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This seemingly minor smartphone feature is a major productivity suck

You might think the push notifications on your phone are easily ignored, but new research suggests they could have an unexpected impact on the quality of your work.

This seemingly minor smartphone feature is a major productivity suck

Awareness campaigns about distracted driving have pricked the public's consciousness about one unintended consequence of wireless calls and text messaging. Now, though, you can also add notifications to the list of potentially destructive distractions—with workplace ramifications that could ultimately be fatal to your career.

Researchers at Florida State University recently released a study showing that notifications can be as distracting and harmful to productivity as phone calls and text messages.

Known as push messages, notifications are designed to keep smartphone users up to date on breaking news about their interests—everything from the latest political faux pas to a new posting by a friend on Instagram. According to the FSU researchers (Cary Stothart, Ainsley Mitchum and Courtney Yehnert), those notifications can be distracting enough to reduce the quality outcome on a task a person is performing. 

"Who just texted me?"

The simple sound or vibration accompanying the notification, they found, had a big impact on focus.

“Although these notifications are generally short in duration, they can prompt task-irrelevant thoughts, or mind-wandering, which has been shown to damage task performance," wrote the researchers in their paper, "The Attentional Cost of Receiving a Cell Notification."

“Cellular phone notifications alone significantly disrupt performance on an attention-demanding task," they also noted, "even when participants do not directly interact with a mobile device during the task."

What makes a destructive distraction

The FSU research suggests that the definition of destructive distraction may need to be enlarged beyond the realm of on-the-road cell phone use. 

Those campaigns recommend postponing responses to calls and messages as a way to avoid distraction. What the FSU researchers found is that simply receiving notice of a call or message can be as distracting as the calls or messages themselves. The time it takes to stick a mental Post-it in your mind about following up on an incoming call or message can impair the performance of a task.

However, the researchers also found that all distractions weren't created equally. For example, students participating in the research were 28% more likely to botch a task if they received a phone call than if they completed a task without any distractions. Meanwhile, subjects receiving text messages were 23% more likely to foul up a task than when completing it undistracted.

That finding, though, may be slightly skewed by the characteristics of the test subjects, researcher Stothart noted. "Undergraduates communicate mostly through text message and receiving a call usually indicates an emergency," he said.

That's not to say subjects who were completely undistracted didn't make mistakes, too, but some of those mistakes could be attributed to boredom with the task they were given, the researchers said.

How you can shut out the noise

A broader approach to managing distraction was outlined by content marketing strategist Scott Tousley. Writing for Sidekick, he divides distractions into those created by "internal" and "external" triggers. He defines internal triggers as the compulsion to check social media programs like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram whenever a person is bored or procrastinating. External triggers, he writes, are things that prod a person to open programs like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram—namely notifications.

The internal trigger problem can be addressed by burying social and other distracting apps in a folder. That makes them harder to access and gives you more time to think about why you're opening the app in the first place.

Tousely's solution for external triggers is less subtle: turn off notifications and, if it's available on your phone, turn on "Do Not Disturb."

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