You’re chatting with a friend, attempting to get some work done, or even just hoping to get some sleep.
Whatever the situation, you’re trying to focus on something and shut off your screens. So you do what needs to be done: turn your phone on silent, hide it out of sight, or even just flip it over so it’s screen-down.
Job done? Not so much.
The moment your screen is out of sight, you start to feel this pull. It’s an unsettled sensation in your stomach. It’s anxiety. It’s a worry that the moment your phone isn’t in your eyeline, it’s going to light up with all sorts of exciting, important, and urgent things.
This is what we’re calling FOMN – fear of missing notifications – and it’s a very real, very hard to resist, thing.
Why does FOMN rear its head when we’re trying our best not to stare endlessly at our screens? Why is it so intense? And how on earth do we tackle it?
We asked some experts to find out.
Why notifications are so good at grabbing our attention
A load of technology – from our smartphone’s design to social media interfaces – has been designed to elicit the exact response of FOMN. It’s all been sneakily tweaked to keep us hooked in and paying attention for longer, with notifications popping up when you’re not already immersed.
‘Notifications are designed to seem as urgent and important as possible – although we all know they rarely are, we’re fooled into thinking they are,’ Becca Caddy, the author of Screen Time, tells Metro.co.uk.
She points to some obvious ways this is done, such as colours and sounds, all to keep you hooked.
‘For example, the red circle or numbers above your favourite apps to make you check them,’ Becca notes. ‘Red is a powerful colour that grabs attention in almost all situations – but especially on a phone screen, which is often filled with green or blue app icons.
‘They’re also not consistent. That might sound off-putting – why would you care about something that isn’t guaranteed? But it turns out humans like things that are unpredictable because we like searching for rewards.
‘This is often called a variable schedule of rewards. Will you have one like on Twitter? 10 likes? Or what about 1,000 likes because your joke went viral? We can usually guess, but we never know and that not knowing each time we see there’s a notification and wonder what it is, that can be really compelling.
‘This is tied to dopamine too. This is often called a pleasure neurochemical and it fires up and makes us feel good. But it’s more complex than that. Sure dopamine makes us feel good, but it’s all about seeking rewards, it drives us to keep looking for good stuff, which is why a notification can, again, seem so very enticing.’
Why does FOMN happen?
That point Becca makes about the notifications and their contents not being guaranteed is important, because when you’re not looking directly at your screen, this mystery looms larger in your mind. Who knows what excitement will be there, waiting for you, when your screen is back in your eyeline? Who knows what you could be missing when it’s not?
Catherine Price, founder of ScreenLifeBalance.com and author of How to Break Up With Your Phone and a forthcoming book called The Power of Fun: How to Feel Alive Again, explains how this begins to turn into anxiety.
‘Notifications indicate that we are about to receive some type of “reward,” whether it’s a piece of new information or a “like” on social media.’ Catherine notes. ‘Since the notifications come from our phones, our brains have been conditioned to associate our phones themselves with the receipt of rewards.
‘We’re like Pavlov’s dogs – we’ve been so accustomed to expect a “reward” when we hear (or feel) a notification that we essentially drool in an anticipation any time our phones are nearby; thanks to this cycle (notifications leading to rewards) our brains have been trained to believe that checking our phones is something that is worth doing again and again.
‘This conditioned response is so strong that when our phones are not nearby, we feel anxious, often to the point where our bodies release stress hormones, such as cortisol.
‘This anxiety feels bad, so what do we do? We reach for our phones and, likely, find a notification of a reward — which reinforces the idea that checking our phones is important… and the cycle continues.’
Becca points out that the research backs this up, noting that just knowing your phone exists somewhere out of your immediate view is enough to mess up your focus.
‘There are a couple of really interesting studies that found your attention is really divided when there’s a phone nearby,’ she explains ‘Even if it’s barely in your field of vision or even out of it and you think you’re engrossed in something else. So it’s totally normal to feel a pull towards it.’
How can we deal with FOMN?
It can seem like the only way to escape the pull of screens and notifications is to chuck your phone into a river and go all digital detox. But that’s not a particularly realistic solution, so what else can we do?
Notice your FOMN
Here’s a mindfulness approach: recognise that you’re feeling anxious, but observe and accept that sensation from a distance. Recognise that it’s there, it feels uncomfortable, but it will pass.
Becca says: ‘A big part of this is accepting it’ll feel weird and uncomfortable.’
Understand that this is normal
You’re not silly or weird for feeling a deep sense of dread when separated from your phone. Just look at all the people who can’t even go to the toilet without their phone in their hands, or who wouldn’t dream of nipping to the corner shop without shoving a screen in their back pocket.
‘This is exactly why I don’t believe in cold turkey digital detoxes as a concept,’ says Emma Gannon, author of Disconnected. ‘Turning my phone off and going into a hut in the woods for a week would make me more anxious — what if someone I loved needs me? What if someone is in trouble?’
‘There’s nothing wrong with you for feeling FOMN,’ adds Becca. ‘In fact, write that down somewhere, commit it to memory. There’s nothing wrong with you for feeling FOMN or any kind of tech-induced anxiety whatsoever.
‘It’s normal and, in some ways, it’s been designed to get you feeling like this. Please don’t think you need a digital detox or something is majorly wrong – it’s likely not.’
Relax the need for immediate responses
‘I know a lot of people get into the habit of replying to friends and family within minutes – seconds even! – when we all know that isn’t necessary,’ says Becca. ‘It’s become a constant back and forth.
‘This isn’t necessarily bad – our phones are a great way to connect with other people – but that connection shouldn’t be drowned out by anxiety at what might happen if you don’t reply instantaneously – nothing, nothing will happen!’
Make notification technology work better for you
For some people, there’s an obvious answer: just turn off your notifications.
But for those with FOMN, that would only trigger more worry – if you know that notifications just aren’t coming through, there’s even more potential for catastrophising: what if there’s an urgent text you have no idea is lurking there? What if there’s breaking news, and you have no clue?
So, trim your notifications so that you can get a little space from them. In times when you don’t want to be distracted, but can feel secure that if anything really important happens, it’ll come through, use tools like Don’t Disturb Mode, setting up exceptions for only urgent/important contacts or means of contact (like your mum, who would only call if there was an emergency).
Turn off notifications for apps you know are attention-suckers, but leave on any that you feel too anxious to completely silence.
Emma says: ‘Setting up your notifications so that you know you won’t miss an important one means you can ignore the pointless ones that don’t matter so much.’
Recognise the damage being ‘always on’ is doing
It’s easy to think that being constantly attached to your phone is no biggie; a non-issue that doesn’t need dealing with. But is constantly checking your phone – and feeling like you have to do this – taking a toll?
‘Notice the cost of constantly tending to notifications,’ recommends Catherine. ‘Pay attention to the impact that constant distractions has on your ability to be present in your life.’
Gently break the separation anxiety cycle
Do you know how you help a pet deal with separation anxiety? You start to slowly, gradually introduce time apart, at first returning quickly after leaving to show your cat/dog that you will come back and nothing bad will happen.
Do the same with your phone. Start giving yourself smaller, easier moments away, allowing yourself to return when you want. Perhaps you can leave your phone on your desk when you get up to make a cup of tea, or stick a timer on for 10 minutes, then put your phone in a drawer until the alarm goes.
It’s important to start small, rather than trying to go straight into a digital-free day or even an hour, then beating yourself up for finding this hard. Of course it’s hard! Take a more gradual approach, learning to sit with the anxiety that comes from being away from your phone and being kind to that very real discomfort.
Replace the habit
‘You essentially want to identify a habit – checking your phone all the time – and replace it, or bits of it, with other things,’ suggests Becca.
‘If you’re compelled to look at your phone, rather than doing it, read a page of your book, do a push-up, write a poem, watch a YouTube video on another screen. It kind of doesn’t matter what it is, but it’s about reaching for your phone less and filling that need with something else.
‘It doesn’t have to be something beneficial and worthy either. Maybe just make a tea, have a biscuit.’
Fact check your FOMN
Emma explains: ‘Our minds do tend to play out worse case scenarios to protect us in case bad things do happen, so it’s about finding the middle ground here.
‘Giving yourself some logical realistic self-talk before turning your phone off for a bit: realistically how likely is it that someone will need me in the next few hours? And if there is bad global news, do I need to see it immediately?
‘Nothing is usually so urgent that it can’t wait a few hours, unless there are very, very rare real emergencies. We are in a culture where everything is deemed urgent, but it’s not.’
Start to learn that notifications are rarely that important
Catherine suggests: ‘Keep track of how often you actually find something urgent or important waiting for you (and contrast that with how often you find something meaningless).’
This is all about challenging that association of notifications with fun, importance, and connection – all too often, the unseen notifications we’re hyping up in our minds are pretty inconsequential. Take note of this.
Make your own rules
Catherine only allows notifications for phone calls, messages, her calendar, and her maps app – with everything else off.
Becca likes to flick on Do Not Disturb mode for chunks of the day, and also only allows notifications from people, not apps.
Some people will want to do total notification silence, others will hate this idea. Some FOMN-experiencers need to shut their phone away in a box, while others want their phone physically near them, even while they’re trying to reduce the pull to check notifications.
The key is setting your own boundaries and renegotiating your relationship with notifications on your terms, in ways that work for you.
‘Everyone is a bit different,’ Becca tells us. ‘If you turn all your notifications off and that makes you more nervous, just scale back a bit.
‘Go slow. Get rid of those notifications from apps and not people for a start, turn off big banners and have small badges instead. And then how about just scheduling in 50 minutes of Do Not Disturb time? That’s it. 50 minutes for the whole day. Start off that way and you’ll see there’s nothing you’ll ever really miss. Nothing bad happened. You might want to schedule in more time, or just add more 50 minutes of silence to your day. Go at your own pace.
‘That way you might also set some rules for yourself. Maybe a big chunk of Do Not Disturb time in the day like me. Maybe Do Not Disturb Sundays. Maybe Do Not Disturb until 11am after you’ve had a coffee and eased into the day.
‘It doesn’t matter, don’t feel like you have to follow other people’s rules. This is just about scaling back a bit and giving you some peace and quiet.’
Catherine adds: ‘There’s no right or wrong number of notifications; the point is simply to make sure that your notifications are serving you, rather than the other way around.’
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