It doesn’t take a genius to know that technology at work is both a productivity blessing and curse. There’s a ton of apps that can help you stay on track throughout the day, and new products are constantly improving how we communicate with co-workers, clients, and suppliers. But if you’ve been in any job for more than two seconds you also know that social media sites are a time suck, emails can be a drag, and the accessibility of online games can be a serious temptation during the afternoon slump.
You might already be a master of tuning out the most obvious distractions when you really need to buckle down and get to work. But a new study has found that seemingly innocuous things, such as your cell phone buzzing, can also have a dramatic effect on your ability to stay focused. You might think you’re doing the right thing by placing your phone screen-side down on your desk, a few feet away. But if it’s not silenced or completely off, you’ve already lost the productivity game. That buzz is more distracting than you think.
Three researchers from Florida State University have found that when your phone rings or buzzes, the notifications can distract you while on the job, even if you don’t actually pick up your phone to see who contacted you. In other words, just being aware that someone tried to get in touch with you is enough to derail your concentration. Your brain divides its attention and it can happen anywhere — while you’re making dinner, behind the wheel, or at the office getting ready for a presentation. If you can realize you have a phone alert, you’re already off-task.
“If we were driving and we felt a vibration for a phone call, that led us to think about the source of that call — who it could be, what the message was,” Cary Stothart, one of the researchers, told the Harvard Business Review. The reason this affects productivity is because multitasking (in this example, thinking about a phone call and also driving) has a higher “cognitive load” that your brain has to process through. The American Psychological Association reports that even brief changes in task can cost as much as 40% of someone’s productive time.
The researchers of this latest study wanted to find out whether hearing your phone buzz or ring causes a similar sort of cognitive load. Turns out, it does. Students in a controlled experiment were tested on their ability to stay focused on a computer task. One round was done as a baseline without any distractions, and in a second round some of the students were randomly chosen to receive texts or calls during the computer task.
In the second round, the probability of making an error increased by 28% for those who received phone calls, 23% for those who received texts, and 7% for those who didn’t receive any notifications. (The researchers attribute this to task fatigue.) In short, there was a significant difference between those who were aware they got a text or call, even if they didn’t pick up their phone during the task.
The difference between getting a text or call wasn’t statistically significant, meaning that any phone notification is enough to cause potential errors in work flow. The next step for the researchers is to determine the cause of the distraction, though they believe they already know the cause. “We think that the mechanism behind the distraction from knowing that you received a notification is mind wandering, but we haven’t actually looked at that in our study,” Stothart said.
The implications of the study go beyond mobile phones, however. The Apple Watch, for example, is touted as the best thing for work productivity since sliced bread. Information Week even reported that one study predicted using one of the smart watches would save the equivalent of $351 annually in lost time from checking your phone, since you don’t have to take it out of your pocket as much when you get a text or call. Essentially, researchers claimed, the watch would “pay for itself” because people would realize savings in their time, generally halving the amount of times people checked their phones.
But if this theory holds true, simply receiving a notification is enough to derail even the most focused of minds. Even if you don’t reply or look at what’s happening, feeling that buzz on your wrist or seeing the screen light up could be enough to negate your work flow. Plus in the case of the watch, you can’t lay the screen face down on your desk — it kind of negates the purpose of a watch in the first place.
No matter the device you’re using, the key is to know when notifications have their place, and when they don’t. That in itself is becoming more difficult, as people now check their phones out of habit and not even because they think they received a call. Regardless, however, this latest study suggests that when you recognize you need to really concentrate — on the road, on your kids, or on a work project — the phone should be away, and should be silent.
Follow Nikelle on Twitter @Nikelle_CS