Have you ever glanced at a notification on your phone and been distracted by something that you didn’t have time to deal with? This post shows why having the willpower to choose when you look at your notifications will benefit you enormously.
Last month I spent a week lying on a beach in Tarifa, southern Spain, devoting my attention equally to relaxing and to not getting my torso sliced in half by kite surfers. I put my phone on silent because any notification I received would distract me from enjoying my current situation: building sandcastles and watching people kite-surf (much easier than doing it personally). More importantly, not only would the notification distract me from what I was enjoying, it also wouldn’t bring me any benefit: even if I found out my apartment was on fire I wouldn’t be able to do much about it from 319 miles away. And particularly not after three watermelon mojitos.
The Notification Mosquito
Every day we are bombarded by distractions: cars beeping, loud conversations and cat videos on YouTube. But the most distracting sort of distraction, because it usually wants us to do something, is the notification. It might be an email from your boss or a reminder to buy multi-grain bread, and it is generally helpful if you see it at the right time. The problem is that our mobile phones fire these notifications at us all the time, and when our phone vibrates it’s hard not to look at it immediately. This means little bits of information, which distract us from other things, are flying at us all day, every day: like little Notification Mosquitoes.
Your brain only has a certain amount of useable attention at any one time. You can focus your attention entirely on one task or conversation, and have the best chance of excelling at it, or attempt to “multi-task”: an ancient Latin word meaning “look busy while screwing everything up” (probably). If you have ever tried to complete an equation at the same time as thinking about Christine from Physics Class, you would probably have found that using half of your attention on the latter reduced your ability to succeed at the former. If a Notification Mosquito lands on your phone while you are talking to someone, and you glance at it, it will steal a huge part of your attention away from the conversation: not a good thing when you really want to understand them.
Not only do these Notification Mosquitoes distract us from other things, they’re also not always useful. In Getting Things Done, David Allen says that we gain nothing from thinking about a task unless we can currently act on it. In other words, if you're in Starbucks with a friend it’s unhelpful to an email from your mother-in-law asking you to change the shade of fuschia on the draft wedding invitation because you won't be able to do it until you get home and all it will do will distract you (and possibly worry you, depending on the ferocity of your mother-in-law). Note: In the case of a real emergency for which you would drop everything immediately, you can safely assume that you will receive a phone call rather than a text, email or Facebook notification.
Emotions and stress
Let’s take this a step further. Not only do the Notification Mosquitoes distract us and make us less attentive or productive, their mischievous disrespect for timing means they can deliver emotional news at a moment when we’re completely unprepared to deal with it. Your roommate’s Whatsapp complaint about the pressing lack of toilet paper is 86% more likely to provoke a furious and irrational response if you read it when you’re running for the bus than if you see it later when you have time to breathe and think. The quicker-acting part of our brain which will react to a notification received in a moment of stress is what Daniel Kahneman calls System 1, and it’s completely ill-equipped to deal with emotional topics.
The next time your phone vibrates, pause for a second and leave checking it until a bit later if you: A) currently need your attention for something else, B) don’t have the time to act on it right now, and C) aren’t calm enough to respond rationally if the notification is irritating or emotional. Take back control of your attention and only let the Notification Mosquito land when you are ready for it.