Joanie (not her real name), a clinical psychologist who lives in London, has three work laptops. This is not uncommon when you’re spread across different NHS services. Sometimes, she feels like the 1980s synth supremo Paul Hardcastle, who used to dart between keyboards when performing on Top of the Pops. Except that he wasn’t always rudely interrupted by random notifications. “When I log on to one laptop,” she says, “this automatic thing comes on called Netpresenter player. It’s a ticker tape, like one of those bus-stop ads that keeps moving.”
She quits it, because she needs to concentrate on writing up notes before her next meeting. But it keeps coming back with annoying notifications. “I’ve been in the middle of a session and it’s started playing music and a video – usually things like, ‘Don’t forget to wash your hands properly’, or, ‘Hey, we’re all meeting for a webinar in half an hour about staff wellbeing.’” Joanie says her wellbeing would improve if it was easier to get her work done.
With increasing chunks of life handled online – from banking to entertainment to health – we have spiralled into notifications hell. On a bad day, life can feel like one long stressy game of Space Invaders. You open a device to check the weather, only to be greeted with a barrage of invasive alerts – some interesting (you got paid!) and some irritating (a pointless post on your neighbourhood WhatsApp group, a software update …) and before you know it, you’ve forgotten all about the weather.
Scrolling down YouTube’s endless list of video explainers for opting out of notifications provides a window into this distracting reality: “Turn off annoying Outlook alerts,” “How to disable notifications in Google Chrome browser,” “How to TURN OFF ALL notifications on ANY iPhone.” PlayStation, Microsoft Teams, Facebook, Garmin smartwatch, the list goes on and on, because this is a constantly evolving situation and we can’t keep up.
Joanie is a serial notifications disabler, but could do with watching the Teams and Outlook ones. The computer she uses most has recently started running Microsoft Teams to connect workers who either hotdesk or, since Covid, work from home. As she opens it, I hear a sophisticated chime that reminds me of airports, with their frequent announcements about gate closures for flights that aren’t yours. She says that’s the “activity” bell, heralding announcements that may or may not be relevant.
Then there’s the general chat function, which notifies her about more meetings than anyone could possibly attend. “But even when I decline the invite, sometimes I still get all these pings of messages from the meeting saying: ‘I can’t see the slides.’ So then you have to actively mute yourself each time.” Email notifications needlessly pop up on Microsoft Outlook, and with young children, her personal phone is never far away, with its steady flow of reminders from school, and other pings and alerts she either needs or hasn’t managed to eliminate.
On her third laptop, there’s only a shared drive for files, and an email account. “I feel when I’m on that laptop, I can get my job done so much more easily, because you’re choosing what you do.”
Sophie Leroy, associate professor at University of Washington Bothell School of Business, is an expert in work interruptions, although many of her findings also apply to personal life. She puts notifications into two categories: “Notifications like work emails, where you are expected to provide an answer immediately, because of corporate norms, versus things that may not require a switch of your attention, like the Wall Street Journal, or your favourite store, and then you have to decide whether to switch or not.” Both are challenging.
Being notified of a text from a friend, which you don’t need to read straight away, can be surprisingly draining. “You’re like: ‘OK, what does my friend want?’ There’s uncertainty, and we don’t deal with uncertainty very well.” Ignoring it, says Leroy, is “cognitively difficult”. Self-control is required, and when it’s needed several times an hour, your brain will become exhausted. If your current task feels taxing, you’ll soon take a break to scratch some of your notifications itches. But even if you’re really keen to continue working, says Leroy, “when we use the resource of self-control, it depletes over time, and it’s going to be harder to ignore those notifications.”
Checking a notification quickly, so that it can be batted away and we can return to our work, might therefore seem the best option, but the mental cost is significant. “As the brain transitions between context,” says Leroy, “our train of thought has been broken. And when we go back to what we’re doing, the brain has a hard time remembering exactly where we were. Getting that momentum back, reaching the same level of concentration – that takes time. Even after a few seconds’ attention switch, coming back can be very costly.”
This may not be the end of the world in many jobs – but what if you work in something like healthcare? “If a nurse is interrupted during the administration of a drug to a patient,” says Leroy, “even if it’s a few seconds, there is a risk that they might either administer the wrong dose, or forget whether they had done it or not.” People understand this example, she says, yet don’t think it applies to them, but her research says otherwise.
Leroy gives people tricky tasks to focus on – such as reviewing CVs to find the most appropriate candidate for a given job description. People who are interrupted, she says, “are 17% less likely to choose the optimal candidate because of the cognitive costs associated with having to switch attention”. In notifications hell, productivity declines, as does the quality of your work.
All this means we are more likely to reach clocking off time without having finished our tasks, which then start eating up personal time – “recovery time”, says Leroy. “And that has a direct impact on wellbeing and mental health, because then there’s no time to disconnect.”
Even after we have clocked off, the notifications keep coming and we still check them, “because we have normalised it, not realising that if you’re having a good time with your kid, or with a friend, and you suddenly see a notification, you’re switching between different worlds and never being fully in the moment, or fully enjoying it. And that’s really critical for wellbeing.” One study has shown that anxiety and depression are higher among people who pay more attention to their devices than to their friends when socialising. Another finds that life satisfaction is lower.
And yet for those of younger generations, this state of constant interruption can define their early teens. Beth Walker is a psychology teacher in Yorkshire with four stepchildren, the youngest of whom are 13-year-old twin girls. “I worry about the amount of notifications they get in such a short space of time,” says Walker. “They have notifications from Snapchat, WhatsApp and text messages.”
She fears that the sheer weight of notifications puts pressure on them. “They feel the need to respond immediately. They can’t think: ‘I can just leave that until I’ve got a minute.’” And Walker suspects that they perceive social consequences if they don’t. “I think they believe their friends expect them to respond straight away, otherwise maybe they’re not as good friends as they should be.”
Anna Cox, professor of human-computer interaction at University College London, offers some reassurance. “We don’t have any good evidence that young people are more harmed, if you like, than anybody else.” But she concedes that one of the worst things about all our tech is that it’s designed to grab our attention, and comes with notifications switched on.
“I feel a lot of sympathy for young people, who get their first mobile when they’re 10 or 11 often, and no one sits down to teach them how to turn the notifications off. And so they do get bombarded by these things. I think we need to be doing a much better job of educating people of all ages.”
Lane says the twins’ older siblings (20 and 17) now treat their notifications with less urgency. “With the right guidance, as they get older, they are able to moderate. They still get as many notifications, but if they’re in the middle of doing something they will leave the phone for two hours, or whatever.”
Cox laments that many phone newbies are unaware of how to use night or do-not-disturb modes. “There were lots of reports of children being woken up through the night by someone texting them. When you see that it can impact people’s sleep, it’s not surprising that they’re stressed out. They’re exhausted.” Lane says the twins are still of an age at which they’ll hand over their phones before they go to bed, but it can be harder to force older teens to do so.
Those who have switched to remote working, meanwhile, might have waved goodbye to the distractions of open-plan offices, but, as with Joanie’s least favourite laptop, software is filling that nice, peaceful gap. “Previously, they might have had a phone on their desk, and email,” says Cox, “but now they’ve also got Teams and Slack and Zoom and they feel as if there are all these different things that they might be getting messages from.”
Cox says there’s no evidence that notifications hell is affecting our concentration skills in a permanent way. We can still pay attention when we really need to. Surgeons and truck drivers can still focus safely on their tasks for hours on end. “But there is maybe a change in how we view the world,” she says. “What we really like is novelty. Before we had access to all of this technology, it was quite hard to find new things, right? It was exciting if you got a new book, or the next episode of EastEnders was on.” Now, of course, especially if we’ve not turned notifications off, there’s a constant flow of new content vying for our attention.
Like obedient puppies, tech has conditioned humans to react to notifications. Most of these digital nags are boring things, but because we occasionally get a high-reward one – a message from a new love, or an update on an exciting delivery, “we get this Pavlovian response,” says Cox, “where we end up thinking: ‘Oh, maybe this is an exciting one,’ and we want to respond to it straight away.” By now, most of us are familiar with the notion of the dopamine hits that make phone-checking addictive. Dopamine is our motivational neurochemical – our wanting and seeking mechanism – and novelty is one of its key triggers. But the wanting part of our brains is mightier than the pleasure part, negatively weighting our desire to pleasure ratio. Which is why often, reading a notification feels like being a small child, unwrapping the biggest but most disappointing Christmas present.
Although notifications are bad for our productivity, brain power and mental health, the thought of going without them can be distressing to some, as a team of Spanish and US researchers discovered in 2017 when they asked participants to do so for 24 hours. While the 30 who took up the challenge felt less distracted and more productive, they also felt, says the study, “no longer able to be as responsive as expected, which made some participants anxious. And they felt less connected with [their] social group.” Despite these gripes, after taking part, about two-thirds of them planned to change the way they managed notifications, and two years later, half had adhered to those plans.
‘The struggle is real,” says Cox, but there are things we can do to minimise notifications hell. Tech companies, such as Microsoft, say they are trying to make such messages less annoying. “Our research has taught us that notifications and interruptions can be valuable and disruptive,” says Mary Czerwinski, a research manager at Microsoft’s Human Understanding and Empathy group, before flagging up new features the company has introduced. Focus Assist, she says, “attempts to block social media and other app notifications so that users can work distraction-free for long periods of time.” And you can set a Focus Session timer within the Clock app.
But notifications will always come from somewhere. Your GP’s surgery, your kids’ school, your own weekly reminder that it’s bin day. Even simple things can help, suggests Cox, “like putting your phone in a drawer, while you get on with the boring work task. She also suggests compartmentalising and, where possible, having separate devices for work and personal life, or even having different user accounts on the one device. Some Android phones, she says, allow there to be two users. One could be work you, the other off-duty you. Turning off notifications for apps, and, she says, “those badges that tell you how many messages you haven’t read yet, will reduce the distractions”. With Facebook, she says, not only will you need to turn off notifications, but also emails. “You probably only want to know if someone else has logged into your Facebook account.” But equally, if you haven’t the brainpower for fiddly notifications admin right now, she says, “we shouldn’t be too scared and worried about it. It’s not cocaine.”
Leroy only uses email and texts, and chooses when she checks them. But she has developed a simple strategy for interruptions to reduce the mental burden of context switching, called the “ready-to-resume plan”. Before checking the notification, she says, “take a couple of seconds to write down where you were, and more importantly, what you were going to do next, or where you were struggling. And then you’re disengaged, and you address whatever is coming.” This helps your brain get closure on what you were doing. “So you’re more fully focused on the interrupting request. And then when you resume, you have a trace of where you were and are able to resume much faster.”
Similarly, if the notification requires action but isn’t urgent, don’t just let it hang. Make a note of it. “The brain does not do well with anything that is pending when there is no plan on how to deal with it,” says Leroy. “Writing down to go back and address Jerry’s email will help your brain relax about the fact that you have Jerry’s email pending.”
“We have to be mindful about protecting our attention,” she says. “We take it for granted. Understand that we have those cognitive limitations, and be humble about it.”
Every time Leroy loads a new app, she disables notifications. “That’s my default,” she says. As Cox adds, “These notifications do train us to respond. And they’re very effective. That’s why all the companies use them. And that’s why we need to fight, quietly, by switching them off.”