The cost of being distracted is much higher than we realise.
More than 50 per cent of Americans keep their smartphones near them "almost all the time during waking hours".
We live in an age of interruption. Ping - you have a text message. Ping - you have a new email. Ping - you have a Facebook friend request. Ping - you have a match on your online dating app. Ping-ping-ping, all day long.
A recent Gallup poll found that more than 50 per cent of Americans who own smartphones keep their phone near them "almost all the time during waking hours". Over 50 per cent say check their smartphone at least several times an hour and 11 per cent say they check it every few minutes. And that's just what they're aware of and admit to - I would not be surprised if the real frequency and intensity is much higher.
Until relatively recently in our technological history we did not have a lot of content coming to our devices. Now, we have texts, all kind of notifications and what seems like an endless stream of both personal and work emails. And it's not just our phones. How many times have you been at your computer working on something when you get an email notification? And of those instances, how often did you stop what you're doing to look at your email, realised that it was not that important and returned to your work - after taking a few minutes to remind yourself where you were and what your train of thought was?
At this point, it should be painfully clear to everyone that we need to be worried about the interruptions economy. What value do interruptions provide, under what conditions, and what are their costs? A little ping may seem innocuous, but there is cumulating evidence that the cost of an interruption is higher than we realise, and of course given the sheer number of interruptions, their combined effect can very quickly become substantial.
In terms of the costs of interruptions, a recent study published in The Journal of Experimental Psychology showed the performance impact of notifications, even when we don't switch tasks. In this study, participants were asked to complete a task involving seeing items and pressing a button every time the item was a digit from one to nine, unless it was the number three. Items were shown at a rate of about one per second and participants' speed of response was measured.
The participants were asked to put their phones to one side and not touch them until the end of the study. Unbeknownst to the participants, the experimenters called the phones of some of the participants from time to time, they texted other participants from time to time and they left the third group of participants interruption-free. The results showed that both groups were much more likely to make errors and not pay attention to their main task. And the drop in performance was about equal between the phone call notification and the text notification.
And the news only gets worse because we often attend to the interruption, filling our minds with "task-irrelevant thoughts" - that is, thoughts that are unrelated to the task at hand. And finally, it has been shown that the need to compensate for interruptions can increase stress and frustration.
So, what does this mean in the context of email? The default setup of most electronic communications is that we get a notification for every event and every email. Most of us have our email software open all day while we are at work. We get a notification for every email that comes in (even if we are doing something else that is objectively more useful and important).
You might wonder if the reason that we set up notifications to be on by default for every email, and have our email program open all the time is because we often get super-important emails that we need to respond to right away. No. It turns out that the number of these extra important and urgent emails is very low. Our group at the Duke University recently worked with a mid-sized company that allowed us to survey their employees on their email use. For each employee, we showed them a sample of the emails that they received and asked them how soon they really needed to have seen each email. Immediately? At some point today? At some point this week? At some point this month? No need to see it at all?
As it turns out, the recipients of emails indicated that only about 12 per cent of emails need to be seen within five minutes of being sent. Another 11 per cent could have been seen in the next few hours, and an additional 17 per cent could have seen by the end of the day. More disturbing, ten per cent of the emails could have been seen by the end of the week, 15 per cent at "some point," and a whopping 35 per cent fell into the "no need to see it" category. What this means is that the interruption policy whereby each email is linked to a notification is therefore set to kidnap our time and abuse our attention without any justification.
So what should we do? If we want to maximise productivity and wellbeing, we should stop notifying (distracting) ourselves every time there is an incoming email. We should recognise that not all emails are created equal, and that very few of them should deserve the right to interrupt and distract us. Perhaps if we (and the companies that provide us with digital communication tools) started thinking about the accumulating costs of interruptions and the more general implications of the interruptions economy, we would start taking some actions? And to start, how about if we all just set our defaults to "no interruption"?
Dan Ariely is the James B Duke professor of psychology and behavioural economics at Duke University, North Carolina
Courtesy: WIRED by Dan Ariely