Home > Attention > A Tip on How to Improve Your Focus: Turn Your Cell Phone on Silent

A Tip on How to Improve Your Focus: Turn Your Cell Phone on Silent

NotificationHave you ever worked on a homework assignment with your cell phone near you so that you can hear when you get a notification?  I know I have.  Cell phone use has become widespread in today’s society.  Everywhere you go, you see people with cell phones in their hands, and they commonly try to use their cell phones as they do something else.  You might see someone looking down at a cell phone while driving, texting while chatting with a friend, and scrolling through a social media app while doing homework. Research has shown that the use of cell phones during a concurrent task can be very distracting and can impair performance on that task, but what about when you receive a notification and do not check or respond to it?

Many people carry their phones with them almost everywhere they go.  For example, you might bring your cell phone to class and store it in your pocket, or leave your cell phone lying on your desk while you work on a homework assignment.  So what happens when you hear a ring or feel vibrations from your cell phone, alerting you that you’ve received a notification?  Does it affect your attention?  Does simply getting a notification on your cell phone, without checking it, have a cost to your attention?  Researchers Stothart, Mitchum, and Yehnert (2015) conducted a study to examine this question.

So here’s the thing about attention: it’s limited.  You can’t just pay attention to everything in sight. There’s a limit for the amount of tasks that you can attend to simultaneously.  This means that you can’t effectively read your textbook, watch your favorite show on television, go on Facebook, and check your phone all at the same time.  But you do have some attentional control, which means that you can select what you want to pay attention to and then direct your attention to that.  So, if you want to read your textbook while the television is on, you can direct your attention to your textbook so that you can pay attention to it and not the television (however, I recommend turning the television off in order to minimize distractions).

Every task that you do requires some of your attention, so if you’re paying attention to one thing, then your ability to pay attention to another thing is reduced.  Have you ever tried doing two things at once, such as talking on the phone with your mom while walking, and noticed that it’s harder to do them both at the same time?  This is because dividing your attention between multiple tasks, or multi-tasking, reduces your ability to do both tasks, making them more difficult.  Many studies have looked at divided attention and its consequences in terms of distracted driving.  One study showed that people who talked on their cell phones while driving had impaired driving abilities such as slower breaking times and more rear-ending accidents (to read more about this in another blog post, click here).  This is just one example of the attentional costs of divided attention, which has been a popular topic in research.  Other factors such as sleep deprivation can have attentional costs as well, but we won’t talk about that here (so if you’re interested in learning more about sleep deprivation, click here to read a post on it).

The study conducted by Stothart et al. (2015) looked into whether or not there is an attentional cost in simply receiving a notification for a call or text message, without actually checking or responding to it. Participants were put into one of three groups: a group that received calls to their cell phones, a group that received text messages to their cell phones, and a control group that did not receive any notifications to their cell phones.  Participants in the notification groups received calls or text messages to their own cell phones, but did not check or respond to those notifications. The researchers thought that this would better resemble real-life situations in which the notifications are personally relevant to the phone user.  They thought that it would provide more accurate results than if they had given the participants lab cell phones in which the notifications might be less personally relevant to the them.

Participants completed the Sustained Attention to Response Task (known as the SART), which measures sustained attention and mind wandering.  Sustained attention is the ability to focus on one particular task without being distracted.  For example, if you can focus on reading your textbook without being distracted, then you are showing sustained attention.  Mind wandering is having thoughts that are irrelevant to the task that you are doing.  Many students likely experience mind wandering during class, which could be when you are listening to your professor talk about biology and you instead start thinking about lunch (see figure below for more examples).  Mind wandering during a task has been shown to impair performance on that task.  So, if you are taking notes in class and your mind starts to wander, you might miss some information that your professor tells you, which would likely lower the quality of your notes.

Examples of Mind Wandering in Class

Examples of Mind Wandering in Class

During the first half of the SART, participants completed the task normally, but during the second half, participants in the call group received four calls to their cell phones, participants in the text group received four texts to their cell phones, and participants in the control group did not receive any notifications.

The researchers found that participants in the call and text groups made more mistakes on the SART compared to participants in the control group.  Errors on the SART are consistent with mind wandering, which suggests that the cell phone call and text notifications distracted the participants and caused them to mind wander during the SART.  The researchers believed that it was the mind wandering that caused the differences between the groups because mind wandering persists even after the quick cell phone notifications.  There was also some evidence that call notifications were more distracting than text notifications.  The results of this study suggest that cell phone notifications can impair attention even if you don’t actually check or respond to the notifications. This means that if you’re listening to your professor lecture in class, and you feel your cell phone vibrate in your pocket, your ability to pay attention to your professor’s lecture is impaired.

The increase in errors between the notification groups and the control group in this study is similar to the decrease in performance between distracted drivers and non-distracted drivers in distracted driving studies (for another post on the consequences of cell phone use while driving, click here). This means that the level of impairment on attention may be similar between cell phone notifications and distracted driving, but more research would need to be done that compares the two in order to make that claim.  But still, it might be a good idea to turn your cell phone on silent while you’re driving so that it doesn’t distract you!

So, next time you are doing a task that you really want to be able to focus on, remember that simply hearing your phone ring can distract you and possibly cause your mind to wander.  If you have to do a task that requires a lot of attention, such as a hard homework assignment, or you don’t have a lot of time to complete the task, then my advice to you is to put your cell phone on silent where you can’t see it (or on do not disturb) and get to work!  This will minimize distractions from your cell phone and allow you to focus on the task at hand.  Instead of dividing your attention between your cell phone and the task, you’ll be able to allocate more of your attention to the task. If you’re like me (and most people I know) and always have your cell phone on you, then remember this tip next time you want to complete a task as efficiently as possible!


To view the original article, click here.


Stothart, C., Mitchum, A., & Yehnert, C. (2015). The attentional cost of receiving a cell phone notification. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 41, 893-897. doi: 10.1037/xhp0000100


  1. December 10th, 2015 at 19:30 | #1

    This post was great, and definitely very relevant in today’s day and age! In reading it, I wondered something:
    Is it possible that the extent to which someone “knows” the concept that they are focusing on impacts how much the cell phone distracts them? In other words, does our expertise (or lack thereof) lead to different distraction levels? As you mentioned in your post, we talked about attention and how it is a limited resource. We also talked about how controlled processes of attention can eventually become automatic with enough practice. We also discussed metacognition, or peoples’ confidence in “knowing what they know”, and it was found that students with good metacognition were better at determining how prepared they were for a test, versus students who simply felt like they might know the information well enough to recall it on a test. Keeping attention and metacognition in mind, I wonder if people who feel that they know a certain topic really well would be more or less distracted in the notification condition. For example, if I were in a math class, I wouldn’t dare check my phone because I do not feel confident in my math abilities and I also need to pay very close attention, or have a lot of attentional control, when sitting in a class like that. The person next to me, however, may check their phone all of the time because know that their math skills are really good and their attention is more automatic. If the researchers here had changed the kinds of information that participants were supposed to be paying attention to, I wonder how that would have changed the experiment. Are students more likely to check their phones/notifications if their metacognition is higher? It is interesting to think about.
    Additionally, I wonder how the distraction of a cell phone compares to a distraction of something like a flashbulb memory. While Neisser and Harsch’s experiment indicated that flash bulb memories are not very accurate compared to an initial account two years later, they are still vivid, they feel intense, and they are characterized as having salient, emotional content. So, if someone’s attention is focused, and suddenly a flashbulb memory flies in, such as remembering the day that their dog died and the emotions associated with that, is that more or less distracting than a cell phone notification? I wonder if more research has been done on that, and I think it’s an important question considering how technology-driven our society is… Has technology become more powerful than a flashbulb memory? Thanks for posting!

  2. December 10th, 2015 at 00:11 | #2

    I found this article very interesting and extremely relevant in the world we live in today. One thought I have is about the amount of phone calls/ texts received. Four missed phone calls seems like a lot for that period of time, so it seems natural that people would be distracted. The four texts makes me think of group texts, which are very common to college students. I would think that group texts could almost be more distracting than a missed or ignored phone call, because its a bunch of people instead of just one. The concept of Fear of Missing Out (FoMO) is relatively new to psychology (although we just used it as a moderator in my seminar experiment), but I wonder if it could have an effect on distraction in group messages; if silencing your phone will make you fear your missing out on group conversations. Additionally, I wonder what effects simply having your phone out/ on your person has, even if its on silent. Just being able to see your phone seems like it would inspire one to want to check social media, so maybe putting your phone in another room, even, would have a greater effect on task performance.
    On a different note, thinking about attention, it seems normal that a ring or buzz of a phone would be distracting. Our attention automatically shifts to the stimulus to find out whether or not it is threatening. It’s interesting that now that we are so technologically advanced, this exogenous shift can sometimes be detrimental to what we are actually trying to accomplish.

  3. December 10th, 2015 at 00:01 | #3

    I agree with Kacie. This article immediately brought attentional capture and The Cocktail Party Effect to mind. It is very interesting how even ambiguous tones from a cell phone can have the same effect as a meaningful name when heard. But I personally know that there are times when I have been to focused on work or conversation, or a TV show that I don’t even hear my phone ringing, and I know I am not the only one. This phenomenon, which I believe is due to habituation, can also affect someones overall attentional capacity, and eliminate some attentional capture. Even similar tones to ringing phones, such as alarms clocks can show reduced “wake-up power” once people become habitualized to the sound. (Time to change that tone if you aren’t waking up in time for class.) So, if we see cell phones being very distracting while we try and perform attentional/controled tasks, does the opposite happen with habitualization?Can being habitualied to certain sounds and cues free up more attentional capacity? If we keep our ringtone the same for the next 60 years, will it catch our attention or will we miss that call? That is if we aren’t deaf by then…

  4. December 9th, 2015 at 19:45 | #4

    This post was very interesting and relevant! I definitely find it much harder to complete an assignment quickly if I have my phone sitting next to me. As I read this post, I thought immediately of the exogenous orientation of attention and how that explains the results Stothart et al. (2015) obtained. Exogenous orienting is when attention is unconsciously driven to a certain stimulus by an external stimulus. This a spontaneous redirection of attention that we can’t control and is usually driven by a stimulus that is out of the ordinary or is particularly salient. A cell-phone ring or notification, even a vibration, is a stimulus that is out of the ordinary if you are working on an assignment or task. Depending on how much you check your phone, it can also be very salient for some people. Therefore, a cell phone notification is an exogenous cue. When someone’s phone rings, their attention is automatically redirected to that stimulus by exogenous orienting, regardless if they want it to be or not. So, even if that person doesn’t check the notification, their attention has already been redirected and therefore their attentional capacity for other things has decreased because as was stated in this post, attention has a limited capacity. This exogenous orientation is also known as attentional capture, as Kacie mentioned in a previous comment.

    I wonder if the extent to which our attention is affected by a cell phone notification varies based on the task we are completing when the notification occurs. In other words, if we are working on a school assignment that we don’t want to be doing, is our attention more susceptible to be exogenously oriented to stimuli that other than that task, relieving us from the assignment? And if we are doing something we really like, is our attention less likely to be captured by something else because we are content with focusing on what we are doing? These would be some interesting questions to investigate.

  5. Kacie Wrean
    December 7th, 2015 at 13:58 | #5

    This is a really interesting study and very applicable to today’s students! The sound of a text alert and how people’s attention is captured reminds me of Moray’s Cocktail Party Effect. In the Cocktail Party Effect, people’s attention is grabbed by someone across the room saying their name and their attention changes to attend to what the other person is saying, though they may only attend to their name. This is an example of attentional capture and it is fully beyond our conscious control. I think that in our current society, the sound of an electronic alert can be likened to someone saying our name in conversation because the sound itself coming from our phones implies that the new information is relevant to us just as our name in conversation is relevant. We are so used to responding to the alert immediately that any alert sound signals to us that the message is something we need to respond to. We do not even need to check our phones for it to be distracting because just the knowledge that the message is for us grabs our attention for a moment. Some people are faster than others at ignoring the distraction of an unread message, and the root causes of that would be interesting to understand. I’m think inhibition plays a role in being able to ignore the alert as well as how well a person can shift their attention to something else.

  6. December 5th, 2015 at 14:47 | #6

    While I liked this study I have a problem with the different conditions. Was there any significant difference in attention between receiving calls versus texts? The only reason I say this is because the length of time a person would be distracted due to a long cellphone ring should be significantly more than a single text beep or ring.

    Also, I would be interested if there was a way to test a persons subconscious awareness of their phone. When a person has their phone on silent but it is still on their person, if they are anything like me, they may be more aware of its presence than you think. Even if I do not receive a notification, my motivation to check my phone is still incredibly high and I would imagine that that would also come into affect when attempting to stay focused. Having phones on our person all of the time has made a controlled process of responding to a phone only when it rings, into a much more automatic one since we as social beings have a constant interest in what everyone else is doing all of the time. So I wonder if they were to do this study with the same conditions but add a condition where the person did not have the phone on them at all during the test, if that would be even less distracting than just having the phone on silent.

    The last thing I would be interested in with this study is if there would be any attentional or change blindness related to checking your phone. Would a person who was just checking their phone or heard their phone go off notice a change in the room or piece of work they were attempting to do? Based on what we have learned so far from your post, in addition to others, I would imagine there would be such an effect.

You must be logged in to post a comment.