Is the world more distracting than it used to be? It certainly seems that way. Not just when we’re walking down the street, but at work, and with our families and friends as well. Have you ever sat down at your desk to do some important work, but found yourself unable to escape email or Slack long enough to focus on the important task you said you wanted to do? Who is to blame for this distraction crisis? Is tech doing it to us? In this engaging talk from #mtpcon San Francisco, Nir Eyal tackles distraction.
Distraction might appear more available than ever, but it’s actually nothing new. Over 2,000 years ago, Socrates and Aristotle debated the nature of “akrasia,” (pronounced uh-crazy-uh), our tendency to act against our better judgement. To the ancient Greeks, mere mortals were prone to distraction due to our weakness of will. Easy for them to say — Socrates and Aristotle never had to resist binge-watching “Silicon Valley”.
Researchers tell us that attention and focus are the raw materials of human creativity and flourishing. In an age of increased automation, the only jobs machines can’t do are the ones that require creative problem solving and the kind of human creativity that only comes from focusing deeply on the task at hand. So being “Indistractible” will be the key skill we all need in the next century.
Why do we do Things Against our own Best Judgement?
If distraction is doing things we don’t really want to do, its opposite would be traction, the things we DO want to do. It’s interesting that both words come from the same latin root, and both end in the word “action” – reminding us that both traction and distraction are things we do, not things that happen to us. But that’s not how most people think of a distraction. Most of us think that when that app notification pops up it distracts us – but it’s not the technology distracting us, it’s simply an external trigger which prompts us with some kind of stimulus in our environment. What we do in response to that external trigger is either what we want to do – traction – or what we don’t want to do – distraction. There’s also another kind of trigger, which in many ways is more important – internal triggers. The same homeostatic response we have to physical discomfort applies to our psychological pain as well, so when we feel uncomfortable emotions like fear, boredom, and loneliness we have all kinds of solutions we turn to to make these uncomfortable sensations in our heads go away, from Facebook, to Google, to Reddit.
This means we’re never going to stop becoming distracted if we don’t fundamentally understand what discomfort we’re trying to escape.
How Workplace Technology Drives us Crazy
Consider the technology you use at work. Is it really email or Slack you’re addicted to? The real problem is the source of the discomfort we’re trying to escape. In many organisations there’s a cultural norm that people should be connected and always available via their devices. This expectation reduces people’s control over their time – you’re plugged in whether you like it or not and if you want to work here you really have no choice. And the expectation perpetuates the cycle as the culture continues to permeate and solidify. Every new technology in the hands of a sick workplace culture like this, strengthens this toxic cycle. And by causing increasing expectation while decreasing control, we’re causing more of the internal triggers we seek to escape.
Work Hard and go Home
So the problem isn’t technology per se. Slack, whom many would blame for distraction in their workplace, don’t allow this culture in their company. Emblazoned on their office walls is the slogan “Work hard and go home”. Changing your workplace culture starts with understanding that distraction is a symptom, and opening up a conversation about how to handle it. Try new norms in small group around how team members interact with each other and technology. A host of companies are experimenting with new ways to manage tech use because study after study has shown huge benefits from changing away from an “always-on” culture.
Fix the Source or Learn to Cope
For the other uncomfortable sensations we seek to escape, like boredom, uncertainty, loneliness in our lives, we can either fix the source of the discomfort or learn to cope. That is, where we can fix the problems causing us emotional discomfort, we should. But some sources of discomfort, like a crappy work culture or other life circumstances, are harder to change and take time, so we have to learn tactics to cope. We have to manage our internal triggers first or we’ll always find a distraction. If it’s not email or Facebook, it’ll be something else.
Next, let’s find ways to get more traction in our day, more time spent doing the things we want to do. The best way to figuring out what you really want, to know what is traction and what is distraction for you, is to plan ahead. You can’t call something a “distraction” unless you know what it’s distracting you from. If you don’t plan your time, someone else will. Your kids, your boss, the TV, Facebook, something is going to eat up that time unless you decide what you’re going to do with it. Once you know what you’re going to do with it, everything other than that action, instantly becomes distraction.
Make Time for Traction
As we all know from product development there’s no use trying to plan our output – we’re just not good at estimating work. However, the one thing we can control is our time, and by planning time for traction, we ensure we have the time to do the task.
Next, we need to get rid of low-value work. A study in HBR found that 41% of the average knowledge workers’ time is spend on “low-value work” tasks they didn’t have to do, so we need to be militant about offloading low-value work. The good news is, there are many new technologies that make this easier than ever, from virtual assistants, to artificial intelligence calendars.
Finally, we need to spend less time messaging. We can’t make time for traction if our day is spent on email and Slack instead of doing the kind of work that requires concentration to get our jobs done. Studies show that you’re probably spending 3.5 hours on messaging every day, and two hours in meetings. That leaves only 1.5 hours for everything else…
Which is why we need to be better at managing external triggers – whether it’s carving out focus time for ourselves, changing our notification settings, or simply leaving our devices outside meetings.
This is not a Super Power
Studies show the #1 determinate of whether someone can change their behavior is their belief in their own power to change. So by calling technology addictive and irresistible we are giving it more power and credit than it deserves. While the technology certainly plays a role, it’s not the real cause of our distraction and there’s so much we can do to put it in its place. We all have the power to be Indistractable.