This is the seventeenth post in a series on productivity1. The articles are based on content from a workshop I led at The Makers Summit.
It seems there are an increasing number of people raising concerns about the mental consequences that digital devices have on us, specifically our attention spans and ability to maintain focus. I’ve written about this before2:
Whether it’s an email notification or a habit of checking Twitter in the middle of a hard task that taxes your mind, each time we entertain a distraction it guts our productivity in a way that’s hard to perceive experientially. Quite literally, hours of focused work can slip away from us and we don’t notice (except for not feeling productive or wishing we’d accomplished more).
Articles I’ve seen recently, though, go beyond decreased productivity and flirt with clinical diagnoses. Here’s an example from the podcast Note To Self, from an episode called, Yes, You’re Distracted. Is it ADHD?3
You pick up your phone to send an email. You see a notification for a text message. All of a sudden, you’re on Instagram debating whether or not to like an old high school classmate’s engagement picture, Pinterest-ing the photographer (aww, PUPPY!), and contemplating the ice cream options within range. An hour later, you realize you forgot to send your email. You pick up your phone again. Rinse, repeat.
For most of us, it’s normal. For some of us — including Cynan Clucas, whom we spoke with for this week’s episode — it’s a sign of adult onset ADHD, and it’s a problem that’s only exacerbated by tech.
Here’s an excerpt from the introduction to a Quartz article titled, Researchers say using your smartphone excessively gives you faux-ADHD4:
Anecdotal evidence suggests that this pervasiveness of smartphones is making us increasingly distracted and hyperactive. These presumed symptoms of constant digital stimulation also happen to characterize a well-known neurodevelopmental disorder: Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD. Could the pinging and dinging of our smartphones be afflicting even those of us not suffering from ADHD with some of that condition’s symptoms?
Without directly naming smartphones as a cause of ADHD (understandably), the article concludes with a tone of concern:
As with all disorders, symptoms of ADHD form a continuum from the normal to the pathological. Our findings suggest that our incessant digital stimulation is contributing to an increasingly problematic deficit of attention in modern society.
Are digital distractions really the problem?
Headlines like the ones I mentioned above, while rightly concerning, also tempt us to apply an over-simplified solution to a very complex issue. There’s no doubt that digital distractions affect us, but are they the real source of the problem?
Blaise Pascal, a mathematician and philosopher who lived in the 17th century, offered brilliant commentary on this issue in a single sentence5:
All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.
—Blaise Pascal, Pensées
Looking even further back in history, ancient literature also discusses the concept of finding excuses to keep us from the strain of focused work (which is a necessary component of productivity):
The sluggard says, “There is a lion in the road! There is a lion in the streets!”
—Proverbs 26:13, Bible
Modern studies seem to confirm historical conclusions. In November 2014 , Scientific American published an article titled People Prefer Electric Shocks to Tedium. The author cites several studies conducted about people’s ability to sit alone quietly with nothing to do. In one study, people were given the option to either sit quietly or press a button and give themselves an electric shock. A surprising number of people actually chose to shock themselves6:
In their 15 minutes of solitude, 67 percent of the men and 25 percent of the women chose to shock themselves instead of simply sitting quietly.
It would seem, then, that the source of distractedness is much deeper than digital devices.
One of the best analyses I’ve read
Michael Sacasas, an author who I’ve cited many times before, offers some of the best commentary on this subject that I’ve found—and he agrees that the problems mentioned in the articles above are “symptoms of a deeper disorder.”
Below is an excerpt from one of his posts titled Attention and the Moral Life, which provides helpful insight. Sacasas also references Pascal, along with several other thinkers on the matter. The full post is worthy of your attention7.
We are now inevitably within the orbit of Blaise Pascal’s analysis of the restlessness of the human condition. Because we are not at peace with ourselves or our world, we crave distraction or what he called diversions. “What people want,” Pascal insists, “is not the easy peaceful life that allows us to think of our unhappy condition, nor the dangers of war, nor the burdens of office, but the agitation that takes our mind off it and diverts us.” “Nothing could be more wretched,” Pascal added, “than to be intolerably depressed as soon as one is reduced to introspection with no means of diversion.”
The novelist Walker Percy, a younger contemporary of both Arendt and Pieper, described what we called the “diverted self” as follows: “In a free and affluent society, the self is free to divert itself endlessly from itself. It works in order to enjoy the diversions that the fruit of one’s labor can purchase.” For the diverted self, Percy concluded, “The pursuit of happiness becomes the pursuit of diversion.”
If leisure is a condition of the soul as Pieper would have it, then might we also say the same of distraction? Discreet instances of being distracted, of failing to meaningfully direct our attention, would then be symptoms of a deeper disorder. Our digital devices, in this framing of distraction, are both a material cause and an effect. The absence of digital devices would not cure us of the underlying distractedness or aimlessness, but their presence preys upon, exacerbates, and amplifies this inner distractedness.
Our human condition and mental muscle
Sacasas rightly names the source of distractedness: “the restlessness of the human condition.” Distractedness isn’t a problem with our smartphones, it’s a problem with us, and our digital devices happen to provide an ever-present, seemingly infinite, seemingly frictionless flow for us to be carried away in.
The true antidote to our distracted human condition isn’t reactive, meaning that efforts like quitting social media, as Cal Newport recently suggested, will fix the problem. Reducing exposure to the things that ‘prey upon and exacerbate’ distractedness will certainly help, but it’s the hard work of building mental muscle in the form of focused attention that will reverse the effects of eroding attention spans and fortify our minds in a world engineered for distraction (both of which I’ve written about and made practical suggestions for previously in this series8).
Post Script for the philosophically inclined
Because this series focuses on productivity, I debated on whether to include this one last thought, which I find fascinating. I decided to ad it as a Post Script for the benefit of those who wanted a bit of philosophy to chew on.
Towards the end of Sacasas article, Attention and the Moral Life, he mentions Simone Weil’s comparison of attention to prayer and how that attention is the correct way to “cure our faults.” Here’s the excerpt:
Ultimately, Weil understood attention to be a critical component of the religious life as well. “Attention, taken to its highest degree,” Weil wrote, “is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love.” “If we turn our mind toward the good,” she added, “it is impossible that little by little the whole soul will not be attracted thereto in spite of itself.” And this is because, in her view, “We have to try to cure our faults by attention and not by will.”
No matter your religious proclivities, the idea that addressing our human condition is accomplished through attention and not the will provides more than enough food for thought—which is, perhaps, a great opportunity build some mental muscle in itself.
1. You can read the story behind this blog series and find links to all of the resources here.2. You can read my article about focus, titled, Productivity Requires Harnessing Focus, here.3. You can read the full description of the Note To Self podcast episode (and listen to it) on the WNYC website.4. You can read the full Quartz article about “faux-ADHD” on their website.5. You can buy Pascal's Pensées on Amazon.6. You can read the full Scientific American article about people shocking themselves (as opposed to sitting quietly) on their website.7. You can Michael Sacasas' article, Attention and the Moral Life, on his website, The Frailest Thing.8. You can read my post about harnessing focus here and the one about living in a distracted world here.