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This article was originally published on The Conversation. It is written by Deakin University’s Sharon Horwood.
A ping from the pizza company. A couple of pings from your socials. Ping, ping, ping from your family WhatsApp group trying to organise a weekend barbecue.
With all those smartphone notifications, it’s no wonder you lose focus on what you’re trying to do do.
Your phone doesn’t even need to ping to distract you. There’s pretty good evidence 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
When you look at the big picture, those pings can really add up.
Although estimates vary, the average person checks their phone around 85 times a 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
The pings from your phone are “exogenous interruptions”. In other words, something external, around you, has caused the interruption.
We can become conditioned to feeling excited when we hear our phones ping. This is the same pleasurable feeling people who gamble can quickly become conditioned to at the sight or sound of a poker machine.
What if your phone is on silent? Doesn’t that solve the ping problem? Well, no.
That’s another type of interruption, an internal (or endogenous) interruption.
Think of every time you were working on a task but your attention drifted to your phone. You may have fought the urge to pick it up and see what was happening online, but you probably checked anyway.
In this situation, we can become so strongly conditioned to expect a reward each time we look at our phone we don’t need to wait for a ping to trigger the effect.
These impulses are powerful. Just reading this article about checking your phone may make you feel like … checking your phone.
What do all these interruptions mean for cognition and wellbeing?
There’s increasing evidence push notifications are associated with decreased productivity, poorer concentration and increased distraction at work and school.
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.
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:
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