The most obvious drawback of social media is that they are aggressive distractions. – Bill Keller
Modern life abounds with opportunities to connect with others using digital devices and services that impact every area of our lives. Certainly, digital connectivity increases our productivity, our access to information and maintaining to some degree our personal and professional relationships. However, the same digital devices and services can also be huge disruptors to our attention in our personal and professional lives.
The clearest place to witness digital distraction is in the workplace where practically all office employees work in some form of a digital environment. In 2011, the digital agency Harmon.ie surveyed 515 people on the nature of their digital habits. The findings were telling: of the people surveyed, at least one hour of the work day was lost to surfing the Web. 41 per cent of workers stated that they respond to their incoming emails in 15 seconds or less and, more troubling, that they are interrupted at least 11 times an hour on average by digital notifications. A similar study from the University of Kansas into digital distraction found that between approximately 80 percent of students admit to being digitally distracted at university, while the University of California Irvine researcher, Gloria Mark, found that employees generally experience only three minutes of uninterrupted focus at any one time.
Digital distractions exist and negatively affect our productivity. What is more alarming is the dollar amount attributed to the lost time from digital distractions; more than $10,000 per person per year, while other scientific studies have concluded that it takes approximately 15 minutes for the average person to regain focus after being distracted by notifications.
Tech-enabled distraction is one of the more pressing issues of our time, I’d argue. We seem to be increasingly terrible at paying attention, and at detaching ourselves from our devices. – Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
It is extremely enticing to receive a notification on our smartphones, that sound which indicates that information, specifically for us and based on our interests or our personal networks, has arrived to our device. It tacitly entices us to engage with it as soon as we can.
The science shows that these digital notifications and other tech-enabled distraction has a higher cognitive burden than we might think. Our capacity for attention is limited. A scientific study conducted in 2001 by Carnegie Mellon University found that when performing tasks with a high cognitive demand, the brain shares its limited capacity for attention and therefore its reaction time becomes slower. In fact, other research has shown that a driver talking on a mobile phone has a slower reaction time than someone with an elevated blood-alcohol level higher than 0.08. The impairment on attention therefore is similar to having consumed between two and four alcoholic drinks. Digital distraction is not only costly for business, it is also physically dangerous.
So what can be done about reducing the negative cost of living in our hyperconnected digital environment? Here are some ways in which digital distraction can be minimised:
Attention, Attention, Attention!: cultivating a practice that enables you to develop a measure of control over your attention is a sure-fire way to ensure that you’re not as digitally distracted as you might be. To this end, developing a mindfulness practice is ideal and increasingly popular amongst those who work for long periods of time with technology. There are dozens of different courses available for you to develop this practice both free and paid for, as well as some excellent smartphone applications that can help you develop a meditation practice on the go. By cultivating a mindful approach to the use of technology, we will be able to use social media and other technologies more mindfully which can have enormous professional and personal benefits.
Digital Detoxing: The most obvious solution to the overuse of digital products and services is to disconnect completely if you can and to take a digital detox. Taking clear time to disconnect from our digital devices and services to re-engage with nature, our loved ones and ourselves can be incredibly re-energising for our physical and emotional wellbeing. There is an increasing number of companies offering digital detoxes, but if their programmes don’t appeal to you then try scheduling a period of time on the weekend or after work to stay device-free.
Quantify Yourself: It’s slightly oxymoronic but it is possible to minimise digital distraction by the strategic use of certain technologies that focus our attention and keep the background noise of life to a minimum. There are several different internet blocking programs which restrict access to the internet for a pre-determined period of time to minimise potential distractions. Other software programs play a steady stream of background noise which can help people focus. Other programs record the bio-output of our bodies and identify when we’re experiencing elevated periods of stress. Using software to give us insight into our inner health can help us understand when we’re most focused, and how we can incorporate this focused state more regularly into our lives.