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Your brain on notifications

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Your brain on notifications

You open your laptop, coffee in hand and have a clear list of To Do items mapped out in front of you. You have the best of intentions to make today as productive as possible. Then ping, beep, buzz! Your attention is thwarted from the important tasks you’d prioritised and it’s now distracted by the alerts and notifications that hum along in the background on your laptop. Not only is your email pinging, but now your SMS and WhatsApp notifications fire up. It’s like a cacophony of notifications vying for your attention.

At first, you try to resist the urge to look up to the top right-hand side of your screen and just quickly notice the email sender.  You promise yourself you won’t open the email. You’re successful at first to resist the lure of digital distractions, but your willpower gradually declines (this is totally normal as the part of your brain that manages your impulses, your prefrontal cortex, can deplete your brain’s energy supply if it’s working overtime). 

Our brains are being overloaded with push notifications. In fact research tells us that the average adult receives between 65 and 80 notifications per day (imagine what adolescents must receive). That’s a lot of noise! They are a constant assault on our attention and have been designed to lure us in. They often begin from the moment we wake up until we go to sleep (and sometimes punctuate our sleep if we forget to silence our phones). The physical vibration or observing the visual of the notification is enough to fragment your attention, even if you resist the urge to open the message, email or social media app.

Why notifications lure us in

Alerts can trigger anxiety and our stress response because they send our brain into overdrive and hypervigilance. The alert, especially if it comes with a metric, a coloured icon and is accompanied by vibrations, can trigger the fight, flight or flee response (or sympathetic nervous system). Our brain sees these alerts as a threat (have you noticed when you receive these notifications sometimes your heart races, you may catch and hold your breath, your palms may sweat). That’s because your brain  cannot distinguish between a real and a perceived threat. When our sympathetic nervous system is activated our prefrontal cortex is switched off (the part of our brain that would ordinarily regulate our high-order thinking skills and problem solving). Instead our brain sends emergency signals to our body that it 

There’s also a sense of the unknown which can trigger our reward pathways. We’ve been conditioned to expect notifications to signal a reward. Tell me I’m not the only one who receives an SMS and in the split-second after opening it, you then remember it’s the requested password reset for two-factor authentication for your online banking…because you suffer from ‘digital dementia’ partly caused by password overload.  We may receive an email notification from our boss, but not know whether it’s to inform us of our promotion, or to assign a challenging task.  The dopamine hit we get from checking the notification can reward and reinforce this behaviour and so we can get stuck in a cycle of constantly checking. The novelty and anticipation keeps us hooked into checking them.

Why disabling notifications isn’t what you need to do

Now conventional wisdom might tell us to disable all notifications. And for some people, taking an extreme approach is warranted, especially if we’re wanting to undertake a cognitively-taxing or challenging task and don’t want to be constantly interrupted by unnecessary notifications, or if we lack the willpower to resist them because notifications have been designed to tricky our brain into perceiving them as a threat (you see it’s hard for our brains to differentiate between real and perceived threats). 

However, research suggests that disabling all notifications isn’t the best option. A study from Duke University’s Center for Advanced Hindsight assigned adults into three groups with a distinct schedule of batching notifications*. One group disabled all notifications, another group received them throughout the day and another group received them at scheduled times (either hourly or three times per day. They found that the group that received them throughout the day reported feeling stressed, unhappy, interrupted and non-productive (no surprises there- would you feel that way if your postal worker came to your door and knocked throughout the day?) They also found that receiving no notifications caused anxiety because of FOMO (fear of missing out). The sweet spot appeared to be receiving three batches of notifications throughout the day. It appeared to reduce stress and increased wellbeing. Batching hourly didn’t produce change as compared to the control group who received them throughout the day.

Practical strategies to manage your notifications

// Batch your notifications at a time that works for you– not all communication online needs to be synchronous. It’s okay for someone to send you a WhatsApp message or DM you and for you to reply at a time that’s convenient for you. Have a clear communication plan for family and friends and colleagues or clients who may need to be able to contact you. Set your notifications to arrive at a time that serves you. Do you want your social media notifications landing after your work day is done? Do you want to have an hour in the morning and later afternoon when you’re available in Slack or Teams? Bonus tip- avoid batching your notifications for first thing in the morning and last thing at night as you’re more likely to activate your sympathetic nervous system which can prompt the fight, flight or flee response and make you feel anxious or worried. Depending on your phone’s operating system and the apps you use, you can now regulate and schedule when you’ll receive notifications. 

// Quieten your phone (and your head)– if you do need to do some creative or challenging tasks, turn your phone to Do Not Disturb mode, or silent it. You can customise your Do Not Disturb settings so that important calls (from your partner, or children’s daycare) can still get through. You can also set up an automated reply to let people know that you’re not contactable and provide a suggested name, email or phone number of someone to contact if it’s an urgent matter.

// Establish an essential few do you really need to receive a LinkedIn update when your sister-in-law receives a promotion? Be selective with the notifications you receive and on which devices you receive them.

* Fitz, N., Kushlev, K., Jagannathan, R., Lewis, T., Paliwal, D., & Ariely, D. (2019). Batching smartphone notifications can improve well-being. Computers in Human Behavior, 101, 84-94.

These are some of the practical strategies I’m sharing in the new virtual masterclasses I’m delivering to corporate clients who are wanting to support their employees and teams as they transition to remote working arrangements and also look after their digital wellbeing. You can find out more about the two new virtual masterclasses here caled ‘Flourishing Remotely’. 

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I’m Dr. Kristy Goodwin

Researcher, speaker, author, and mum - and not only do I GET it, I’ve dedicated my entire career to helping my fellow professionals and parents explore this exact digital dilemma.

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