focus: the age of distraction

‘Our life is frittered away by detail … simplify, simplify.’ ~Henry David Thoreau

We live in curious times. It’s called the Age of Information, but in another light it can be called the Age of Distraction.

While humanity has never been free of distraction — from swatting those bothersome gnats around the fireplace to dealing with piles of paper mail and ringing telephones — never have the distractions been so voluminous, so overwhelming, so intense, so persistent as they are now. Ringing phones are one thing, but email notifications, Twitter and Facebook messages, an array of browser tabs open, and mobile devices that are always on and always beeping are quite another. More and more, we are connected, we are up to our necks in the stream of information, we are in the crossfire of the battle for our attention, and we are engaged in a harrying blur of multitasking activity.

When we’re working, we have distractions coming from every direction. In front of us is the computer, with email notifications and other notifications of all kinds. Then there’s the addicting lure of the browser, which contains not only an endless amount of reading material that can be a black hole into which we never escape, but unlimited opportunities for shopping, for chatting with other people, for gossip and news and lurid photos and so much more. All the while, several new emails have come in, waiting for a quick response. Several programs are open at once, each of them with tasks to complete. Several people would like to chat, dividing our attention even further.

And that’s just in front of us. From the sides come a ringing desk phone, a ringing mobile device, music from several different coworkers, a colleague coming to our desk asking a question, incoming papers needing attention, other papers scattered across our desks, someone calling a meeting, another offering up food.

With so much competing for our attention, and so little time to focus on real work, it’s a wonder we get anything done at all.

And then we leave work, but the attack on our attention doesn’t end. We bring the mobile device, with incoming text and email messages, all needing a reply, with incoming calls that can’t be ignored. We have reading material, either in paper form or on the mobile device, to keep our attention occupied. We are bombarded from all sides by advertising, asking for not only attention but our desires. We get home, and there’s the television, constantly blaring, with 500 channels all asking for yet more attention, with 500,000 ads asking for yet more desires. There’s our home computer, asking us to do more work, sending us more messages, more distractions, social networks and shopping and reading. There are kids or spouses or roommates or friends, there’s the home phone, and still the mobile device is going off.

This is unprecedented, and it’s alarming.

We’ve come into this Age without being aware that it was happening, or realizing its consequences. Sure, we knew that the Internet was proliferating, and we were excited about that. We knew that mobile devices were becoming more and more ubiquitous, and maybe some people harrumphed and others welcomed the connectivity. But while the opportunities offered by this online world are a good thing, the constant distractions, the increasingly urgent pull on our attention, the stress of multitasking at an ever-finer granular level, the erosion of our free time and our ability to live with a modicum of peace … perhaps we didn’t realize how much this would change our lives.

Maybe some did. And maybe many still don’t realize it.

I think, with so many things asking for our attention, it’s time we paid attention to this.

It’s an Addiction

There’s instant positive feedback to such constant activities as checking email, surfing the web, checking social networks such as blogs, forums, Twitter and Facebook. That’s why it’s so easy to become addicted to being connected and distracted.

Other addictive activities, such as doing drugs or eating junk food, have the same kind of instant positive feedback — you do the activity, and right away, you’re rewarded with something pleasurable but don’t feel the negative consequences until much later. Checking email, or any similar online activity, has that addictive quality of instant positive feedback and delayed negative feedback.

You check your email and hey! A new email from a friend! You get a positive feeling, perhaps a validation of your self-worth, when you receive a new email. It feels good to get a message from someone. And thus the instant positive feedback rewards you checking email, more and more frequently, until the addiction is solidly ingrained.

Now, you might later get tired of answering all your email, because it’s overwhelming and difficult to keep up with. But usually by then, you’re addicted and can’t stop checking. And usually the checking of the email has positive reward (a good feeling) but it’s the activity of answering all the emails that isn’t as fun.

We’ll explore how we can stop this addiction later, in the chapter “the beauty of disconnection”.

It’s a New Lifestyle

Being connected, getting information all the time, having constant distractions … it has all become a part of our lives.

Computers, at one time, were a small part of our lives — perhaps we used them at work, but in the car and on the train, and usually at home and when we’re out doing other things, we were disconnected. Even at work, our computers had limited capabilities — we could only do certain things with desktop applications, and while solitaire is definitely addicting, it doesn’t take up your entire life.

Not so anymore.

Computers are taking over our lives. And while I’m as pro-technology as the next guy (more so in many cases), I also think we need to consider the consequences of this new lifestyle.

Because we’ve created a new lifestyle very rapidly, and I’m not sure we’re prepared for it. We don’t have new strategies for dealing with being connected most of the time, we don’t have new cultural norms, nor have we figured out if this is the best way to live life. We’ve been plunged into it, before we could develop a system for handling it.

It’s an Expectation

Let’s say you woke up one day and decided you no longer wanted to participate in the Age of Distraction in some way … could you just drop out?

Well, you could, but you’d be up against an entire culture that expects you to participate.

A good example was when I recently announced that I was ditching email (more on this later) so that I could focus less on answering emails and more on what I love doing: creating. That seemed fairly straightforward to me, but it turns out it drew quite a strong reaction in a lot of people. Some applauded me for having the courage to give up email — indicating this was a huge step that took bravery, took an ability to break from a major societal norm. Other people were insulted or indignant, either feeling like I was insulting their way of doing things, or that I was some kind of prima donna or “diva” for not wanting to be available through email.

Interesting: the simple act of giving up email was either hugely courageous, or arrogant, because I wasn’t living up to the expectation of society that I’d be available via email and at least make the attempt to reply. Interesting, because just a decade earlier, many people didn’t use email and no one cared if they didn’t.

And email is just one facet of these expectations. How high these expectations are depends on your job, who you are, where you work, and the standards that have evolved in the group you work with. But some people are expected to be available all the time, carrying a Blackberry or other device with them, and to respond almost immediately — or they’re out of touch, or not good businesspeople. Others are expected to be available for instant messaging or Skype chats, or be on social forums or social networks such as Facebook or Twitter. Others need to follow the news of their industry closely, and constantly read updates of news sites.

Being connected all the time, being part of this constant stream of distraction, is an expectation that society now has of us. And going against that expectation is immensely difficult for many people — it requires courage, or a willingness to be an arrogant prima donna.

How did this happen? When did we opt-in to be a part of this? There was never a time when we agreed to these expectations, but they’ve evolved rapidly over the last decade or so, and now it’s hard to get out.

I’m not saying we should get out. I’m saying we need to rethink things, to change expectations so that the system suits us, not the other way around.

A Simple Question

Here’s a little exercise that might prove useful: as you read this chapter, how many times were you distracted or tempted to switch to another task?

How many times did you think of something you wanted to do, or check your email or other favorite distractions? How many times did you want to switch, but resisted? How many different things made a noise or visual distraction while you were reading? How many people tried to get your attention?

In an ideal world, the answers to all those questions would be “zero” — you’d be able to read with no distractions, and completely focus on your task. Most of us, however, have distractions coming from all sides, and the answers to this little exercise will probably prove illuminating.

Next chapter: The Importance of Finding Focus