“Before we begin, please put your phones on silent or vibrate.”

Sound familiar? 

Meetings, lessons and conference sessions routinely begin with this message. The underlying assumption is that a phone set to vibrate (but still usually in plain sight) won't distract participants with incoming messages and telephone calls — their undivided attention will be given to the gathering.

Not so, according to a recent study at Florida State University (FSU). Researchers at FSU found that owners who set their phones to vibrate were less capable of accurately completing tasks than colleagues who did not receive "silent" notifications, even when they ignored incoming notifications. In fact, passive subjects who received phone calls or text messages made far more mistakes completing tasks than their undisturbed colleagues. 


How much so? Subjects receiving phone calls made 28 percent more errors than those who went undisturbed, while subjects receiving text messages made 23 percent more errors. The study, entitled “The Attentional Cost of Receiving a Cell Phone Notification” has important implications for today’s multitasking workplace.

Because while we've known for quite some time that even "simple" mulitasking — like trying to listen to a colleague’s telephone call while working — negatively impacts performance, the FSU study concludes that even when we ignore the interruption, our attention and ability to accurately complete tasks suffers. The study demonstrates that we are not only worse multitaskers than imagined (yes, even you ladies), but we aren’t very good at filtering out background noise either.

The problem turns out to be related to the cognitive load introduced by distractions. The brain effectively shifts attention from the main task (like driving or writing a report) and diverts it to address the distraction (ringing phone or text message notification). This constant shifting of attention between a main task and background distractions negatively impacts a person’s ability to accurately focus, while it also introduces higher stress, frustration, workload, effort and pressure.

Down with Distractions

The study’s finding contains important lessons for how to be more effective at work. Because, in order to focus on the task at hand, it is not enough to suppress interruptions and distractions, we must stamp them out completely. Here are five useful tips for eliminating distractions so you can be more productive:

  • Turn off notification popups — These include notifications of incoming email messages, and updates from business applications that notify you about new transactions, support calls or business status updates
  • Turn your phone off, or set it to silent and put it in a drawer — The FSU study implies that even seeing the screen flash indicating an incoming message/call will reduce concentration, so put it somewhere you can't see
  • Eliminate ambient noise — Find a quiet place to work, free of background conversations or sudden noises
  • Choose a workspace that doesn’t face moving traffic or high-traffic areas in the office — Internal conference rooms are often ideal for this purpose
  • Set aside time and space for deep-thinking tasks that require undivided attention — Completing creative work in the early morning (before people come to the office) or work at home or the library to reduce distractions

So before going into that meeting, lecture or conference session, unplug. And get your colleagues to unplug. You’ll be amazed by how much you can get done when you and your colleagues truly give your undivided attention.

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License Title image by  Helmut Südema