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Distraction

Why are we so distracted these days? It was never this bad just one technology generation ago, was it? Or is it my selective memory? I ask because Joshua Rothman has two hypotheses for why this might be true, which he describes in an intriguing article in the June issue of the New Yorker. Special thanks to Lynn Strother at HFES headquarters for sending me the link.

Still, for all our expertise, distraction retains an aura of mystery. It’s hard to define: it can be internal or external, habitual or surprising, annoying or pleasurable.

My Take

So here are his two hypotheses:

Our technology is designed to do this to us. Our advancing knowledge of behavioral design is being exploited by system designers to push us down the path of permanent distraction. Every web page has original content, sponsored content, banner ads, pop up announcements, and more. At the same time, the lower right corner of our screen is showing notifications from every app we don’t have open. There are audio beeps and buzzes from other sources.

As we go towards more connected and web-enabled systems in other areas of our lives, this is just getting worse. Our cars can now show us these same windows, ads, notifications, and beeps. So can our fitness watch. Our smart home (now or soon). Our smart TV. Pretty soon our refrigerator, home controller, and perhaps even our implanted connected contact lens screen.

The other hypothesis is even more disconcerting. Rothman speculates that our souls might be troubled. Could the prevalence of social media have made us so accustomed to permanent connectivity that we are afraid to be alone? This was suggested in previous centuries by Nietzsche and other philosophers, but no one bought into the hypothesis back then. Now, it might have a stronger case. We feel overly controlled by our responsibilities and constrained by our resource limitations (mostly time, but for many people also money). We are desperate for a little autonomy and distraction provides it. Our work is not confining us if we have the ability to check the latest text message or Facebook post.

If our work were truly engaging we would be in a state of flow. We would not be distracted by these notifications even if they did their worst buzzing, beeping and flashing. But that is rarely the case for too many of us. We are instead in a state of automaticity – blindly and absently completing mindless tasks that are easily distractible.

Distraction isn’t always bad – Scott Barry Kaufman has made a career from showing us how we are most creative when daydreaming and otherwise engaged away from our rote work activities. But this is only the case when we are distracted by our internal thoughts. If our distracted time is captured by social media notifications, then the creativity goes out the window as well.

Your Turn

So here are my questions for you today. Which explanation do you think is more likely? Or perhaps a combination of both? What do you do to avoid distraction and keep your focus on your work? Please share your strategies with the rest of us. I know I need some help. I am sure that others do as well.

Image Credit: birgerking

One thought on “Distraction”

  1. I suspect the world’s most successful people simply don’t allow themselves to be distracted – by having gatekeepers of some sort to prevent it. To be successful, writers, musicians, artists, etc. simply must control the degree of distraction in their lives, You can’t write, paint, practice, etc., if you’re always being interrupted.

    Some of things I do to control distraction:

    a) never answer the phone unless I know who is and need/want to speak with them
    b) only use a cell phone for emergencies and don’t give out the number to anyone except immediate family or someone else with an explicit need to know. In fact, my cell phone functions more as a camera for picture-taking during travel, than as a phone.
    c) don’t text, twitter, etc., and severely limit time on social media

    Although I’m still a bit of a slave to e-mail, I try to control/eliminate junk mail, keep off or set listservs to digest, and respond to e-mails that don’t require a response only when I feel it might serve a useful purpose.

    I’ve probably dated myself, but having nice long periods of uninterrupted time, for both work and hobbies, is bliss.

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