When you first boot up your smartphone or install a new app on it, neither comes pre-configured with your individual mental health or productivity in mind. Just like humans, our devices and apps have a lot of competition to deal with, so they're configured in the best interest of their own survival.
That means that our apps and phones are designed to distract you as much as possible, because their survival depends on your eyeballs. Yes, these things are meant to be useful and they very often are, but the ultimate goal is for them to be used, which is not necesarrily the same as being useful.
One of the most effective and insidious tools for attracting your eyeballs is the push notification. Install just about any app and it's likely to want the ability to shove alerts into your face at will.
The implicit goal here is to disrupt whatever productivity you might currently be engaged in.
So researchers from Spain's Telefonica and Carnegie-Mellon University devised an experiment called the "Do Not Disturb Challenge" in which 30 people disabled notifications on their smartphones or put them in "do not disturb" mode for a 24 hour period. They were then asked to report back in a detailed and structured way about the difference a day without push alerts made.
The results were intuitive but enlightening nonetheless.
"Notifications have locked us in a dilemma: without notifications, participants felt less distracted and more productive," write study co-authors Martin Pielot of Telefonica and Luz Rello from Carnegie Mellon. "But, they also felt no longer able to be as responsive as expected, which made some participants anxious. And, they felt less connected with one's social group."
It's a dilemma we can probably all relate to. We feel refreshed when we take a break from digital distractions, but the power of FOMO is very real.
For me, it's important to make a habit of disconnecting, whether it's for an hour-long bike ride or a day or more in the wilderness. These moments are absolutely invaluable, but I find my productivity takes a hit when I eventually re-connect and feel I have to spend an inordinate amount of time catching up on what I missed.
Pielot and Rello aren't the first to report that too many notifications are impacting our productivity, but they do highlight the surprisingly novel idea that we should be taking action to personalization our notification regime.
"In contrast to previous reports, about two third of the participants expressed the intention to change how they manage notifications. Two years later, half of the participants are still following through with their plans."
In other words, it's worth going through your settings and enabling only the most critical notifications. Also consider automating "quiet hours" and making liberal use of "Do Not Disturb" features when you're trying to focus elsewhere.
The takeaway here is small, but can have potentially huge benefits for those of us who aren't so great about pro-actively pruning our push notifications. Just remember, all these wonderful digital tools are designed to be used, but it may be up to you to take a few steps to make them as useful as possible.