phone distraction

Phone Notifications Are Ruining Our Lives

How many Whatsapp groups are you a part of? What about Messenger?

If I add up on my side, with Whatsapp groups from my American and French families, certain groups of friends, plus Messenger groups to organize birthday parties and trips, I am actively involved in 10 different message groups right now. This could mean receiving up to 100 messages a day. Since the groups are spread out around the world, that means the messages pop up all day long.

All of those groups ding my phone every time someone sends a message. Often, those messages are just four heart emojis, or someone responding to a previous comment with a joke.

Those messages are harmless by themselves, and for many reasons they are important to me even if they have no real “value.” Other apps that send push notifications are even less relevant to what I want to see, and those notifications take up the same importance as a message from my mom.

The way my phone vibrates every time is anything but harmless. In fact it is a continuous track of micro distractions that constantly pulls me away from focusing on anything.

I’m not alone, the average person receives 80 notifications per day on their phone according to Duke University. Some people leave push notifications on by default. Android leaves push notifications on unless you disable them, so 91% of people leave them on. Apple is better. People have to opt in to notifications, so the opt in rate is 43%.

This is mindblowing to me. I see other peoples’ phones when we are at restaurants. The screen lights up, it vibrates, and I see the notification: a promotion from Uber Eats… at a restaurant…

The fraction of a second to pause and look at the notification is just enough to derail your mental capacity to hold a conversation. If you’re speaking, it might be enough to stop you from continuing. If you are listening, it’s enough to make you lose interest. And we all know that when you lose interest, you will just pick up your phone again.

The distraction is real. It can take up to 25 minutes to get back on track when your mind switches subjects. Multiple 89 notifications by 25 minutes and it’s easy to see why we feel distracted all day long: notifications can make it literally impossible to function as a normal human being.

It’s Deeply Psychological

The need to check your notifications is universal, and the companies that created them know this. They built their entire user strategies around the idea of variable rewards, the same foundation of dopamine emission that hooks people into gambling. When I post something on social media, sometimes lots of people like it, sometimes no one likes it. This is the variable reward. If it was always the same result, there would be no need to check it to see what happened. The variability creates an uncertainty that our brains crave to resolve. The prescient book “Hooked” by Nir Eyal explains exactly how this works. He provides a guide for entrepreneurs to get people addicted to their products. He does provide a warning that it should only be used for “good,” but it’s only actually applied to profit – up to you if that’s good or bad. It’s telling that the key to creating variable rewards is the “external trigger” – the notification to keep bringing you back until your mind creates an “internal trigger” – so you come back all by yourself.

It’s not just things that we post on social, email is also a variable reward. You check your email all day long. Sometimes there is nothing but spam and a few newsletters. But sometimes there is a message from a long lost friend announcing their first child, or an offer for a dream job that you absolutely have to apply for. Since you never know when the great email is going to come, you eventually check all the time.

Trigger is a good wood for it, but I prefer to think of push notifications as a needle that injects the drug of variable rewards into your brain, making it always present, always there, ever easier to check to see what it is.

But it’s not just bringing you back to your phone, even when you are using your phone for other purposes, those push notifications knock you off track.

Notifications Are Destroying All Mobile Experiences

As a digital marketer, I spend my time creating customer journeys across touchpoints. Since I started my career 10 years ago, mobile has taken over everything. Now, thanks to the importance of social channels, over 80% of traffic to my landing pages is on mobile devices. This is up from 50% a little more than a year ago. Soon the desktop experience might be irrelevant.

In many ways this is good news, the phone is comfortable and concentrated. It’s immediate and always with us. It has other functions like cameras and gyroscopes that can create super immersive experiences.

Except that mobile can look more like Times Square than a unified brand experience. In the time it takes someone to scroll through your landing page or complete your brand experience, they can get derailed by notifications that drop down from the top of the screen.

Click loss is already a huge problem. This is the difference in the number of people that click on a post or asset and the number that actually make it to your platform or landing page. A lot of it can be blamed on slow dowloads. As connections get better, platforms also get heavier, so there will always be a lag if you step behind a building that can cause a few second delay for a page to load. When it doesn’t load, people often abandon.

However even people who are interested can get derailed in that journey if a push notification comes in at the moment when someone clicks. They click out to their Whatsapp and the landing page is relegated to a hidden tab their Chrome mobile browser, never to be seen again.

That makes those who makie it to your landing page even more imporant, but they too  are constantly bombarded by reasons to leave. If you (have the audacity to) ask people to watch a video, not only does the video have to be good, it has to be better than any of the other notifications that could interfere with it. Good luck with that.

Just Say No

Again, as a marketer, push notifications are an opportunity for me to target you – particularly when you are near a place where one of my products is sold. This is a great opportunity to disrupt your day and remind you that you should come and check out what I’m offering.

But, and I’m being honest here, disruption is the correct word for what we are doing. We are creating an interruption that can be profitable for us at the expense of whatever you were trying to do. As long as it works, marketers will continue to exploit it.

Therefore, the common sense is to turn off all vital push notifications, and instead set aside breaks during the day to check your social media and messages. Keep one channel on – like SMS – where people can reach you. For everything else you can safely turn it all off. The variable rewards effect will still be there, that’s the nature of life, but at least you can limit the amount of interruptions that derail your train of thought and take a back a bit of control in your ever-more-chaotic life.

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