Driven to distraction
6:40am. The alarm goes off. The alarm on my iPhone. I’ve not had an ‘old-school’ alarm clock since my early teens. I reach to turn off the alarm and still half asleep open email, scan and delete in a frighteningly drone-like manner. Check Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr for overnight updates. Get out of bed. Continue to get ready for work checking my iPhone for the time. Check public transport app for next bus.
Arrive at the bus stop and observe my fellow commuters entranced by their [insert device of choice here].The majority of us fashioning various styles of earphones in our ears. Our own personal soundtracks keeping us company as we travel to our destination.
iPhone, Android, iPad or E-reader we’ve stopped looking up, talking to the person beside us and being ‘ok’ with our own company, idleness or silence. With a constant demand on our attention we are seeing the emergence of anxieties as a result of data surplus and information overload.
A new generation, one that grew up with a data surplus, is coming along. To this cohort, it’s no big deal to miss a tweet or ten, to delete a blog from your reader or to not return a text or even a voice mail. The new standard for a vacation email is, ‘When I get back, I’m going to delete all the email in my box, so if it’s important, please re-send it next week.’ This is what always happens when something goes from scarce to surplus. First we bathe in it, then we waste it. – Seth Godin, The Shower of Data
When did we cease to disconnect in favour for a distracted and digital existence?
After seeing Damon Young talk at ‘What makes creative minds tick’, one in the Surrealism series of GoMA Talks, I was intrigued to read his book Distraction. Damon’s book is one that you consume in a single sitting. As the image below shows: I was earmarking like a crazy lady.
I spoke with Damon and asked him a few questions about distraction.
Brio (B): What are the biggest distractions in the workplace and what do businesses need to do to overcome them? Can they be overcome?
Damon Young (DY): Email is often a focus-killer. Studies suggest that we reply quickly, sometimes within six seconds. Then it takes a minute or so to recover our train of thought. Then another email arrives. You get the idea. Used clumsily, Twitter, Facebook, internet browsing can also be distractions.
There’s nothing wrong with email, or other online technologies. They’re just tools. The trick is to make sure we’re not enslaved by our own habituation, laziness or hunger for novelty. Set realistic limits. Check email or Facebook at regular intervals, rather than just responding to beeps. Speaking of which, turn off notifications, like bouncing icons and dings. This helps to reinforce the rhythms of work, rather than disrupting them.
Other diversions include gossip and status anxiety – getting sucked into petty office or industry politics. This is perhaps a harder habit to kick, but talking to folks outside our own profession helps. It offers a little perspective – the forest instead of the professional trees.
B: Does it have to be as plain as ‘one or the other’? There’s a trend for people to take ‘digital sabbaticals’ to remedy digital overload or go cold turkey. Do we need to go to such extremes in order to balance these devices and technologies in our lives?
DY: Extremes can seem easier than moderation. This is partly because we rightly don’t trust ourselves – we know if we have a taste of Facebook, we may want more and more, until we’re nervously fingering our smartphone over dinner. So we hurl ourselves into cold turkey. This works for some. But for many, we feel either horrid or suddenly sublime, and then throw ourselves back into e-junky benders because of desperation or over-confidence.
A better way is managed moderation. Realistic limits to technology use, for example – checking emails at certain hours, for so many minutes, and no more. This not only diminishes use, it cultivates authority: I’m in charge here, not the inbox.
We can also play our talents off against our weaknesses. For example, if we’re reliable with money, we promise to save a certain amount, each time we successfully keep to our limits. Saving, which we’re good at, then becomes a reward for undistracted work, which we’re not so good at. At the end, we can give ourselves a gift. Other examples might be exercise, dinners out, treats for a spouse. We leverage virtues against vices.
B: Why are we so easily distracted and why are we so quick to forgo long-term satisfaction for the quick hit of social media?
DY: We’re distracted because: we get easily addicted, we’re curious animals, and life is frightening.
Addiction doesn’t always involve drugs. It can be stimulation or certain rhythms – the ‘hit’ of a new email, for example. Like Pavlov’s dogs, we’re habituated to the stimulus.
Curiosity is a good thing. Researcher Jaan Panksepp talks about ‘seeking’ behaviour: sniffing, foraging, digging, and stalking. It’s a primal state, which is more about anticipation instead of reward. We get off on ‘looking-for’. Google, Facebook, internet browsing turn on this state, and keep it on. The result is we just keep seeking and seeking, without ever finding. Nothing wrong with the state – the point into guide it into more rewarding pursuits.
Grown-up life is scary. Work, friendships, and intimacy – they can all be intimidating, embarrassing or just painful. It’s easier to flee into distraction than to confront life’s ambiguity, ambivalence or fragility. “Haste is universal,” wrote the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche over a century ago, “because everyone is in flight from himself.” But as Nietzsche himself counselled, life is more rewarding when it’s lived fully, rather than in flight – whether this ‘flight’ is online browsing or too many beers.
What do you think? Have we forgotten to disconnect? Are we driven to distraction? What are your remedies for staying focused?