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Habituation to smartphone reminders

David Yates

A successful response to a fire notification.

A successful response to a fire notification.

Imagine what life would be like if you couldn’t get used to anything. You’d be forever startled by the sound of traffic and construction work; constantly aware of the smell of your deodorant; permanently distracted by the wallpaper in your living room. You’d be too busy noticing everything to notice anything! Fortunately life isn't like this and it's thanks to a type of learning known as habituation: where repeated exposure to a stimulus results in reduced response to that stimulus. As far as learning goes, it doesn’t get any simpler than this and it is a type of learning that is displayed by virtually all animals.

Vital though habituation is, there are some occasions when it can be unhelpful. Office fire drills, for instance, are a trade-off between making sure that escape procedures work properly and habituating everyone in the office to the sound of the alarm. Smartphone notifications are no different. You've probably noticed that there are some notifications that reliably attract your attention and some that you just ignore. The identity of the former is pretty obvious: they're often the Retweets from Twitter or the comments from Facebook. You don't habituate to these because they're almost always associated with reinforcing and, occasionally, punishing outcomes. So what about the notifications that we do ignore?

At some point, most people have probably created a todo list or a set of reminders in the hope of turning over a new leaf and getting their life in order, but, after a positive start, begun to dismiss the reminders and avoid looking at the todo list altogether. This often has a lot to do with whether or not there are consequences to not completing the tasks. Tasks can be split into two basic categories according to their necessity: those we have to respond to and those we don’t. An example of the former might be a weekday alarm to remind me when it's time to pick the kids up from school or a calendar notification prompting me to put the bin out on a Wednesday. In both cases, habituation is mitigated by the fact that the notifications always signal the need for action; they're like the fire alarm going off for real every time. Examples of tasks in the latter category are things like cleaning the bathroom or doing push-ups. The problem with these is that each time the reminder comes round, there are no immediate negative or positive consequences to my ignoring it so it's easier to habituate to the stimulus of the reminder. What's worse, the more I dismiss it, the more I'll habituate, until eventually I might as well just turn the reminder off!

So what's to be done? First of all, take the issue seriously because a few rotten notifications can poison the whole waterhole. The thing about habituation is that it is subject to a related phenomenon known as generalisation. If my calendar app is reminding me about the bin every week, but also ten other things that would be good to do, but aren't necessary, I might gradually fall off the wagon for the other reminders and consequently begin to habituate to the notifications from the whole calendar app, thus having consequences for the important bin reminder.

Brute force approaches to avoiding productivity slumps receive a lot of attention in productivity blogs and often involve the contrivance of artificial rewards and punishments or the use of evermore aggressive notification schedules; however, such approaches seem to ignore the root of the problem. If you're failing to go swimming every week, the reason is unlikely to be down to inadequate rewards or reminders and is instead probably due to your not having discovered a way to incorporate this activity into your busy schedule. All the rewards, punishments and reminders in the world aren't going to make your trip to the swimming pool any easier if it is subject to basic travel, childcare and work constraints.

A simpler approach is just to be choosy as to which information and reminders you're prepared to expose yourself to. Don't, for example, subscribe to emails you don't care about or you run the risk of habituating to the very sight of your inbox and it could soon become an unmanageable mess. Also, avoid setting a reminder unless you're sure it's something that needs to be done. Another trick is to use responsive reminders like those in Logsit. These reminders are triggered when you actually do something so they won't continue to fire if you do find a task hard to stick to. Finally, it can be helpful to split your reminders up, placing the vital ones in separate apps to the others. This way, they're less likely to be subject to contamination from the activities you're failing to deal with.

Of course, the fact that habituation might be one cause for making your notifications less effective doesn't mean it's the only cause. There are all sorts of reasons why we're not able to be as productive or efficient as we'd like to be. However, habituation is certainly an often overlooked culprit and understanding how it might be contributing to your overflowing inbox and notifications tray could help you to get more out of your smartphone and all the great apps you use.