Did you know that when you are alerted to an incoming email or text (and it doesn’t really matter what kind of sound it is, or even if it’s a vibration), just receiving that notification on your mobile phone can cause enough of a distraction to impair your ability to focus on a given task?


A really interesting study at Florida State University was conducted by C. Stothart, A. Mitchum and C. Yehnert, on “The Attentional Cost of Receiving a Cell Notification,”, and was published last year in the Journal of Experimental Psychology:


In fact, according to these researchers, the distraction caused by the “ping” of a notification is comparable to the effects seen when you actively use your phone to make calls or send text messages. What it means is that you have irrelevant thoughts, your mind wanders, and this significantly disrupts your performance, particularly if you have an attention-demanding task.


It is well documented that using a mobile phone while performing another task is associated with poorer performance. How often do we see people crossing roads or walking along footpaths, with their heads down texting on their phones or looking at social media.  We have limited attentional capacity, and if attention is to be split between two tasks, then performance overall will be poorer. The Florida State study demonstrates that simply being notified of a text or an email or a missed call can have the same effect.


The researchers’ findings are significant because many public information campaigns intended to deter problematic cell phone use—while walking on footpaths or crossing roads, for example—often emphasize waiting to respond to messages and calls. However, even waiting may take a toll on attention, according to the researchers. Simply remembering to perform some action in the future is sufficient to disrupt performance on an unrelated concurrent task.


What does this mean when you’re studying for exams? Ideally, you turn off or silence all your social devices. However, it is widely known that this can cause anxiety. So, in order to minimize anxiety or attention at not being available to friends and colleagues while studying, allocate a specific amount of time to check your devices.  I strongly suggest that you build into your study time five or ten minutes out of every hour to check your phone or computer. The exceptions might be if you need to keep your phone on for some reason, for example, you have an ill family member, you’re on-call at the hospital, or there is some other reason for staying connected.