Notifications: Continuous Distraction


In this post I am going to talk about how we are affected by notifications.

Notification systems for social media (and texting and emailing) drive continuous multitasking. The notifications are randomized, causing us to continually wonder whether or not we have received a notification. This compels us to continuously check our devices so that we may derive the satisfaction from clicking them (or, in the case of texts and emails, responding to them) and feeling validated and socially desired.

Since we can receive a text or notification at any time, we find ourselves compelled to continually check our devices. We anticipate the dopamine “kick” digital communication can provide and we want to prevent problems that might arise from failing to respond. We fear that a late response can make us seem uninterested or discourteous because our culture of constant connectivity demands constant engagement.

By separating ourselves physically from our phones while working, and by stopping the repeated checking of Facebook and Instagram randomized notifications, we can shield ourselves from the distraction of randomized reward (push notifications and social media notifications) and allow ourselves to enjoy the productivity benefits from working on singular tasks for sustained periods of time.

Separation from digital distraction will initially cause discomfort but eventually it will dissipate. Continuously checking devices for notifications challenges our ability to work for sustained periods of time; constant interruptions from task switching from obsessively checking notifications back to our work wastes mental energies and strains our cognitive faculties.

Unpredictability aside, what gives notifications their particular appeal on social media?

This. Social media is a continuously available, continuously active, public exchange of information between individuals and among large groups, affording the potential for public validation or devaluation at any time, through the commenting functionality. The more you use social media and the more value you give to digital validation and devaluation, the more you will constantly check Facebook or Snapchat or Twitter for notifications that signal potential validation or devaluation. With social media, you can be engaged in publicly visible, digital social interaction at any point in time, which often leads to obsessively monitoring the service, with the feedback loop of increased use and greater assigned value to such use. Furthermore Facebook notifications can lead us to associate notifications with social desirability, creating attachment to the neurological stimulation the notifications provide.

One key strategy to address this would be to reduce social media exposure: upload fewer photos and cut back on the number of “friends” you have on social media. That will result in fewer notifications and your spending less time worrying about them. The real secret is to just stop checking notifications.

Benton Turner