“The average knowledge worker is exposed to 174 newspapers’ worth of information per day”
We are digitally distracted. More than half the world’s population is now connected to the internet and our digital tools deeply influence every aspect of our lives. From search, to social networking, to virtual reality to the internet of things, we are set to undergo more change in the next 10 years than we have in the last 50.
However, constant connection is not the universal positive we thought it was. Smartphones, email, notifications and status updates constantly vie for our attention, depleting our ability to sustain focus, productivity and creativity. This thinking is not new and was brought to the fore in the late 2000’s, by thinkers such as Nicholas Carr, Professor Sherry Turkle, and Baroness Greenfield. As our move to mobile and ambient computing has become a part of every day life, it is undeniable that increasing numbers of knowledge workers suffer from problems associated with constant exposure to digitised environments (Nicholson et al, 2009, Bosch-Sijtsema et al, 2010, Schneiderman & Bederson, 2005). Some problems we are all too familiar with such as FOMO, screen burn, backlog depression and phantom vibration syndrome and are critical problems faced by knowledge workers around the world. In this post, we’ll share evidence-based techniques to counter the effects of information overload and digital distraction.
Digital distraction is the name given to a randomly occurring interruption by a digital device(s) that breaks the continuity of cognitive focus on a primary task that generally requires immediate attention and action.
Driven to Distraction
Knowledge workers around the world experience digital distraction constantly and the evidence for its negative impact is compelling. Research on the impact of digital on our ability to manage our cognitive load have been conducted and the findings are startling:
- Pew Internet Research Centre examined the emotional and mental impact of social media use and found that extended social media use can make people feel more stressed because they actively engage with other stressful events occurring elsewhere in the world (Pew Research Center, 2015).
- Intel found that knowledge workers spend, on average, 1 full day a week dealing with digital distractions – all of the pings, notifications, updates, emails and such take up approximately 1 full day of the working week (Hemp, 2009).
- Microsoft Research claim that knowledge workers find it increasingly difficult to return to complex tasks following interruptions.
- According to the Information Overload Research Group, information overload costs the U.S. economy USD 997 billion annually and a loss of 25% of the working day for knowledge workers
How Does Digital Distraction Affect You?
Digital distraction is a mainstay in global workplaces and its effect on the economy is clear but, how does it affect you?
- Continuous partial attention: Coined by Linda Stone, incessant digital distraction does not make knowledge workers more productive. Instead, people constantly engage in task switching, decreasing the capacity of our cognitive load and ability to make reasoned judgments and decisions. We pay continuous partial attention to our digitised lives, never really focusing on any one thing in particular.
- Attention residue: Following research by Sophie Leroy, people experience Attention Residue when they switch their attention from their primary task to, for example, check their email, or vibrating smartphone, or latest social media update. Once this switch in attention has been completed, it takes people, on average, 20-30 minutes to fully return to the original task as our attention fragments to focus on the original task and the place we went to for a quick distraction.
- More anxiety: more knowledge workers are suffering from the digital anxieties that compel us to engage with our devices 46 times a day.
- Less productivity: The mere presence of a smart phone, in our line of sight leads to measurably poorer performance on attention-demanding tasks
- Increased workload: When we are digitally distracted, our workload increases as we become less able to complete the tasks we set ourselves
Counter Distraction with Digital Mindfulness
Countering the effects of digital distraction, becoming more focused, more productive and managing our cognitive load better will become easier when we learn to be more digitally mindful.
The term Digital Mindfulness was inspired by the definition of mindfulness by Jon Kabat Zinn, the pioneer in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction therapy. His definition is that “Mindfulness means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment”. When we apply that same quality of awareness to our digital environments: “Digital Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way, to your digital experiences, maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of your thoughts, feelings, physical sensations, and surroundings, without judgment. This awareness fosters interactions with technology that complement human nature, and inspire global society to a new consciousness.”
So, with this in mind, here’s how knowledge workers can increase their levels of focus, productivity and creativity in the digitised workplace:
Mindfulness / Focus Training
Adopting a mindfulness practice provides a galaxy of benefits, even to those who do short, infrequent bursts of practice. With its roots in Buddhism (although secular and non-secular contemplative practices take many forms) a regular mindfulness practice can enormously benefit your physical and emotional health. By enhancing our awareness of our physical and mental health, mindfulness can benefit knowledge workers in the following ways:
- Improves wellbeing: by focusing on the present moment, mindfulness meditation allows you to become more fully engaged in activities. People are less likely to become caught up in worries about the future or the past, self-esteem and can forge stronger relationships with other people
- Mental Health: Mindfulness is widely used as a non-invasive method of treating mental health complaints such as depression, self-esteem problems and others.
- Creativity: Mindfulness also promotes divergent thinking – a style of thinking that allows many new ideas to be created, thereby improving people’s capacity for creativity
- Focus: Mindfulness helps people to focus attention and better manage distracting information.
- Stress reduction: A regular mindfulness practice helps people to reduce their stress levels by decreasing anxiety and reactivity. This is because mindfulness enables people to experience emotions selectively in a way that mitigates stress responses.
- Boost to working memory: Mindfulness boosts working memory in regular practitioners and increases with practice.
Mindfully designing your workplace and digital environments is an important technique to improve the quality of your working life. Mindful design is the design of objects to promote increased attention on their use and the effect of their use on us (Niedderer, 2013).
Mindful design helps people to enhance their awareness of the effects of their digital environment on their personal and professional relationships.
Achieving the incredible state of consciousness in which we get totally absorbed in a task, and time either slows down or speeds up, is what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi termed Flow. Making Flow part of your digital diet is a crucial part of increasing focus and productivity in the digital age.
In order to get into a flow state, we need;
- Intense and focused concentration on the present moment
- Blend of action and awareness
- A loss of self-consciousness
- A feeling that you are personally in control of the situation
- Rewarding experiences
To help you access your Flow at will, here are some tips that might help:
- Work on a task that is challenging but not ultra difficult
- Minimise distractions
- Know your bodily rhythms so you can work on complex tasks at your peak time
Emotional Intelligence is one of the key traits of a digitally mindful work life. Emotional Intelligence is “the capacity to control, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically” (Goleman, 2006: 1) is generally found to apply to three skills:
- Emotional awareness – the ability to identify your own emotions and those of other people
- The ability to harness emotions and apply them to tasks like thinking and problem solving
- The ability to manage emotions, including the ability to regulate your own emotions and influence the emotional states of other people
Emotionally Intelligent knowledge workers enhance not just their influence on the workplace but also on the organisation’s wider customer base through self-regulation, empathy, cooperation, and conflict-resolution (Amplify, 2010). High EI, improves worker performance and strengthens emotional resilience – a particularly important skill when dealing with customer and client engagement.
Created by Georgetown Computer Science Professor Cal Newport, Deep Work is a state where knowledge workers engage in “cognitively demanding activities that leverage our training to generate rare and valuable results and that push our abilities to constantly improve” (Newport, 2012). This is different to Shallow Work, “tasks that almost anyone, with a minimum amount of training, could accomplish (e-mail replies, logistical planning, tinkering with social media, and so on)” (Newport, 2012). For knowledge workers, Deep Work is the standard that we should all hope to reach and here are some strategies that can help you get there:
Batching email reduces stress and increases task focus. By limiting the amount of information we receive and removing our need to keep up with the flow of information that comes into our inboxes, we only see and respond to what matters. By learning to automate the email batching process, by actively using our filters on Outlook, Gmail and Yahoo so that notifications, newsletters and the like get filtered for consumption at a later time, this gives us more greater knowledge that we will see the important things and eventually get around to the less important content.
Concentration circuits are a fantastic way to get into the mode of Focused work. Concentration circuits are inspirational places you can go to once you find you are running out of energy at work and then use the new surroundings to delve into focused work. Because the amount of work we produce in Focused Work far outpaces that which we produce in shallow work, making use of your own unique concentration circuit can help you be more productive and more creative in your output.
Mind Wandering and Deliberate Rest: Finally, finding real time to recharge is as important for focused work, as the work itself. Building in time to work in 90 minute cycles (we also have these cycles when we sleep) with a 15 minute or so break can be hugely beneficial. In fact, these periods of ‘deliberate rest’, the brain processing or mind wandering during these sessions of repose can lead you to make connections between seemingly unconnected topics and find solutions to complex problems. In fact, the more time we allow our brains a balance of time between focus and wandering and relax – the deeper our capacity for intense concentration and heightened creativity.
Bosch‐Sijtsema, P.M., Ruohomäki, V. and Vartiainen, M., 2010. Multi‐locational knowledge workers in the office: navigation, disturbances and effectiveness. New Technology, Work and Employment, 25(3), pp.183-195.
Cal Newport. 2012. Knowledge Workers Are Bat At Working And Here’s What To Do About It. [ONLINE] Available at: http://calnewport.com/blog/2012/11/21/knowledge-workers-are-bad-at-working-and-heres-what-to-do-about-it/. [Accessed 1 June 2016].
Hemp, P., 2009. Death by information overload. Harvard business review,87(9), pp.83-89.
Nicholson, D.B., Nicholson, J.A., Parboteeah, D.V. and Valacich, J.S., 2009. Investigating the effects of distractions and task complexity on knowledge worker productivity in the context of mobile computing environments. Journal of Organizational and End User Computing (JOEUC), 21(4), pp.1-20.
Niedderer, K., 2013, August. Mindful Design as a Driver for Social Behaviour Change. In Proceedings of the IASDR Conference 2013.
Pew Center Internet, Science & Tech. 2015. Psychological Stress and Social Media Use. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/01/15/psychological-stress-and-social-media-use-2/. [Accessed 1 June 2016].
Shneiderman, B. and Bederson, B.B., 2005, November. Maintaining concentration to achieve task completion. In Proceedings of the 2005 conference on Designing for User eXperience. AIGA: American Institute of Graphic Arts.