During the labor for the birth of our daughter Olive, mum and bub's heartbeats had to be continuously monitored, a technique called cardiotocography, or CTG.
The active labor went on for eleven grueling hours, across two shifts of midwives. They were all professional, helpful, and friendly.
One of them had an Apple Watch.
While checking the CTG readings, the midwife with the Apple Watch received a notification from the Facebook Messenger app. She obviously didn't interact with it, she only glanced at it. That was enough, though, to clearly break her focus on the CTG; it took her a few moments to get back onto it.
Now, imagine that instead of checking a reading on a piece of paper she had been doing something that didn't come with a printout, like an old school blood pressure measurement with the aneroid sphygmomanometer, or a manual baby heartbeat check. That notification could have made her lose focus during the measurement, requiring it to be done again.
What if the distracting notification arrived at the same time as a blip that, if missed, could result in severe damage to the patient?
Notifications have a way to get through your concentration, regardless of how "in the zone" you might be. Once your focus has been disrupted, it'll take extra energy to regain it, energy you could have spent doing great work instead.
If the notification is something important than the risk of getting distracted is a reasonable tradeoff. As a doctor, you wouldn't want to miss an emergency pager call.
But what if the notification is instead a message in a silly group chat with your friends, something you can't action anyway because you're at work, something that can easily wait till later on in the day. Is the cost of the distraction still worth it?
As software developers, we rarely deal with situations in which losing focus might result in harm to other people. Nevertheless, distractions are still a huge danger to us. A study by Microsoft Research and the Computer Science University of Illinois found that it takes on average 20 to 25 minutes to get back to the task at hand after an alert based interruption. Add to that the time it takes to get back into a proper state of focus, and we're easily risking to never do any deep and meaningful work on any given day.
All those notifications from the watercooler channels in Slack, phone buzzing because someone liked your Instagram pictures, wrist taps because your Smurfberries are ready to be picked, are they all worth losing the focus you worked so hard to gain?
The outside world and the office place throw distractions at us all the time, but we are making it even worse by allowing our personal devices to do the same! You can't control those colleagues that don't get how the headphones rule works or the fire drill in the building, but you can control how your computer, phone, and smartwatch notify you.
Be ruthless with the notifications you allow your devices to send you. The fewer, the better. The effort spent in customizing a whitelist of a selected few services allowed to interrupt you will pay off manifold in the results you can achieve by having prolonged focus.
An approach to finding out which notifications are really useful to you is to disable all of them for a week, and then re-enable only those that you really missed. Check out this post from Tony Stubblebine for a heap of ways in which to streamline your notifications and take back control of the time you spend with your phone.
At this point, you may ask about Slack and other work instant messaging. What about the need to be reachable by your colleagues to answer questions and help out? Disabling those notifications doesn't mean that you won't be able to check your work chat anymore during the day. It only means that you'll check it on your schedule, when you are done with the task at hand.
Most Slack messages are not urgent, anyways. Will reading and replying to them 30 minutes –or, dare I say, a few hours– after they've been sent ruin your career?
You cannot eliminate all distractions from your day, but you can certainly make it harder for unnecessary ones to get in your way.
Time and focus are finite resources in your day, if you are serious about getting stuff done, you'll want to protect them as much as you can.