You’re walking down the sidewalk thinking about the mouth-watering hoagie sandwich you’re going to sink your teeth into for lunch, when you hear a loud, “Bang!” In milliseconds, the hoagie vanishes from your mind, and your head jerks around to see what the danger is. It turns out that it’s only a car backfiring, but your blood pressure and breathing are still racing from the brush with this potentially ominous threat.
It’s known as the startle response, an instinctive flinch and bracing move at the sign of a threat. Even babies have this early warning system. A sudden, loud noise will cause them to bring their hands and feet closer to their chest. The reflex is designed to go off before we can even think and prepare us to brace for harm’s way.
Like, say, another email or text dinger or a pulse from your smartphone. That’s right, digital alarms and noisemakers can also set off the startle equipment, along with the stress that comes with it. The more anxious you feel or stressed, the easier it is to overreact to the incoming stimuli and go into startle formation, ducking, cringing, blinking the eyes, and otherwise ready for impact.
In a world of unbounded email and smartphones, that turns most days into a startling performance—and that’s not a good thing. It amounts to repeated, jarring alarms throughout the day that signal threats, drive a defensive posture, and hijack attention.
Startling might be fun at a fright flick or on the local roller coaster, but it makes for lousy work and health. University of Minnesota researchers Brian Bailey and Joseph Konstan found that interruptions can lengthen the time needed to complete a task by up to 27% and increase annoyance by as much as 106% by making everything seem more difficult that it is. In other words, a steady diet of startling from flashing and noise-making devices lowers the threshold of coping, which increases the stress load. That makes sense, since the startle reflex activates the sympathetic nervous system associated with the stress response, which colors all in doom and gloom.
What doesn’t make sense is to be in flinch mode all day from unbounded devices. We have to set the terms of engagement with email and smartphones, or they will keep the the startling coming, raising the stress level and stealing attention for survival threats that don't exist. Most people answer the flashing visual notifications in the corner of their computer screens within six seconds. Because it plays to a survival instinct, these notifications are almost impossible to resist.
So much for free will. Or whatever it was you were thinking about when you got startled by the incoming noise or light. Interruptions vaporize short-term memory, which is why an interruption of just 2.8 seconds, can double the risk of error, according to researchers at Michigan State and the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory.
The rings, bongs, chimes, and light shows that we’ve come to know and love not so much are part of what is known as “bottom-up” attention, part of the startle reflex that takes priority over anything you want to focus on. These intrusions are seen as perceived threats in a part of our brain that never got the manual for the 21st century.
Bottom-up attention lives to startle. Everything is an alert, 72-point headline font. It’s like having your own Breaking News ticker interrupting you every couple of minutes.
Luckily, there’s a better way of getting things done than cringing for the next alarm. It’s called “top-down” attention. Humans were designed to select and pay attention to one thing at a time. When we do that, we no longer have to be on guard all day, waiting for the next threat. We get to choose what we pay attention and when. That puts us in control. The more control we feel we have over our work environment, the less stress, the faster we get tasks done, and the more we like what we’re doing, say researchers.
How do we get more control and reduce the volume of startling we go through in a given day? Start by turning off mail software and noisemakers unless you are using it. The same goes for your smartphone. Check them both at designated times. Researchers from the University of California at Irvine to Oklahoma State say that the most productive email checking schedules are three or four times a day. If you have to have your email software on, turn the sound all the way down or set the volume extremely low on your desktop (higher decibel levels activate the startle response) and ask someone in IT how to turn off the visual alerts. These are easy and highly effective stress management tools.
The humans are allowed to set the rules on devices, and in the process reduce a lot of needless startling and stress. If you want to get the tension and time urgency down and improve work-life balance, make a vow to check messages on your terms, and not at the hysterical beck and call of every call or spam message that appears in your in-box.