Ping, your pizza is on the way.  Ping, please rate the driver.  Yes, the constant notifications really tax your brain

Ping, your pizza is on the way. Ping, please rate the driver. Yes, the constant notifications really tax your brain

A ping from the pizza company. A few pings from your social networks. Ping, ping, ping from your family WhatsApp group trying to host a weekend barbecue.

With all those smartphone notifications, it’s no wonder you lose focus on what you’re trying to do.

Your phone doesn’t even have to ping to distract you. There’s good evidence that 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 regain your focus, without missing the important stuff?

Read more: No, you’re probably not ‘addicted’ to your smartphone, but you might be using it too much

Is it really that serious?

When you look at the big picture, those pings can really add up.

Although estimates vary, the average person checks their phone about 85 times a day, about once every 15 minutes.

In other words, every 15 minutes or so your attention is likely to drift away from what you’re doing. The problem is that it can take several minutes to fully regain your focus after being interrupted by your phone.

If you’re just watching TV, distractions (and refocusing) aren’t a big deal. But if you are driving a car, trying to study, at work, or spending time with your loved ones, it could lead to some pretty big issues.

Read more: Should cell phones be banned in schools? We asked five experts

Two types of interference

Your phone’s pings are “exogenous interrupts.” In other words, something outside around you caused the interruption.

We can be conditioned to feel aroused when we hear our phones ringing. It’s the same pleasurable feeling that people who gamble can quickly become conditioned to by the sight or sound of a poker machine.

What to do if your phone is on silent? Doesn’t that solve the ping problem? Well no.

Woman working with smartphone on desk
Is your phone on silent? You can still be distracted.
Tirachard Kumtanom/Pexels, CC BY-SA

It is another type of interruption, an internal (or endogenous) interruption.

Think of every time you were working on a task but your attention went to your phone. You might have fought the urge to grab it and see what was happening online, but you probably checked anyway.

In this situation, we can become so strongly conditioned to expect a reward every time we look at our phone that we don’t need to wait for a ping to trigger the effect.

These impulses are powerful. Just reading this article on checking your phone may make you want to…check your phone.

Read more: ‘Phubbing’: Snubbing loved ones for your phone can do more damage than you think

Give your brain a break

What do all these interruptions mean for cognition and well-being?

There is growing evidence that push notifications are associated with lower productivity, poorer concentration, and increased distraction at work and school.

But is there any evidence that our brains are working harder to handle frequent shifts in attention?

A study of people’s brainwaves found that those who described themselves as heavy smartphone users were more responsive to push notifications than those who said they were light users.

After hearing a push notification, heavy users recovered their focus on a task significantly worse than light users. Although the push notification broke focus for both groups, heavy users took significantly longer to focus.

Frequent interruptions to your phone can also stress you out with the need to answer. Frequent smartphone interruptions are also associated with increased FOMO (fear of missing something).

If you’re 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 to suggest that the more time you spend using your phone unproductively, the more you tend to rate your well-being.

Read more: Constantly texting your friends about problems can increase your anxiety

How can I stop?

We know that putting your phone on silent won’t magically fix the problem, especially if you’re already a frequent checker.

What is needed is a change in behavior, and that is difficult. It may take several attempts to see lasting change. If you’ve ever tried to quit smoking, lose weight, or start an exercise program, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

Start by disabling all non-essential notifications. So here are some things to try if you want to reduce the number of times you check your phone:

  • charge your phone overnight in a different room than your bedroom. Notifications can keep you from falling asleep and can repeatedly wake you from essential sleep throughout the night

  • interrupt the urge to check and actively decide if it is going to benefit you at the time. For example, when you turn to pick up your phone, stop and ask yourself if this action serves a purpose other than distraction.

  • try the Pomodoro method to stay focused on a task. This involves dividing your focus time into manageable chunks (eg, 25 minutes), then rewarding yourself with a short break (eg, to check your phone) between the chunks. Gradually increase the duration between rewards. Gradually relearning how to sustain your attention on any task can take some time if you’re a high-volume controller.

Read more: Health check: can your brain be “full”?

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