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There’s a less stressful way to receive smartphone notifications

After you feel a buzz in your pocket or see a flash on your phone, your attention is already fractured.

You could pick up your phone and see if what’s called you away is something you really need to address immediately — or you could try and focus on your work, all the while wondering what you’re missing out on.

Since it can take close to 25 minutes to get back on track after a distraction, according to researchers who study productivity, this is obviously a recipe for a distracted day where not much gets done.

Fortunately, we are learning better ways to handle smartphone notifications, according to research being conducted at Duke University’s Center for Advanced Hindsight, which was presented by senior behavioral researcher Nick Fitz at a recent American Psychological Association conference. The research was conducted in collaboration with the startup Synapse, which is incubated at the Center.

Fitz and collaborators have found that batching notifications into sets that study participants receive three times a day makes them happier, less stressed, feeling more productive, and more in control. That works better than getting notifications normally, getting them once per hour, or even than blocking them of completely.

“Turning them off doesn’t really work,” Fitz said in a follow-up interview after the conference. “But we can [get notifications] in a smarter way.”

So many notifications

For the particular study Fitz discussed at the conference, they analyzed the notifications that people got on their phones and found that the average person got between 65 and 80 notifications per day (people may check their phones more frequently, that’s just the number of notifications that show up).

So for their study, for two weeks they had a control group check their phones normally, one group receive notifications in a batch every hour, another group that received three batches of notifications (at 9 a.m., 3 p.m., and 9 p.m.), and one group that got no notifications.

While not receiving notifications people could check their phones normally but wouldn’t see anything on their lock screen — the phone would ring for calls but not leave a “missed call” on the lock screen.

In general, people report that phone notifications make them feel stressed, unhappy, interrupted, and non-productive. That held true for the study control group. Receiving notifications even once an hour was so similar to this that it didn’t make much of a difference.

Surprisingly for Fitz, turning notifications off completely didn’t work either. People did feel that they checked their phones more “intentionally,” which the researchers considered positive, but people were also anxious about what they were missing out on. It’s possible that over a longer period of time, several months, people may have adjusted and enjoyed this experience more, according to Fitz. Or, perhaps a system that let some notifications through — emails from a boss or calendar reminders about important meetings — could have assuaged that anxiety.

But three batches of notifications seemed to be the sweet spot, with people feeling more productive, positive, and in control.

Building an even better system

According to Fitz, the ideal system would be context-aware — it would recognize the best times for a person to get a batch of notifications and might allow certain particularly important notifications through.

“Interruptions, in general, aren’t great but it’s better if they come at opportune times,” said Fitz.

The ideal system might be location-aware and give you your first batch of notifications as you arrive at work or hop on the subway, a second batch at the end of a lunch break, and a third batch as you head home for the evening. Perhaps emails might come through that way, but less-important notifications from Facebook would only be delivered once per day in the evening.

The fact that this worked was somewhat surprising for Fitz, as notifications are just one component that can add stress to complicated lives. But it turns out that even adding some element of control can really improve people’s lives.

“It’s not as if this is some panacea, we’re not going to solve ADD with this,” said Fitz. “But it certainly has an effect on people.”

The Synapse team plans on releasing the app they built to regulate notifications, Daywise, to the public within the next few weeks. (The study was conducted only with Android phones since it wasn’t possible to have that level of control over Apple devices for now.)

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