Summary: Constant push notifications on smartphones may affect cognition by decreasing concentration and increasing distraction. Researchers found heavy smartphone use was associated with poor concentration recovery following a notification and alterations in brain activity that made people more sensitive to push notifications.
Source: The Conversation
A ping from the pizza company. A couple of pings from your socials. Ping, ping, ping from your family WhatsApp group trying to organize a weekend barbecue.
With all those smartphone notifications, it’s no wonder you lose focus on what you’re trying to do.
Your phone doesn’t even need to ping to distract you. There’s pretty goodevidence the mere presence of your phone, silent or not, is enough to divert your attention.
So what’s going on? More importantly, how can you reclaim your focus, without missing the important stuff?
Is it really such a big deal?
When you look at the big picture, those pings can really add up.
Although estimates vary, the average person checks their phone around 85 timesa day, roughly once every 15 minutes.
In other words, every 15 minutes or so, your attention is likely to wander from what you’re doing. The trouble is, it can take several minutes to regain your concentration fully after being interrupted by your phone.
If you’re just watching TV, distractions (and refocusing) are no big deal. But if you’re driving a car, trying to study, at work, or spending time with your loved ones, it could lead to some fairly substantial problems.
Two types of interference
The pings from your phone are “exogenous interruptions”. In other words, something external, around you, has caused the interruption.
But is there any evidence our brain is working harder to manage the frequent switches in attention?
One study of people’s brain waves found those who describe themselves as heavy smartphone users were more sensitive to push notifications than ones who said they were light users.
After hearing a push notification, heavy users were significantly worse at recovering their concentration on a task than lighter users. Although push notification interrupted concentration for both groups, the heavy users took much longer to regain focus.
Frequent interruptions from your phone can also leave you feeling stressed by a need to respond. Frequent smartphone interruptions are also associated with increased FOMO (fear of missing out).
If you get distracted by your phone after responding to a notification, any subsequent procrastination in returning to a task can also leave you feeling guilty or frustrated.
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?
We know switching your phone to silent isn’t going to magically fix the problem, especially if you’re already a frequent checker.
What’s needed is behaviour change, and that’s hard. It can take several attempts to see lasting change. If you have ever tried to quit smoking, lose weight, or start an exercise program you’ll know what I mean.
Start by turning off all non-essential notifications. Then here are some things to try if you want to reduce the number of times you check your phone:
charge your phone overnight in a different room to your bedroom. Notifications can prevent you falling asleep and can repeatedly rouse you from essential sleep throughout the night
interrupt the urge to check and actively decide if it’s going to benefit you, in that moment. For example, as you turn to reach for your phone, stop and ask yourself if this action serves a purpose other than distraction
try the Pomodoro method to stay focused on a task. This involves breaking your concentration time up into manageable chunks (for example, 25 minutes) then rewarding yourself with a short break (for instance, to check your phone) between chunks. Gradually increase the length of time between rewards. Gradually re-learning to sustain your attention on any task can take a while if you’re a high-volume checker.
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