New Productivity Study Suggests Ditching Visual Alerts

Growl notifications, alert add-ons for Firefox and for the desktop, and other tools can all help you keep on top of goings-on in your digital world by displaying visual cues whenever new activity appears on your social networks, email, or other web apps. A new study, however, indicates that these tools might not be helping you at all. In fact, they could be seriously hamstringing your productivity.

The intrusive things that can affect your ability to get work done include instant message alerts, according to the study, which was conducted by Helen Hodgetts at the University of Cardiff in the UK. Even, apparently, if you only give these things a moment of your attention before returning to your primary task, you still lose a fairly significant amount of potentially productive time over the course of a day.

Speaking to, Hodgetts had this to say about the study’s findings:

“Email notifications and instant messages all cause a break in focus of the task in hand, even if they are attended to only very briefly. We might find ourselves needing a few moments to regather our thoughts, and remember what it was that we were about to do before we switched our attention to the interrupting on-screen notification.”

Instead of using visual cues, Hodgetts suggests opting for auditory indicators of new mail, messages and content. If a chime sounds indicating a new message on Adium, my preferred messaging client, I can acknowledge it and continue working without breaking pace. Not only does that save me time, but it also helps make sure I maintain my train of thought, and less valuable information is lost as a result.

I’ve dropped Growl (visual notifications for pretty much any good program on the Mac), and after reading this, I’m going to disable dock bounce and menu bar item visual cues, too. Attention span is my No. 1 challenge as a web worker, and I’ll do anything that might help improve mine.

Do you find visual alerts distracting?


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