I am confident that everybody has this app on his or her phone that is simply irresistible. Each time a new notification pops up, you feel the urge to check it immediately and then end up spending the next 30 minutes on this app, unaware of how time is passing. Apple reported in 2016 that the average iPhone user picks up his/her phone 80 times per day; another study found that people touch their phones about 2600 times per day. Oxford dictionary defines distraction as "a thing that prevents someone from concentration on something else". In this post, I am mainly referring to "things" as being your tech devices, apps and services you use, but also media platforms and online content, since these are the most prominent, powerful sources of distractions. To understand why we are so prone to be distracted, we need to go way back in time and understand the human brain.
As our ancestors have evolved as hunter-gatherers, the fact that they acted quickly and intuitively on presented cues has kept them safe from danger. Distraction was an essential means for safety (check the flash in your periphery, it might be a stalking tiger!). We also loved these unpredictable rewards that kept us hunting and gathering when we came home empty-handed. For over 200'000 years, this was the default situation, and our brains hard-wired themselves to be easily distracted. For 99% of these years, nothing considerably changed. It has only been throughout the last centuries that things went wild: We switched to fuel, mastered steam and electricity, build factories, invented the Internet, and designed the smartphone. Our brains are still built for one world, but we have to actively keep up with a very different one. It is not surprising that we love Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, Youtube, etc.-it is literally in our DNA.
Being distracted is easy, and acting upon these distractions is often the easiest thing to do. Our brains are lazy: they want to do as many things on autopilot, without giving them conscious thought. Most people, when they see 17x21, do not stop and solve this math problem, although I suspect that most people could solve it within a few minutes. Instead, you simply continue reading this sentence because it is easier to do (right?). This is the brain's principle of least resistance: You need clear motivation and feedback to not fall back on the easiest behavior. Grabbing your smartphone and checking Facebook is not very demanding and therefore, when presented with the right trigger (e.g. notification), is a tempting behavior you often cannot resist.
Today, other factors come into play as well. A majority of the apps and services that are particularly distracting address one of our basic psychological human needs, such as relatedness, autonomy, or competence. You check Instagram to feel connected to your friends, research news as it makes you feel autonomous and check the stocks app because being able to check your financial investments at a fingertip makes you feel competent. Studies have shown that we are more prone to checking social media when we feel sad or lonely. Unfortunately, according to the WHO (World Health Organization), depression and other mental health conditions are on the rise globally. Today we are both as connected through such services, as we are lonely and vulnerable to depression in real life. Being distracted often gives us this instant feeling of relatedness, autonomy, or competence, making us feel better for a tiny amount of time. However, it can ultimately negatively affect your health.
Then, there is another powerful force making us vulnerable to distractions: Distraction is a business. Many of the biggest companies make their money by keeping us engaged and active on their platforms. They have introduced a race for our time and attention, and competition is becoming tougher each year. Technology is advancing rapidly, and its possibilities to take hold of our time are expanding. As Nir Eyal illustrates vividly in his book "Hooked", these companies have, over time, mastered a framework for how to distract us: one that directly addresses how our brains are wired. Without us consciously realizing it, these apps and services use the hunter-gatherer principles of our brains to implement them into their services, often with the simple goal of making money. This is not only the case in the tech industry but also in the news media for example. They, too, harness the fact that our brains react more intensely to fear and negative emotions by showing us a vast majority of such clickbait stories to keep us interested, often without considering its implications on our health, time, or other resources.
Let me start by saying that not all kinds of distractions are undesirable, in every situation. Sometimes, it is still important to act quickly on cues, because they demand a fast response. These kinds of distractions, however, only represent a tiny fraction of what you are really being distracted by. If you are using potentially distractive services intentionally on the quest for cognitively easy activities or information, they can be enjoyable. But in these situations, we are also no longer talking about them being distractions.
Most people express at least some interest in minimizing distractions- reducing their phone usage, social media consumption, advertisement, or news exposure. If you think you are okay with being distracted as much as you are, I argue that you have not yet experienced the power of controlling distractions; the power of taking back your time and filling it with more meaning. In the unlikely case of you thinking that you are not being distracted, you are simply not aware of it. A lot of distractions slip through to our minds without being consciously processed (such as moving cars outside the window for example). All of us are to some extend being successfully distracted, there is no doubt about that. In the following sections, I will give my personal three reasons why I think we should at least try to control distractions.
Each day, you only have a finite amount of attention at your disposal. At some point throughout the day, you will realize that you have difficulties focusing, get things done, or even keep up an interesting conversation. It is what you do with that attention that will determine the quality of your day. You can either spend it on meaningful tasks or on distracting meaningless things, that will later make you feel bad. The average person spends about 4 hours on his or her smartphone every day, which, added with the 4 average hours that Americans spend watching TV every day, makes distraction a full-time job. When distraction is a full-time job already, how can we possibly focus our limited resources on things that truly bring us value? Distractions go at the expense of the attention you devote to conversation partners, long- and short-term goals, your actual job, and much more. Just think about the last conversation you had with someone while absently gazing on your phone: How much do you remember about that conversation? How engaged have you been in it? I am not saying that you can't do meaningful things with the help of your tech devices. They give us true superpowers by being able to send photos and videos in real-time, to help us increase our fitness or navigate through unknown places, etc. But you should be aware of the unintentional attention they appropriate from you as the result of distractions.
Distractions not only rob your attention but also take hold of your time. If you have read my first blog post, you know that attention and time are closely related because spending your attention on unfruitful things wastes time you could spend on things that matter -and time is your most precious asset. It sounds obvious that if you engage (like the average American) in 4 hours watching TV every day, you cannot simultaneously progress with a project that is close to your heart or invest this time into a relationship. You might now think that you can very well work on a project while having the TV run in the back, or by sometimes checking your phone in between project work. Unfortunately, that is not the case. The first reason why distractions rob your time is because multitasking is a myth. Even when you think that you are successfully multitasking, what you are doing, in reality, is going back and forth between activities quickly, doing none of the activities effectively. By focusing on one activity at a time, you will be able to get both done in less time (1). The second one is that even when you are not attending to distractions, you are still being unconsciously distracted and performance on the current task goes down. I have talked about this before: Even when you think you are not paying attention to the TV in the background, you are being subconsciously distracted by it. Another reason is that switching back and forth between things (such as between your phone and a work task) comes with a switching cost of attention and time. Studies have shown that even after a short distraction, your brain needs about 15 minutes to fully reconcentrate and load task-related content back into the mind. This phenomenon is called attention residue; you leave some of your attention at the last task, even after switching. As my last reason, deep work is not possible in an environment where distractions are frequent. Deep work is a stretch of professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that pushes your cognitive capabilities to their limits. According to Cal Newport, deep work is the way to get things done effectively and is a skill that is becoming both increasingly rare (because of our distractive world) but also increasingly valuable. As soon as you are breaking this deep work stretch with distractions, it becomes a vicious circle. The perceptual load theory tells us that the more you let yourself be distracted, the less you engage in your task. At the same time, the less you are engaged in a task, the likelier it is that you are falling for distractions. By now, I hope it has become clear that distractions take hold of your, mine, and everyone's most precious asset that could be spent on meaningful things instead.
Distractions can have a negative influence on your mental (and physical) health. By spending more time in distracted states, we tend to feel more guilty, be less happy, and associate our lives with less meaning. To examine how we feel while distracted, we need to go back to why we are so prone to distractions. Distractions can attract us because we think it satisfies one of our basic psychological needs. While they often bring us a brief moment of joy (by answering a friend to satisfy our need for relatedness for example), it quickly transforms into a feeling of guilt and stress. Boredom is another precondition for spending time on distractive services. In the beginning, it might again satisfy some of our needs or entertain us, but after a while, we tend to feel lousy about spending our time this way. Since the content of these services is carefully designed to keep our brains engaged, it often comes in the form of fear-inducing or narrative stories that we can empathize with. With the rise of Artificial Intelligence and content personalization, distractions like these will become tougher and tougher to avoid. Social media, in particular, is presenting us day-to-day with success stories from other people, making these people's lives look like they were so much better than ours. While this is obviously far from the truth, it inevitably makes us feel awful about our own lives and affects our mental health. Another reason why distractions make us feel bad is that (while the distractions themselves provide us with short satisfactions of autonomy) the principle of distractions actually disrupts our basic need for autonomy. The services and their addictive ways to keep us engaged can make us feel like we do not have control over our behavior.
The more you have been distracted throughout the day, the worse is your impression of the quality of that day, and by extension, your feelings about it. You were less productive, wasted more time, had less attentive conversations, and did not make good progress towards your goals. But there is hope to counteract how our brains are wired and to outplay the companies' tactics that keep you distracted. In my next blog post, I will be writing about how I try to effectively reduce distractions in my life.
Cal Newport. Deep Work. 2016
Winifred Gallagher. Rapt: Attention and the focused life. 2009
Nir Eyal. Hooked. 2013
Nir Eyal. Indistractable. 2019
Jake Knapp & John Zeratsky. Make time. 2018
Daniel Kahnemann. Thinking Fast and Slow. 2011