On Notifications and Productivity: Hint, They’re Not Peanut Butter and Jelly

What sound does your computer make when you receive an email? Your phone, does it vibrate, play a little melody (are you still rocking out to an mp3 ringtone)? Can you hear that sound in your mind right now? Whatever the sound is for you, it likely elicits a Pavlovian response, a slight dopamine boost that makes you want to check your phone or your email. Sometimes I have this response even when I hear someone else’s phone beep or vibrate. I know it wasn’t from my pocket, but I sometimes check anyway. (And don’t even get me started on phantom vibrations.) The other day at work, I noticed that I kept clicking over to Outlook even when I didn’t have an email. I was hearing that little alert sound and eventually realized it was coming from someone else’s office. It really sounded like it was my computer though, enough that I kept double checking just in case.

It is difficult to not check the email or text or notification when you know it’s there. It can’t hurt just to look, right? Maybe to find out who it’s from or make sure it isn’t urgent. The desire to know can be so strong that it distracts you from whatever you were working on, and eventually you take a peak. It could be a small interruption, or it could lead to a black hole like Facebook or YouTube. Even if it’s slight distraction, though, it can totally disengage you from what’s important, especially a task or project that requires concentration. Especially if you’re already primed for a diversion, if you are just looking for an excuse to not focus. Basically every productivity expert I’ve ever listened to says that you need to work against this tendency. Each of these small intrusions require a different mindset and break your attention. Recovering from that break can take even more time than it took to read the email or respond to the text. But the fear of missing out is strong. I constantly battle it even though I am aware of how harmful it can be.

Sometimes it is easier to see this in others. As a part of my job, I often review letters I’ve written with a coworker in her office. The process typically shouldn’t take more than thirty minutes. Some days, however, she is constantly interrupted. The little desktop alert pops up letting her know there’s an email, and she immediately begins to deal with that question or problem. Someone calls, and she answers the phone, or someone from her team pops in with a quick question. When I say she’s interrupted, I should really say we because I have to sit through all these asides waiting until we can get back on task.

Granted, she is more important than I am. She does occasionally have fires that need to put out or questions that need immediate answers. But I can’t help thinking that she has created this situation for herself. When you respond to people immediately, they begin to expect it even when it isn’t necessary. And you begin to add urgency and stress to a task that likely doesn’t require it, so you feel like you have to answer everything immediately, even when you’re in the middle of something with someone else. Recently, I waited while she verified that the Frozen watch she wanted to buy for her niece was the right one. Maybe that was urgent for her. It certainly wasn’t for me. I imagine part of the issue for me is that it diminishes the value of my time. While she’s taking care of all these small problems, I’m sitting there thinking, “I don’t need to be here for this!” It is easy to see when someone else isn’t valuing my time, but it isn’t much better for me to treat my own time and attention this way.

My first solution to hearing someone else’s email notification was to change the sound of my own. I thought I might be able to dissociate my response by altering the stimulus. That helped a little, but I realized the real issue was the little popup at the bottom of the screen that alerted me to a new email. That keeps me primed for seeing my email as a priority even when it isn’t. It is almost impossible not to look at no matter what I’m working on. So, today I turned that off. We’ll see if it helps me break my tendencies.

What notification grabs your attention regardless of what you’re doing? Have you tried to break the impulse to check in, or does the fear of missing out always win?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *