Notifications’ Effect on Attention

In the digital age that we are currently living in, our lifestyle seems incredibly mainstream to us. The ease of using a phone to search anything in less than a second, or call a car to take you anywhere you want, check the weather or call a friend who is far away becomes the norm in less than 15 years. Today, 3.5 Billion people use smartphones, which counts for 45.12% of the world’s population. As we get accustomed to this practicality, we miss to realize the downside of our fast-paced world. It doesn’t matter whether we’re walking around the city, or we’re at the comfort of our own home watching tv or scrolling Instagram, we receive information all around. Before, we could select what we wanted to attend. But because of the overwhelming stream of data, information is spread everywhere: yelling louder and more frequently than ever. One specific way that I’ll be focusing on is through notifications. According to Push Notifications Statistics 2019, an average US smartphone user receives 46 push notifications per day, and 40% of web notifications belong to e-commerce or media. I will argue that receiving notifications distract us worse than we would expect, prompt task-irrelevant thoughts that, in turn, lower our attention span and productivity.

Attention is a cognitive function, which is characterized by William James as ‘withdrawal from some things to deal effectively with others.’ It is a biological limitation as we can’t attend to everything, but we made use of it through evolution, and our attention is drawn to things that will help us survive. This is good because most things are irrelevant to us anyways. For example, motion is something that we attend, since things with motion are understood by our unconscious processes as alive and might hurt or benefit us. We are using attention all the time; we can’t not attend to something. But unfortunately, we can attend to many things in a minute.

We are extremely good at switching our attention. We can task-switch in about 1/10th of a second; therefore, we end up having an illusion of multitasking. From multiple kinds of research over the years, we now know that we can’t multitask. Attention is like a spotlight; we can only attend to one thing at once. The main problem isn’t the time lost in moving attention, as it’s swift, but how our mind shifts at that time. In terms of notifications, when it pops up, whether it’s a NY Times story, a text from a friend or a game notification reminding you to come back and play, our minds wander there for a second. Our task-at-hand is interrupted while our brains notice, process, and determine whether to respond to the distraction presented at us. [This is an example of reflexive, or exogenous attention. It’s in our biology so that we attend to the sound of a bang, or if someone yells our name. It’s also referred to as ‘pull’ attention since we don’t get to decide what to attend, but something pulls our attention.] If our brains could attend to the notification for a second and then come back to the task at hand entirely, that would be easy, but our minds love mind-wandering, and thinking about the past and the future, making new connections all the time. The span of the notification is short, but the thought process that comes with it can stay with us for a long time. A study (Mark, 2008) showed that it could take 23 minutes to get back to the task at hand after an interruption. Another study from Florida State University found the distraction of notification is the same as texting or calling someone.

As we believe we can multitask, the mind-wandering that comes from the notification might go unnoticed. Did you ever read a whole page without realizing that you were thinking about something entirely different, and have no idea what you just read? That happens a lot, to lots of people. Few of us have the concentration to follow through the task-at-hand with no distractions. The notification primes us to some other thoughts without us realizing, and it’s easy to think about it either directly or in the back of our heads when we go back into the task-at-hand. The information that made its way to our head will prompt the distracted-thought to come back up to the conscious mind any moment that it can. A study (Stothart, 2015) found that phone notifications disrupted an attention-demanding task even when participants didn’t directly interact with their phones during the task. Personally, I find it distracting even if my phone is in my peripheral visual area, as it prompts the feeling of wanting to check it. I find it more pleasing to stop the task-at-hand and do whatever that comes to my mind that requires me to check my phone at the moment. It might be because as we get bored with the task-at-hand, we want novelty and instant gratification that comes with our phone. The grey matter in the brain that rewards us for food and sex also does that for discovering new information. And we know that receiving a like on Instagram or the excitement of a new text fires dopamine in our brain. I argue that notifications bring the illusion of multitasking to us more and more, and this takes us away from mindfully engaging in one activity, and lowers productivity.

Here, I want to introduce the concept of ‘flow,’ which is characterized by fully and profoundly immersing yourself in a single task where you don’t notice time and the rest of the world. It’s essential that the task is within our capabilities, but still challenging. The person experiences joy energized focus, full mental and physical involvement. Throughout history, we see many philosophers and psychologists talking about the flow. The early accounts are in eastern philosophy, in Daoism and Buddhism. We let go of the duality between the self and the object we attend, and we become one with it. You feel one with the task-at-hand, and you’re so immersed and concentrated in it that there is a sense of inner clarity and timelessness. Focusing on one task, and fully engaging in it will leave you accomplished, and energized as you’re in the flow, and your brain doesn’t have to jump around and try to focus on many different things. I believe it’s one of the mental states that we enjoy but don’t get to have anymore. You can’t be in a flow state if something always distracts you. We have so many objects and alerts around us, that they prompt mind-wandering as well. But the biggest ones are phones, tv, ads, and all sorts of electronics as they have the agency to contain so much information and have the ability to show something new to us all the time. We don’t want to get bored, so we bombard ourselves with new materials, but it only gives us momentarily pleasure, so we want more.

What seems like a momentary, innocent notification turns into 10 minutes of mindless scrolling, and even if we don’t look at what it says, it still triggers something in our brain that makes us lose concentration, focus, and our train of thought. I argued that notifications distract us and cause us to lose attention, therefore lowering productivity. I suggest turning off notifications as much as we can. When you turn off your notifications, it doesn’t have to mean that you’re disconnecting from the world. You are reclaiming your right to attend your attention to something specific when you want to. I don’t have notifications from Instagram or Snapchat anymore. I still use it, but I am not prompted to use these two apps whenever someone comments or likes, so I’m not summoned by someone far away to use the app, but I decide to launch the app in my own time that I find appropriate.

Try turning off all the notifications that come from random apps that you don’t need. Mindfully realize which ones you never click, or you never mean to click. iPhone now allows you to set up limits for apps, and choose what sort of notification you want to receive from which app. It’s useful to remember that not everything requires your immediate response and reaction. One hundred years ago, people sent mails in envelopes and waited months to get an answer back, so you can wait a couple of hours until you finish the task-at-hand to respond to that e-mail.


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