The Doorway Effect and Digital Distractions

The Doorway Effect is a documented psychological phenomenon that makes it difficult to stay focused when you switch contexts. These daily distractions overwhelmingly come from technology in the form of notifications, pop-ups, and reminders. As software designers, we have a responsibility to design thoughtful products that help rather than hinder productivity.

By Colin Gilboy, Chief Engineer at Ginger Labs

You open your phone with one goal in mind: buy your best friend a birthday gift. You intend to open Etsy and search for that style of vintage lamp that you had been discussing with him. But as you unlock your phone, your eyes adjust to the palette of shiny app icons, and without a conscious decision, your brain prioritizes a new goal: Twitter. The satisfaction of reading the musings of the day of your favorite politicos eclipses whatever you had in mind, and that birthday gift will remain on your todo list for the foreseeable future.

What just happened? The Doorway Effect. A clinically-proven phenomenon that can cause people to forget what they are doing when traveling from one room to another. The same researchers who documented this phenomenon even performed follow-up studies that showed it applied to people working in a virtual environment on a computer. In that exercise, they also showed that if you return to the same room where you started, you are equally unlikely to remember your intention. In other words, your ability to remember degrades as soon as you leave the room.

The research seems to indicate that our brains hold on to information until the context for that information (for instance, the room in which a thought begins) changes. At that point, the brain discards the information in expectation of something new. These moments that spark the doorway effect come in many forms every day — a quick break to surf the web or check Twitter and suddenly an entire afternoon is gone, for example. But, it’s not just the big distractions — the things that eat up hours of time — that drain our productivity.

Task-switching

Productivity-killers generally come in the form of notifications, like texts, social media notifications, and news pop-ups. Email, in particular, is one of the most common sources of digital distractions: the average office worker receives 121 emails per day. All these things are asynchronous in the sense that they don’t require an immediate reply. But nonetheless, they take us away from what we were looking at and thinking about, into a new topic for a brief moment. Similarly, synchronous communications like chat messages, video, and phone calls that require an immediate reaction from us pose the same threat to our focused time.

These interruptions are brief, but shifting between tasks throws off our focus, requiring us to reorient our headspace to switch our thinking to get back into the groove of our original task. It can take up to 15 minutes to fully refocus on a task after a distraction. One study found that the distractions caused by phone calls and emails could affect a worker’s IQ more than smoking cannabis.

Multi-tasking

Multi-tasking is ingrained in our daily routine, like checking your email or the news as you talk on the phone, or talking on a phone while driving. There is the impression that when doing multiple tasks simultaneously that we are getting more done, and this sense of busy-ness is often admired in the workplace. But research shows that our brains lack the capacity to perform two or more tasks successfully. We’re just not able to focus during these situations to our full ability. The cost of multi-tasking means that it can take you up to 40% longer to complete both tasks.

We are most productive when we use scheduling to ensure that we reduce distractions to focus on the task in front of us, one task at a time.

The messenger: technology

It’s no surprise that technology delivers the vast majority of our daily distractions. The same notifications, pop-ups, and reminders that were designed to help us organize and compartmentalize also do major damage to our productivity and as of 2019, Americans check their phones 96 times a day — that’s once every 10 minutes. Habitually checking our phones is so subconscious that we often don’t even see it as a disruption.

Software designers are incentivized to make distracting products: more notifications means more interaction which, in theory, means stickier products. But as software designers, we also have a responsibility to consider how our work actually affects our users. That’s why, when we were designing Twobird, we wanted to reimagine email in a way that would reduce the need to switch between contexts so frequently, and make communication less distracting.

When email, notes, todos, reminders, and events exist in separate apps, every notification is a distracting digital doorway, beckoning you to switch to a completely different app. Twobird allows you to manage more of your day from within a single app by unifying all these different types of tasks in one place. You can set a reminder on a note just as easily as you can an email, and view all your todos and reminders on one calendar. Rather than spending all day passing in and out of many digital doors, getting distracted repeatedly as you try to remember which room you left your grocery list in, you can spend less time in just a single room.

Your emails, notes, and events are all tasks—which is why Twobird lets you view them all in one place.

Twobird also reduces the noisiness of notifications by automatically setting aside anything that doesn’t immediately need your attention, like low-priority emails and non-urgent reminders. We have also made the visual experience of navigating your inbox less distracting: the clean, chat-like interface encourages natural conversation, hides redundant signatures and quote histories, and supports emoji reactions for efficient and breezy communication.

Protect your time

Your time and your energy are extremely valuable. They are key to your productivity and efficiency. When wisely used for what you need to do, they unlock the potential for you to do what you want to do. And that’s what life is all about. It also means that there is an unseen cost to changing contexts through our day — one that should be considered by product designers when creating new experiences.

Technology can be a wonderful thing, and optimize our lives in many helpful ways, but it’s important to assess the factors that impact your personal productivity. Be honest with yourself, and look at how you can simplify your habits, and strip them down so you are focusing on not just doing things faster, but better and with intention. With this mindset, we favor technology solutions that lead with less, simplify our digital lives, and implement better habits that facilitate focus.

If you’re looking for a less distracting and more rewarding inbox experience, sign up for Twobird for free — and if you liked this piece, follow us on Twitter @Twobirdapp to hear our latest updates!

Thoughts from the makers of Notability: powerful, yet wonderfully simple note-taking and PDF annotation.