push notificationspush notificationsPush notifications are rarely urgent, but they're often distracting. (Photo: pathdoc/Shutterstock)

Your smartphone could be making your job harder

Economist Dan Ariely shows that notifications are making us more distracted and less efficient.

You're in the middle of work, and your phone buzzes. You glance over; some mailing list you forgot you were on just sent you an email. You turn back to your work and try to remember what you were doing before you got distracted.

These moments happen all the time throughout the day. They seem small, but Israeli-American behavioral economist Dan Ariely, a professor at Duke University, has found that they cost us more than we think.

"A little ping may seem innocuous, but there is cumulating evidence that the cost of an interruption is higher than we realise, and of course given the sheer number of interruptions, their combined effect can very quickly become substantial," Ariely wrote in his latest Wired article.

Ariely described a study recently published in The Journal of Experimental Psychology that tested the effect of push notifications on work. The results might make you want to go offline.

The researchers had participants watch a number of items appear on a computer screen and press a button every time they saw a certain group of numbers. But the real experiment was a whole lot more sly. The researchers told the participants to put their phones to the side and ignore them ... then the researchers secretly called and texted some of the participants as they worked.

The experimenters found that participants who received calls or texts worked much less efficiently than those who didn't.

"And the news only gets worse because we often attend to the interruption, filling our minds with 'task-irrelevant thoughts' – that is, thoughts that are unrelated to the task at hand," Ariely wrote. "And finally, it has been shown that the need to compensate for interruptions can increase 
stress and frustration."

He pointed out that the majority of emails we receive aren't urgent. It would be fine to check them hours, days or weeks later. In fact, one study found that 35 percent of emails could be completely ignored.

"What this means is that the interruption policy whereby each email is linked to a notification is therefore set to kidnap our time and abuse our attention without any justification," Ariely wrote. "Perhaps if we (and the companies that provide us with digital communication tools) started thinking about the accumulating costs of interruptions and the more general implications of the interruptions economy, we would start taking some actions? And to start, how about if we all just set our defaults to 'no interruption'?"

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