibrating with the latest message…
Distracting they are notifications are just the hook. The cue to get us to spend time in the corresponding app or game. They potentially get us to waste even more time. All this while breaking our concentration and focusing our mind on urgent but trivial tasks.
Sadly, it’s not just me. I see this happening to my colleagues, friends, during work, and even during conversations.
This post will teach you why and how you should reclaim your time and focus from push notifications.
The case against notifications
Everyone is fighting for your attention
Free internet is great. The internet is the most amazing thing I have experienced. But we’re paying for everything ‘free’ online with our attention. Most websites are funded by tracking their user’s every move and targeting ads to them. More attention means more ads which ultimately means more money.
More attention means more ads which ultimately means more money.
So successful websites must capture and keep their user’s attention and do so regularly. The more people visit and the more people stay on each visit – the money for the company.
The competition eventually makes companies produce better content, improve their design, optimize UX, and even hire behavioral scientists to improve their profits. This leads to:
- Better designed & programmed websites
- Better content
- More and more addictive internet
The same goes for any other modern medium – apps, services, and websites all take part in the competition for your attention. Pretty much everything online is optimized to grab your attention as much as possible.
Notifications by far are one of the most intrusive forms of that. They’re not only grabbing our attention but doing so when we’re not using the specific app/website.
News Flash: Notifications decrease productivity!
In 2001 three researchers from Microsoft published a study that instant messages decrease task performance and can even lead to the user forgetting the original goal. The negative effects were even stronger in intensive or creative tasks.
And this was 2001 – the only concern at the time was IM notifications. Now we have several social media accounts…
In 2013 Martin Pielot led a study that found that on average (arithmetic mean), each of their 15 participants received 63.5 notifications per day. Most of those notifications came from messengers or emails. They checked all of those within minutes.
In the summer of 2014, he conducted a study with another 48 participants. In this study, much fewer notifications ( percentage-wise ) came from messengers. The number of notifications was also striking – on average (arithmetic mean) 118.7 notifications per day. That’s a 53% increase in just one year.
Nowadays it’s common for millennials to receive well over 100 notifications per day. On the few phones, I was able to track, there were well over 200 notifications daily.
This amount of notifications is critical. Too much information at any given time and we get information overload and we burnout. The case with notifications is more subtle, though. We get a minor case of information overload several times per day. Every day. In 2015 scientists in Berlin found a strong correlation between information overload and increased stress levels.
But besides stressing you out and plainly distracting you – push notifications get you doing something else – multitasking. Every time we switch from any activity to a notification and back we’re ‘multitasking’. If only humans were good multitaskers…
So in case you still don’t know – Multitasking is a myth. It increases how much of the stress hormone cortisol is produced. It also increases the production of adrenaline, which in a normal workday is extremely counterproductive. Finally, the more you multitask, the easier it will be to distract you in general.
The more you multitask, the easier it will be to distract you.
Notifications as a form of multitasking create a strong feedback loop. They reward the brain with dopamine for seeking external stimulation. And worse, we’re heavily biased towards novelty – our attention can easily be hijacked by anything new and shiny.
But to make matters worse – the constant activation of our dopamine receptors might even reduce our sensitivity to dopamine. In 2011 a group of scientists found a correlation between internet addicts ( read: everyone ) and reduced dopamine receptors.
Reduced dopamine sensitivity can ultimately make everyday tasks duller and decrease our motivation. Too low dopamine sensitivity can lead to depression and a multitude of mental issues.
N of 1 Trial: Writing 300 words
Finally, for a more pragmatic approach to the issue here is my personal experience…
The worst result I recorded was for one of the ‘No Notifications’ category initially. I didn’t actually silence my phone and a call interrupted me, followed by a car-parts searching frenzy and checking the social media. All of that with a giant timer to remind me of my work session on my second screen.
The measure was time spent on the writing task sans the time spent on notifications ( if any ). I’ve repeated the exercise a total of 12 times – 6 times with the notifications and 6 times after disabling them.
I grouped the results by word count. Each pair has roughly the same word count so you can see the difference easier. The totals are based on the averaged data.
Although the N of 1 trial is negatively biased by the Hawthorne Effect and I’m already used to not having notifications I’m surprised by the results.
The results were striking:
- Up to 2.4x productivity increase without notifications
- An average of 40% better productivity without notifications
For me, those results have clearly demonstrated that I’ve vastly underestimated the negative effects notifications have on me. I’ve always considered the effects to an extent, but I’ve never imagined that the differences will be this big. I did expect a 10%, maybe 15% boost in performance but the actual results are striking.
Au revoir notifications
The most obvious benefit goes first. The fewer things break your focus, the better your overall focus will be.
Having longer periods focused on a single task will also lead to deeper focus. The deeper you can focus, the more time you will spend in flow.
Longer focus leads to better work and more time spent in flow.
Better social media and excellent productivity?!
Fewer visits on social media mean more hearts, likes, and notifications at once. This means that every visit will be much more rewarding than usual.
The bigger factor here is not really the increased amount of interesting things on social media when we visit – it’s the expectation for the increased amount of interesting things when we visit.
The brain releases the most dopamine when we’re expecting a potential reward and expecting a potentially giant reward is sure to release a good ol’ bucket of dopamine even before the app has loaded.
Don’t quote me on that it’s entirely based on my personal experiences and speculation
How to turn off your notifications
Fully remove all notifications from your phone? Nope. Just removing the sound and lights that get you to check them is more than enough.
Do not Disturb mode mutes the sound and stops the lights that trigger us to check our notifications and let us pick a smart time to check them on our terms.
Here we can easily remove the cues that trigger our notification-checking frenzy. Here are some tools to do that:
– Turn off all the notifications on your PC (Focus Assist) or Mac (Do Not Disturb)
– Turn on Do Not Disturb on your mobile device
– Hide notifications on your mobile lock screen
– Completely remove useless notifications (delete the apps or use their settings menu)
So by doing that you’ll no longer have the triggers that will pretty much put your brain on curiosity auto-pilot and let it plummet his own productivity. On the other hand – everything you had is still there – it’s just less visible. Now only you can decide when you want to spend the time to check your phone’s notifications and do so without feeling guilty that you’ve wasted 30 minutes of your workday for 9gag.
Now you can really decide when you want to spend the time to check your phone’s notifications and do so without feeling guilty that you’ve wasted 30 minutes of your workday for 9gag.
At this point, I hope, I’ve managed to convince you that your life will be better without the constant buzzing and popping of your phone. I’ve seen an amazing improvement in my performance and I would like to see other people embracing this methodology and benefiting from it as well.
Just remember very soon there will be a time that you’ll want some notifications, heck ALL notifications out of boredom or a better reason. Go ahead and enjoy your beeping for a bit, but then fall back to your more productive life without notifications.
In the next article, we will discuss disconnecting, later the Pomodoro technique ( also, how to customize it for yourself ), app & website blockers, and a few more topics vital to improving your work performance.
Share your thoughts and success stories below. What did you like the most and what’s the one thing that must change to improve the article?