Keep the Texts, Ditch the Alerts: How Your Notifications Throw Your Brain for a Loop

woman texting at work
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You’d never text while you’re driving or answer a call in the middle of a heart-to-heart with a friend. But when you hear that alert (or feel the vibration), your brain goes off in a whole new direction — even if you don’t glance at your phone.

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Researchers at Florida State University in Tallahassee found that cellphone notifications can take a toll on your attention, prompt irrelevant thoughts and even decrease your performance on simple tasks. In a test, people who received phone alerts made more than three times more mistakes than those whose phones were silent.

Receiving a text can cause mind-wandering, explains Cary Stothart, who led the study. “If you received a notification but are in a situation where you can’t look at it,” he says, “you may start to wonder about its source and content. Who sent it? Is it an emergency?”

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Stothart and his team are underway with another study that will look at the impact alerts have on older drivers’ reaction times. But the takeaway from the current findings is clear: When you’re doing something important, like driving, working on machinery or listening to your grandchildren, do your brain a favor: Don’t just put your phone on vibrate. Turn it off. Focus all your brainpower on the task at hand. Those alerts will still be there, waiting for you, when you’re ready.

Learn more ways to focus your attention and keep your brain nimble and quick when you activate your access to AARP Staying Sharp! It’s easy to enroll and is included with your AARP membership.

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