One of the most effective things I’ve done to get my phone to defend rather than attack my attention is to turn off as many notifications and alerts as possible. I started this a couple years ago, and now consider it essential. I have a super-quiet ringtone for people who aren’t on my “call in case of zombie apocalypse” list; the people who really matter in my life, in contrast, get the opening bars of Derek and the Domino’s “Layla.” The virtue of this practice is that I can more easily ignore calls from people who I might or might not want to talk to, or might or might not have the bandwidth for. (This article provides an overview of why this is good. For those of you who have iPhones and want to try this for yourself, here’s how you set up whitelists, and here’s how you create custom ringtones.)
A new study from Florida State provides confirmation that I’m on the right track. In an experiment, they had about 150 undergraduates take a test measuring their attention levels. In the test, students had to watch a screen and press a button every time a new number appeared, unless the number was 3. Measuring their response speeds, and whether they mistakenly press 3, give you a measure the attention level of the participant. You can see an example of the screen below:
Here’s the abstract:
It is well documented that interacting with a mobile phone is associated with poorer performance on concurrently performed tasks because limited attentional resources must be shared between tasks. However, mobile phones generate auditory or tactile notifications to alert users of incoming calls and messages. Although these notifications are generally short in duration, they can prompt task-irrelevant thoughts, or mind wandering, which has been shown to damage task performance. We found that cellular phone notifications alone significantly disrupted performance on an attention-demanding task, even when participants did not directly interact with a mobile device during the task. The magnitude of observed distraction effects was comparable in magnitude to those seen when users actively used a mobile phone, either for voice calls or text messaging.
In other words, just knowing you got a call or text can be almost as distracting as talking on the phone. Or as The Atlantic explains,
The researchers found that performance on the assessment suffered if the student received any kind of audible notification. That is, every kind of phone distraction was equally destructive to their performance: An irruptive ping distracted people just as much as a shrill, sustained ring tone. It didn’t matter, too, if a student ignored the text or didn’t answer the phone: As long as they got a notification, and knew they got it, their test performance suffered.
“Our results suggest that mobile phones can disrupt attention performance even if one does not interact with the device,” write the study’s authors. “As mobile phones become integrated into more and more tasks, it may become increasingly difficult for people to set their phones aside and concentrate fully on the task at hand, whatever it may be.”
You can add this to the discovery that distraction in the classroom is contagious as another reason to encourage students to go device-free, and to encourage people to leave their phones in the office during meetings.