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No, turning off notifications won’t help you avoid distractions.

I recently noticed the following habit. I am home. With my kids. My phone is on the table. I turn it on, open two apps: one for the work email and one for the personal email. Check if there are new e-mails. I know that I won’t have time or bandwidth to properly give attention to any e-mail I might receive — but I will check anyway if I got anything.

The following movement with our hands is almost automatic, a reflex: taking the phone, unlocking it, scrolling through the different apps, opening for a few seconds only the most important apps (e-mail, messages, maybe a few social media apps) — and turning off the phone.

It’s not a rational behavior. It’s not rational especially because of the fact that I purposely turned off notifications on almost all the apps on my phone: no e-mail, no social media, no news. I left them on only for Whatsapp, Telegram and messages.

So why do I keep checking if there are new e-mails for me? Even knowing that I won’t really be able to take care of them immediately?

My hypothesis: we developed an habit of being connected. We are used to the fact that people are requesting - sometimes hijacking - our attention, and we are afraid of the social or professional toll that it will take from us if we decide not to be connected all the time.

The habit itself has a positive origin. We know that we have the technological tools and the psychological capability to hold many thoughts in our mind. Maybe not in the optimal way, but we proved in the past decade that even if it’s detrimental to our stress level, we can hold many different tasks, facts, information at the same time.

But the habit is bad. It’s bad for three main reasons:

  1. We are training our brain to never be fully present in what we do.The fact that we can hold lots of information at the same time and be connected to lots of channels at the same time doesn’t mean that we have to do so at all times. In emergency times — very busy days, life or death situations — we should. Otherwise, we can perform greatly by managing our tasks in a more ordered manner. There’s time for work, time for family, time for ourselves. We can take small breaks to check if there’s anything urgent that we should know, but only once in a while, and if we know that something urgent might require our attention.

  2. We are generating disrespectful team norms. Everyone can require other people’s attention at all time. Even when the other person is not working, even if they are working on something more urgent.

  3. We are giving up on priorities. If everything can be relevant at all times, and we are the ones who choose to ignore what’s going on around us and repeatedly go back to our phones, there is no value to people, meetings, activities which are top priority, and those who aren’t. Anything can require our attention at any time.

The dumbest and smartest suggestion I got so far is the following: put the smartphone somewhere that requires us an extra-effort to reach. A box with a locker. Somewhere high, that needs a chair or a ladder to reach. A weird place (together with the spices? Maybe with the toiletries?). At the office: in the bottom drawer. Or the highest shelf.

It’s a micro-habit that might remind us that when we are home, our smartphone shouldn’t require our attention. That extra effort is not worth it, and doesn’t have a real purpose besides allowing us to feel connected. But there are other ways to feel connected: being fully present with the people around us, at home and at work, and giving ourselves the legitimacy of forgetting about all the rest.

Maybe for some of us it will work, and for other it won’t. But if we start designing our environment and find good triggers to remind us our priority, our healthy manners and the importance of being present, we might be able to achieve more, better, and by wasting less of our precious attention.

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