What Happens When You Turn Off Your Phone Notifications

Photo: Meg O'Donnell
You know what it's like. You're in deep concentration and attempting to complete a Very Important Task at work when all of a sudden: a buzz or vibration from your phone steals your attention and holds it hostage.
One minute you're happily getting shit done and the next? You're six-months deep into an old flame's Instagram feed or impulse-buying a rug with the discount code you just received. While, at times, the distraction or ego boost they provide is welcome, phone notifications really do have a way of knocking us off track.
But improving your productivity isn't the only reason you may want to consider blocking those pesky attention-suckers. Turning them off for just a short time can even have long-term health benefits, a new study suggests.
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The research, by Carnegie Mellon University and Spanish telecommunications company Telefónica, required 30 people to turn off their notifications for 24 hours and report back on how they found the experience.
The Do Not Disturb Challenge, as the study is known, began in 2015 and involved men and women aged between 19-56 employed in white collar jobs. Apparently, the original idea was for participants to turn notifications off for a week, but the team couldn't find enough people willing to take part – an unsettling finding in itself. "We just got empty, horrified stares. And so eventually we backed down to 24 hours,” Martin Pielot, from Telefónica, told New Scientist.
The immediate findings of the study two years ago showed that participants were more productive and less distracted after their first notification-free 24 hours, although some people revealed their anxiety about the possibility of missing messages from friends and colleagues.
“If people don’t think of you as likely to respond quickly, you were unlikely to feel stressed during the challenge, but if you have a boss who expects a quick response, then things were different,” Pielot told New Scientist.
However, the experiment ended up having a far more positive long-term impact. When the researchers caught up with the participants again this year, they found that the experiment had encouraged around two-thirds of participants to change their notification settings, reducing their long-term propensity for distraction and stress.
Some had permanently disabled notifications for certain apps, while others had made regular use of their phone's “do not disturb” setting during the two years since the study.
While the study hasn't been peer reviewed, had a small sample size and draws conclusions based on self-reports and interviews alone, it's a useful reminder to give ourselves a break from those incessant emails and group chats every once in a while.
Anna Cox, from UCL's Interaction Centre, recommends managing notifications by setting up "microboundaries" between you and your undesirable smartphone behaviours. “People check social media all the time without even thinking just because it’s right there on your phone,” she told New Scientist. Airplane mode is your friend.
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