Click, click, click. Ping. Ring, ring. Ding. Between Slack, Teams, Zoom, Meet, social media, email, texts, and calls – we are overloaded with notifications. Each one more distracting than the last. While some are important, most are needless disruptions; our concentration and productivity is suffering.
I recently Tweeted (with an error – where’s that edit button, Twitter?), “If colleges really prepared students for work...they would: Allow 3 hrs for a final that requires 10 hrs while Teams, Slack, email are open & 9 ppl ping for urgent need, then add student to 30min mtg that goes over, while repeatedly asking why final is not complete.”
I’ll be the first to admit, I once claimed I was a great multi-tasker. I thought I could pay attention to one task, respond to an urgent notification, then jump back into that original task, or move seamlessly to another. Turns out multi-tasking is not actually even possible - our brains cannot give attention to two things simultaneously. Let’s call it what it really is: task switching. For me, what would really happen is, I’d stop work to check a Slack notification, spend a few minutes on a response, check Slack channels, then move to email notifications, and eventually forget what I was doing in the first place. It left me feeling like I was working harder but with nothing to show for it (but exhaustion).
But I didn’t have nothing to show for it, research suggests that by multitasking, I likely had a reduction in productivity. One study shows that it takes a person over twenty-three minutes to get back on task after a distraction. Even switching back and forth between tasks can reduce productivity by forty percent.
Sure, we could turn off notifications altogether, right? But will we? Studies show a tiny bit of dopamine is released with every notification, causing us to click, swipe, and anticipate the next chime. We are chemically addicted to new information provided by notifications. That’s why even when we’re “heads down,” we’re still likely to check for and act on notifications.
Then there’s the emotional guilt. Will your boss think you’re not working if you don’t respond on Slack? What if it’s your child’s school calls? We're so used to being connected that being disconnected feels wrong. And that comes with a cost. It’s hard to grant ourselves permission to be present when we feel like we should be available. Perhaps that’s why one study shows notifications from work can lead to anxiety, depression, and anger.
While I don’t have it all figured out yet, I have adopted a few practices that have helped me cope with notification overload, and allow me to reclaim my focus.
Here’s what I’m doing to reduce notification bombardment:
Allow for focus time
I block out time on my calendar in four-hour increments, three times per week. Additionally, Friday is a meeting-free day. I use this time to focus on projects that need extra concentration, or even just to get through my task list without interruption. It felt uncomfortable at first, but only because we’re so trained to be constantly available. Now, I find that the four hours of my workday that I leave unblocked is plenty of time to conduct client calls, participate in team chats, and answer urgent issues. If it feels scary to block the time, maybe set an expectation with teammates that you’ll be using the time for deep work and not responding to messages until XX time. (Oh, and also don’t forget to respect your teammates’ focus time, too.)
Yes, I know we can’t totally turn off notifications, but we can reduce them. I remove myself from Slack channels and Teams conversations where I’m not an active participant. I’ve turned off notifications for apps that are not urgent. I check email when I’m ready, vs. when I'm notified. I am using and monitoring the digital wellbeing settings on my phone to help manage alerts, notifications, and set do-not-disturb times. And most importantly, if a person is not in my contact list, the call is automatically silenced.
Adopt batch processing
I set aside time for repeatable tasks. First, I estimate the time needed to accomplish the tasks, and block that time each day. For example, I check email three times per day – morning, mid-afternoon, and evening. I try to get ahead on my reply-to list by doing the easy responses right away. I leave my more complex responses for the evening batch time, when they’ve had more time to “bake”. Also, when tasks do not require immediate or even day-of attention, set them aside for your next focus block or no-meeting day.
Take a break
When I feel frustrated by notifications, or overwhelmed by the compulsion to make myself available on demand, I take my dog for a walk. It allows me time to do a mundane activity – walk slowly around our block – and give my mind a break from the stress that being always available causes. It’s amazing how refreshed I feel after, and how often I find I’ve worked through a problem or come up with an idea on the walk.
Since I’ve actively taken a stand against notifications ruining my productivity, I notice I’m less anxious, less stressed, and do a better job by far. I feel more in control of my time and like I’m accomplishing more meaningful work throughout the day.
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