Study: Turning off phone and email notifications for one day can change your productivity for two years


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A study on phone behaviour revealed that turning off phone and email notifications for one day can change people’s productivity for two years.

Previous studies show that people check their phones about 150 times per day.

Martin Pielot of the Spanish telecommunications firm Telefónica, and Luz Rello of Carnegie Mellon University, Pennsylvania, decided to create the Do Not Disturb Challenge in 2015 – one week without phone and email notifications. “But we couldn’t recruit anybody to take part,” says Pielot. “We just got empty, horrified stares. And so eventually we backed down to 24 hours.”

Thirty (30) participants undertook the 24 hour – one day – Do Not Disturb Challenge. When asked (in a pre-study questionnaire) how they thought they would cope – before undertaking the challenge – the participants said that their friends might think they were being less responsive (by not answering text messages and emails immediately) and they thought they would be anxious about missing out on information.

The 30 participants disabled notification alerts for 24 hours across all devices. The effect of the absence of notifications on the participants was isolated through an experimental study design: the researchers compared self-reported feedback from the day without notifications against a baseline day. Participants completed a questionnaire after the 24-hour period.

All 30 participants successfully completed the Do Not Disturb challenge and all had complied with the condition to disable phone and email notifications.

The absence of phone notifications had a significant effect on how participants perceived their engagement with their mobile phone. They indicated that subjective responsiveness and engagement with their phone decreased with the absence of notifications. Also, without notification alerts, participants felt less distracted and more productive than during their normal behaviour, and more than the control group of participants (who kept their phone notifications on and continued their usual phone behaviour).

“If you have notifications constantly grabbing your attention, we know that you are more likely to make mistakes and you are less likely to get stuff done,’’ said Anna Cox of the University College London Interaction Centre.

Cox said it was important to find ways to manage phone notifications, and to reduce the tendency to check them constantly. Cox suggests putting small hurdles called ‘micro-boundaries’ between you and the behaviour you are trying to reduce. This could be as simple as turning off email notifications when with friends or taking off your smartwatch when you get home. “People check social media all the time without even thinking just because it’s right there on your phone,” says Cox. “Anything that makes that just a little bit harder can help you avoid the bad habit.”

After the challenge, 22 participants (66%) in 2015 said they would change how they managed their phone and email notifications – i.e. they would manage phone notifications ‘’more consciously.’’ In April 2017, the study team checked on the same participants and their phone notifications usage.

Surprisingly, two years after participating in the Do Not Disturb challenge, 13 of the 22 participants (59.1%) had actually maintained their goal to manage their phone and email notifications, suggesting that even a short, enforced holiday away from their phone is a powerful intervention.

The participants were becoming aware that not all phone notifications are important, and that for them the most important source of notifications are messaging apps.

The researchers acknowledge the study’s limiations. The sample of 30 white-collar workers was low and not diversified. The findings were based on the participants’ self perception, which can suffer from biases. Further, single-item scales give holistic insights related to a feeling (e.g. being stressed), but they cannot necessarily distinguish the exact underlying factors (e.g. the exact type of stress). Also, participants had very little time to accustom themselves to the lack of phone and email notifications. The researchers assume that over time the magnitude of the observed effects may change.

The results of this study will be presented at a conference on human-computer interaction in September 2017 in Austria.



Journal reference: ACM MobileHCI ’17, DOI: 10.1145/3098279.3098526


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