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?



I wouldn’t hire any of you who are delusional enough to think you can do any substantial and important work while constantly monitoring social networks, messaging, etc. Unless your job is trivial and doesn’t require even the most basic amount of concentration, you can’t work and play at the same time with any level of efficiency. My employees and I work when we are at work, and play when we aren’t. You just can’t do the two at the same time. At the very least, I won’t employ anyone who doesn’t know how to separate work from play.


Yes, I find visual alerts distracting. However, I’m a very visual person, so I could see how it might depend upon a person’s orientation. Having said that, I also find audio alerts distracting. I struggled at work between not wanting to lose focus every time an email arrived, yet also not miss those all-important “someone’s put donuts in the mailroom” emails. :) What I found has worked for me is to turn off the visual alert and use the softest audio alert I could find–it’s just a swooshing sound. I think for me the visual cue just sits there in the task tray tempting me to look and see what the new email is, whereas when I hear the swoosh it’s just a reminder that when I finish my current task to check email.

Bernie Walko

In this world of instant gratification and multi-tasking we now have generations of young and sometimes old people who actually, truly, believe they can multi-task. Except for a very few simple tasks these people are deluding themselves. Even when they make mistake after mistake, they still want to cling to the myth that they can do several things well at one time.

Please stop all (visual and audio) automatic notices for everything. Check e-mails “between” completed work tasks and limit social networks to break and meal periods. You’ll be surprised how much you’re error free productivity increases. The healthier you’re company is, the healthier your job security is.

Dave Westerheide

I’m not sure that I agree with the conclusion or recommendation. I believe it may just be a matter of a person’s concentration. About 15 years ago, I used to complain to management about the auditory alerts. Nothing like hereing a seemingly never ending series of “gleeps” around an open office when HR would send out alerts in the middle of the day about an upcoming deadline or someother non-time sensitive item. My argument was that everyone stopped what they were doing to read something that should have been made available only early in the morning when people logged on. I often see the visual alert and give it a quick scan to see if it’s something important and whether I can wait a while before stopping what I am doing. The more frustrating occurance is when the person who sent the e-mail walks over to my desk within 5 minutes and asks “Did you get my e-mail”.


Visual alerts doesn’t affect my productivity. If I’m busy with some important task I just ignore them. That’s it. After study in the Military University I can keep concentration even hundred people make a nose around me ;)

Luke Latimer

I find audible alerts both distracting and invasive, preferring to turn them off in all my applications so I can listen to music without distraction when I want to.
I have two monitors for work as Ken does but I use one for the task I am currently focused on (work or play) and one for ‘monitoring’ other relevant data such as my Tweetdeck stream, chat client and time tracking (OfficeTime). The ‘monitoring’ one stays off until I am ready to deal with the deluge – always starting with time tracking whatever the distraction is

Calle Hunefalk

I find both visual and audible alerts distracting, and try to keep them to a minimum. I try to stick to reminders of important events like meetings or other, where I need to change task anyway. I try to stick to checking e-mail at regular but infrequent intervals.


I disagree – for me, visual notifications are a lot less distracting than audible ones. If my email chimes at me I find it almost impossible to resist switching over to it to find out what’s arrived, but with Growl I can just glance up at the corner of my screen, see that it’s not important and continue working.

Simon Mackie

I agree with you Jillian, I find audio alerts more distracting. Maybe the point should be that you shouldn’t have any alerts at all if you need to concentrate. Actually, a way to swiftly switch between having alerts and not having any would probably be very useful.


I run twin monitors, one for work, one for play.
On the play monitor I keep all IM and e-mail notifications, links to games, etc.
On the work monitor is nothing but the task at hand, plus links to my work folders, etc.
I use Opera for work, FireFox for play, Outlook for work, Thunderbird for play.
When I need to focus I turn off the play monitor.

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