Finding the Focus in the Age of Distraction

March 03, 2018

One of the biggest problems in a hyperconnected world we live in is a constant distraction. Usually caused by social media easily accessible on smartphones. It’s highly addictive and brings false sense of connection. It usually leads to decreased productivity, has negative effects on mental health and could even lead to symptoms of depression.

© Steve Cutts -

The Problem

Admit it or not, we all have it to some extent. The fact that you are reading this article now, means that either you or someone you care about is having this problem, or there is a high chance you just consume the content that someone shared with you. Any idiot like me can write any rubbish article and make your effort to filter quality content harder.

As the number of internet users grows, grows the number of content creators, there are a number of websites that offer user-created content of many kinds. It sounded like a good idea, it still is, one of the best examples is probably Wikipedia. But since the growth was fast, and many of us were not ready or educated to cope with all this information overload available, we started to consume whatever seemed interesting, mindlessly scroll through social media as a daily life routine, always hungry for more.

Curiosity, the hunger, thirst, desire, need for knowledge and the exploration of the unknown is built into our DNA. It came natural that we want to explore the vast of information and content that was suddenly lying under our fingertips.

Same applies to content creation. We are social beings, we love to share, and technology allowed us to be able to share like never before. What was the privilege of a few, became available to the masses. Ordinary man was suddenly able to reach millions in a heartbeat.

The addiction builds up quickly, as we discover more, we want more. It’s actually not that we want it, but it is so easy, so accessible, it’s already on our phone which makes it difficult to not access it, and already hard to resist as it quickly became daily habit without even noticing it. The industry behind social media wants more clicks, more time on site, higher conversation rates. They hire top-notch experts to achieve that. We on the other hand don’t think another 30 minutes on social media is a step towards our ideal lives, but we check our phones again, and again, and again…

© Steve Cutts -

There are many reasons for this, but one of the main is defined by our need for the smartphone as a helpful companion, it makes many traditional tasks easier (taking notes, setting up reminders, using maps for navigation, translating content…). We started being more dependent on it, it’s always there when we need it, but we also allowed it to interrupt us without our approval. If there is a notification (and there will be by default, because that’s one of the simplest tricks to increase usage), we must at least look at it and dismiss. Industry uses this possibility to drag us back, to check our phone again. And we will, we have this fear of missing things out which makes us addicted as a consequence.

The Consequences

The potential for negative effects of social media on mental health in young kids and teens is warned by the American Academy of Pediatrics 1, and they are not alone 2. The same risks may be true for adults too 3. Researches and surveys are countless, and this is becoming the hot topic worldwide. Statistical numbers also shows anxiety and depression is increasing, and social media is to blame 4.

In addition, as a natural consequence comes the lack of time for the things that are important. Spending time with the family and friends is interrupted or sacrificed by increased attention that smartphone and all the virtual world in it suddenly “deserved”. We don’t realize how expensive social media overconsumption is, try to measure it, you will be horrified when you see and deeply understand your daily habits.

I often hear people complaining about the lack of time to do important stuff, yet they spend hours each day on social media. Of course, you can do it in the train, toilet, supermarket queue … but it still creates distraction, makes you tired and less capable to focus. This means lower productivity, especially dangerous if you are a student.

Another important effect that is noticed is how social media affects the way people think. It uses the same mechanism other traditional media like television and press successfully uses for years. It messes with our ability to think independently. Think about it, we already agree with people we follow. When we post a poll on Twitter, we are asking questions to people who think and share similar values with us, we can’t expect fresh opinions about the subject, and yet that’s why we posted it.

Smartphone overuse may also increase the risk of eye damage, posture 5 and respiratory function 6.

© Kevin Lau - @klhrdesign

It’s not only about mental and physical health, privacy is at risk too. Social networks collect huge amount of consumer data, the average user spends two and a half hours daily on social media 7, and this activity reveals a great deal about them. And like that’s not enough, we share our private lives without thinking twice, it’s promoted as a lifestyle. Taking pictures of people around us and sharing them publicly goes without saying. With a little detective work, anyone can reconstruct daily behavior of average social media user, knowing when and what places he went, who were his companions, what did he do, buy, eat and so on.

Even if we care about privacy, our options are limited. We use tools that collect information, we are surrounded with people who share, we live in a hyperconnected world and lack of privacy is the price we all have to pay. If we don’t pay with money, we will pay with our data. Imagine you were born several years ago, and you realize that your entire childhood is already online, all photos, videos … without anyone asking for your permission to publish them. Am I the only one who thinks this sounds scary?

© Jean Jullien -

To finalize my thoughts on consequences, I caught myself doing wrong things, talking to other people and doing some research, I realized I’m not alone. This includes bad habits such as sharing news without reading past the headlines or sending smiley without moving my mouth.

I mean, if I’m not smiling, why am I sending that emoticon?

There is no single reason I can point my finger at, but the background for such behavior can be found in a need for simple and quick reactions. Faking a smile in real life requires acting skills to make it look real, you need to make effort. But not online, emotional reactions are cheap here.

The Solution

As you can see, the problem is not small. It is serious, and solution is not simple. I will try to sum some things that worked for me, and some that I think can work for many people. If you made it reading this far, take what follows as prescription, not an advice.

People who use computer or smartphone for work usually fall into the trap of mixing private and business emails and chats, which leads to more distraction in both, work and private life. One of the first steps here is to separate this two. This can be extremely challenging. Start by using separate email addresses, or simply postpone non urgent private emails until weekend. I love snooze email feature of Inbox.

Messaging applications are by far the most challenging to handle and number one cause of distraction. Apps like Slack, which is very popular in the business world lately can ruin team performance if used wrong. Talk to your teammates and ask them to send emails if it’s not urgent. It’s also useful to divide in smaller groups and use group mentions carefully, only when really required. Part of the responsibility is always on recipients side. Check for new messages periodically, and not too often. Snooze notifications when you want to focus.

All in all, the key of interruption management is to realize that world will not burn in flames if someone waits hour or two for our response. Of course, this is not the case if you are a fireman, your job is to react fast.

© 2wenty -

Limit your interests. By this I mean interests in following various subject online. Most timelines are full of wedding photos, delicious meals, exotic travel destinations and so on, posted by our friends. Then there are news and blogs we follow. Tech news, cryptocurrencies, fashion, architecture … depending on our interest of course. Maybe we should just care less. Who cares about new shiny iPhone with that silly notch, or if Bitcoin price went up or down, or who ate what and where. Stop that fear of missing something.

Of course we should read articles, but it’s important to find a measure, and select high quality content. I often read articles on e-reader. It helps me to think twice if it really deserves to be read. It’s not so rare that it becomes obsolete by the time I manage to get the chance to read it. And it’s easier on my eyes. I use Push to Kindle for this.

We are in control, not our device. We decide when we want want to be interrupted. Actually, there is no interruption, we consume content whenever we want to. That’s the key of being productive and stay focused. Make the phone dumber, less apps, less distraction. Try to identify what apps are really needed and keep their number minimal. You can go step further and buy Light Phone, Nokia 3310 or NoPhone and enjoy unlimited battery life.

Tech companies are adding internet connections to just about everything you can imagine. Watches, thermostats, mosquito zappers, coffee makers… It’s meant to make our lives easier, but does it really do? A normal wristwatch is designed to accomplish a simple task extremely well. It’s superior at one crucial task - telling the time. Smart watch screen wakes up when you tilt your wrist at an angle to save battery life, not very handy while riding a bicycle. Don’t get me started on distractions when you have another source of notifications you need to handle.

© Jean Jullien -

Back to smartphones, I for example, disable all notifications except phone calls. It wasn’t always that way. Few years ago I break phone display and got it replaced. The process took two days. I was without my phone for the first time after several years of slavery. The feeling was fenomenal! A true revelation, everyone should try it. During the night, do not disturb mode is on, probably one of the most useful features.

For people who have problems cutting or limiting time spent on distracting apps and websites, Freedom blocker can be useful. You can for example choose to schedule blocking of social media during working hours and boost your productivity that way. For higher levels of addition, there is also a locked mode.

Finally, it’s up to you to identify priorities and severity of the problem. I think we are all dealing with this issue at some degree. As a web developer, I often find challenging to stay productive in day to day work. With all that internet has to offer, focusing on work is like trying to read a book in the strip club.

I’d like to hear other stories too. How do you manage distraction and tech overdose?