Scientists made people turn off their notifications for a day, and saw an effect years later

Got to stop and check.
Got to stop and check.
Image: Reuters/ Lucas Jackson
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When you’re walking to work, waiting for the elevator, or making painful small talk with an acquaintance, a buzz from your phone can provide a thrilling little distraction. It’s a call for attention, an excuse to break from your immediate surroundings and check your phone immediately.

But incessant notifications accumulate into a more draining effect. Constantly being available and under pressure to promptly respond—both to work and personal messages—has an indelible effect on daily life. Phone notifications follow the model of “random reinforcement” (essentially, reward at irregular intervals), which is known in psychology to be far more difficult to break free of than regular, expected rewards. One study found that people receive, on average, 63.5 notifications per day. It’s so incessant, it blurs into innocuous background noise.

Just one day of shutting down your notifications can be a fulfilling experience, simply thanks to the comparative lack of distraction and stress that comes from answering to a device in your pocket every few minutes. And while it may seem like a tiny difference, changing a small habit can alter your whole perspective.

The widespread addiction to these messages is so strong that, when researchers tried to recruit 30 people for an experiment where all phone notifications (including text, Whatsapp, and email) would be disabled for a week, they simply couldn’t find the participants.

“We started the recruitment, many people declined participation, because they did not want to be without notifications for a whole week,” write researchers from Carnegie Mellon University and Spanish telecommunications firm Telefónica in their paper, due to be presented at a conference on computer-human interaction next month. Instead, they had to limit the experiment to 24 hours—and still only managed to recruit 30 participants.

But, despite their reluctance, many of the test subjects found they enjoyed the experience. In the study, participants were less distracted and more productive on their day without notifications. Though they also reported anxiety about potentially missing messages from friends and colleagues, the experiment motivated around two thirds of the participants to change their phone notifications longterm.

Two years later, the researchers checked in and found that 13 participants still had different settings; some had permanently kept notifications off for certain apps, while others continued to create their own notification black-outs by turning on the “do not disturb” setting on a regular basis.

The study, which has not been published in a peer-reviewed journal, bases findings on self-reports and interviews, and has a small sample size, is far from rigorous. But the key idea—that turning off notifications can be psychologically beneficial—should be familiar to many, and a refreshing reminder to those who’ve become inured to the buzzing in their pocket.

That’s what the comedian and writer Aziz Ansari found when he went a step further, deleting all internet access from his phone, as he described in a recent GQ interview:

Whenever you check for a new post on Instagram or whenever you go on The New York Times to see if there’s a new thing, it’s not even about the content. It’s just about seeing a new thing. You get addicted to that feeling. You’re not going to be able to control yourself. So the only way to fight that is to take yourself out of the equation and remove all these things. What happens is, eventually you forget about it. You don’t care anymore… I’ve been doing it for a couple months, and it’s worked. I’m reading, like, three books right now. I’m putting something in my mind. It feels so much better than just reading the Internet and not remembering anything.