A Culture of Distraction

by Francisco Saez

This chapter is a free excerpt from The Pursuit of Mastery.

June 25, 2012

“We are lonely but fearful of intimacy. Digital connections offer the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. We expect more from technology and less from each other.”

—Dr. Sherry Turkle, sociologist


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June 25, 2012

“We are lonely but fearful of intimacy. Digital connections offer the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. We expect more from technology and less from each other.”

—Dr. Sherry Turkle, sociologist

This weekend I read a very interesting article by Joe Kraus on how modern technology is impacting—not always in a positive way—our productivity and relationships with others. Specifically, smartphones are imposing a way of life that is a constant distraction.

This commercial is quite illustrative of what I’m talking about (as well as funny):

Watch: Funny Smartphone Addicts Commercial

Emails, notifications, tweets, apps, texts, calls . . . We are getting more and more accustomed to jumping from task to task every few minutes and we find it increasingly difficult to stay concentrated on a single task for a long time. Attention is something that must be trained, and this constant blast of interruptions produces the opposite effect. It impairs our ability to concentrate.

Of course, this has a number of negative consequences:

  • Our creativity decreases. When we have a bit of free time, which our brain could use for thinking, analyzing problems, and finding solutions, we prefer to check our email or watch what’s going on at Twitter. We access the Internet 27 times a day, on average.
  • Our efficiency decreases. The act of moving our attention from one thing to another rapidly makes us 40% less efficient in what we are doing. Besides losing precious time, we are more prone to make mistakes and complete our projects with a lower level of quality than we should.
  • Our productivity decreases. Multi-tasking does not exist. Although it may seem possible, our brain is not able to focus on two tasks at the same time. At best, it can shift its attention from one task to another very quickly. The more you train your brain to do this, the less ability to concentrate on getting things done you have. No matter how good you are organizing your GTD system, distractions will cause you to fail miserably in the doing stage.
  • Our relationships with others get worse. Distractions caused by forces in our lives like smartphones decrease our ability to function with basic levels of etiquette. By looking incessantly at our smartphone while we are having a conversation with someone, we are transmitting to that person that any little activity on our phone is more important than her conversation and presence.

It is really hard not to pay attention to a new stimulus. When the phone sounds because someone has posted a comment on our Facebook wall, how can we resist? If we receive a new email, most of us already understand that it will probably be spam or, if  we’re lucky, something we can read and reply to later. In fact, there is little chance that it’s something urgent. But there is always that possibility, and many times, this is what compels us to look at it now.

Smartphones (and tablets) are amazing devices that allow us to do many things that were unthinkable only few years ago. And since they are in our pockets all the time, they have also become a sort of lifestyle.

Let’s learn to take advantage of the benefits of technology while learning to discard the drawbacks of addiction. It is worrying that young people today receive and send between 3000 and 4000 text messages per month. I don’t think it’s necessary or good to be interrupted like this every seven minutes.

In the article I mentioned above, the author suggests some exercises to nurture our ability to concentrate, such as disconnecting totally from time to time, slowing down the pace of life, and practicing exercises that require certain types of concentration for a certain duration.

I also suggest that you disable all the notifications generated by your smartphone, tablet, email, and social networks. Instead of being interrupted by every single piece of bullshit that enters your various networks, establish and set aside two or three moments in your day to check your email, your feeds, your Twitter timeline, and all the rest.

Are you still worried that you might miss something important? No way. If something is really urgent, someone will know how to contact you.

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