Your phone buzzes in your pocket, and you ignore it. No problem, right? You can just continue what you were doing. Not so fast: new research indicates that a phone notification is just as distracting as answering a phone call.
The paper, from researchers at Florida State University, shows that the mere sound of a notification is enough to ruin your concentration. And once you’ve been interrupted, it doesn’t matter whether that interruption came from a phone call you answered, an email you replied to, or just an ignored ping in your pocket notifying you of a new Twitter @reply.
“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,” say the report’s authors. “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.”
An experiment performed as part of the study pitted 150 students against their phones. Participants were faced with a screen that flashed up numbers for around a second each. Subjects had to hit a key every time a new number appeared, unless it was the number 3. The first time through, nobody was interrupted. On the second run, calls, or texts were sent to some participants. Even though they didn’t respond to the notifications, those students who were interrupted screwed up the second test.
“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,” says the study.
Considering these results, you might be tempted to kill the notifications on your phone. Do it on your computer, too. At the very least, cutting out all superfluous alerts (do you really need to know that your favorite knitting-video app has a 50% sale on this weekend?), you’ll be sure that when your phone finally does ping you, it’s something important.
In a 2004 study, Gloria Mark and Victor M. González followed office workers around, timing everything they did down to the second. They found that, after being interrupted, it took 23 minutes on average to return to the original task. Those minutes were usually spent on two additional tasks.
In 2004, the iPhone was still three years away, so these interruptions came via email, phone, SMS, or directly from coworkers. Today we have endless alerts from our phones and desktops, all of them bringing the possibility of a productivity rathole we can dive into. Even if we have the willpower to ignore these interruptions, they still cost us in terms of distraction.
And with the latest watches that can tap us on the wrist to get our attention, it’s amazing we get anything done at all.