It’s 10 a.m. on a Tuesday. You are trying to complete a report for your boss, but every couple of minutes, your computer is alerting you to the fact you have a new email. And your phone, which is sitting right next to you, is lighting up every few seconds to inform you that the very cute photo of your toddler has just gotten another “Like.”
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A few minutes later, your phone starts vibrating with an incoming call. It’s a blocked number so you don’t pick up. In spite of the deluge of interruptions, you have managed to stay strong and not give in. You keep writing your report.
Despite the willpower you demonstrated in not giving in to the temptation of constant notifications, you would have done as good a job on the report if you had missed a night’s sleep. And you would have done marginally better on the report than if you had been smoking marijuana at your desk while writing.
Research from the University of London has shown that when we are bombarded with distractions and notifications, such as incoming emails and calls, we lose on average 10 IQ points. And this is if we don’t give in to them and keep on working.
While 10 IQ points might not seem like a huge deal, it’s the equivalent of not having slept the night before, and twice as much as you would lose from smoking some pot. Essentially, the distractions (even “unopened”) reduce our mental sharpness. In addition, the energy exerted in avoiding checking the distractions tires out our willpower muscle.
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If you would like to maintain your current IQ score while working, and not be a victim to it dropping, follow these three strategies.
1. Switch your phone to airplane mode (even when you are not on a plane).
The easiest way to avoid distractions is to remove them altogether. By putting your phone in airplane mode, you eliminate any vibrating, beeping or lighting up that may occur. Yes, you may miss a hilariously entertaining cat video, but you’ll do a better job on whatever task you are currently trying to focus on.
Author Tim Ferriss keeps his phone on airplane mode for more than 80 percent of the day. Ferris told Valet. magazine, “There are so many distractions and so much of social media is designed just to get you angry and fighting … when I need to focus or just maintain my sanity, I switch my phone to airplane mode. This disables any unwanted interruptions. This is particularly critical post-dinner and during my morning routine.”
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2. Turn off notifications on all devices.
Once you have switched your phone to airplane mode, turn off notifications on all other devices. This includes your computer, laptop, tablet and smart watch. It’s important to not forget any single device, as this could be your downfall.
While this is easy advice to give, it can be hard advice to receive. Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University tried to recruit participants into a study whereby they would have to turn off all phone notifications for a whole week. They weren’t able to recruit a single participant, and had to reduce the “notifications off” time to just one day. Not surprisingly, at the end of the 24-hour period, participants reported being significantly more productive and less distracted.
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3. Turn your phone to gray.
You might have noticed how bright and exciting apps and notifications look on a smart phone. They use bright colors to get our attention — not dissimilar to slot machines in Las Vegas. To reduce distractions, switch your phone to grayscale. You can check out this amusing video from The Atlantic about why you need to do this and how to make it happen. As senior editor James Hamblin says, “Instagram, when everything is in grayscale, looks pretty awful”.
While changing any habit or addiction is hard, try experimenting with just one distraction busting change at a time to give yourself the best chance of success. If you don’t, you may as well be smoking marijuana at work.