This is the ninth post in a series on productivity1. The articles are based on content from a workshop I led at The Makers Summit.
Much of this material is taken from a post I wrote in a different series.2
I believe that the number one killer of productivity for most people is distraction. That may sound like a self-evident statement, but the actual mechanics of distraction, as well as expectations of ‘normal’ behavior in our society, are subtle enough that many of us don’t actually feel distraction when it’s happening—and might not even label it as such.
Like it or not, we live in a world where the battle for our attention is more fierce than ever. Don’t worry, I’m not going to lament the loss of simpler life in times past or say that Twitter is ruining our brains—there are much smarter people who have explored the complexity of distraction and the decline of attention spans3.
I also don’t need scientific studies to feel constant tugging at my attention from a hundred different directions. Some of that is simply life: managing home, work, relationships and more can be complicated. Distractions don’t have to be digital—this is a human condition no matter what the circumstance or context.
In this post, though, I’m going to primarily discuss distractions of a more digital nature, for most of us find ourselves swimming in the infinite sea of the web, accessible—and actively communicating with us—through a small device in our pocket.
Two major issues affecting distraction in a digital world are volume and access—more consumable content is being produced now than ever before in the history of the world and accessing it is becoming easier for larger numbers of people every day. It’s not that distraction didn’t exist before, it’s that now there are more options which are easier to get to.
Interruptions are much more costly than we think
Digital interruptions are a normal part of our life. From email to text messages to tweets, many of the applications we use default to alerting us when something new has happened.
While this seems harmless, many people don’t realize how much time debt interrupting your focus actually creates. That debt can severely affect your work.
Studies show that interruptions decrease the quality of our work, in some cases significantly enough to turn a B student into a failing student4. Even more interesting, though, is the amount of actual time distractions and interruptions cost us. Research shows that while interrupted work is often picked back up the same day, the average amount of time it takes to get back on track is 23 minutes and 15 seconds5.
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).
We’re doing something, which can feel like progress, but in many cases we are removing our focus from the task that needs it most. That experience can be a false positive, of sorts.
From keeping up to excuses for escape
It’s worth stopping for a moment to discuss social expectations. Here’s a fascinating quote from Evgeny Morozov (courtesy of Michael Sacasas)6.
In “On What We Can Not Do,” a short and pungent essay published a few years ago, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben outlined two ways in which power operates today. There’s the conventional type that seeks to limit our potential for self-development by restricting material resources and banning certain behaviors. But there’s also a subtler, more insidious type, which limits not what we can do but what we can not do. What’s at stake here is not so much our ability to do things but our capacity not to make use of that very ability.
While each of us can still choose not to be on Facebook, have a credit history or build a presence online, can we really afford not to do any of those things today? It was acceptable not to have a cellphone when most people didn’t have them; today, when almost everybody does and when our phone habits can even be used to assess whether we qualify for a loan, such acts of refusal border on the impossible.
For many of us, there’s a social impetus for keeping track of breaking news, staying up to date on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram (or whatever tools you use) and even the act of having/trying/experiencing the latest thing/app/service.
As I’ve said before, none of those things are inherently bad, or, by the same token, inherently valuable. And we aren’t required to use them, at least formally.
The interesting characteristic of many of our tools, though, is that there are very real social (and sometimes business) consequences for people who don’t engage in them. No one likes to feel left out or feel like they are behind. As the quote above says, acts of refusal “border on the impossible” for many people. (At some point I’ll write a post about the necessity of Instagram as a business tool for my wife’s floral design company.)
In my experience, those socially enforced expectations set the stage for justifying the use of technology as a form escape. For example, when I feel boredom setting in, I react by checking Twitter or email. In my case, both relate mostly to work and therefore feel like some form of “productivity.” Non-work-related social tools become an antidote to boredom or hard mental work and I use them in the context of reacting more often than not. Again, the tools aren’t bad; the underlying issue is that I’ve begun to use them as a means of escape as opposed to communication tools.
The up-to-the-minute delivery and consumption format of many of the tools we use exacerbates the justification. Any amount of time un-engaged means that mountains of information are potentially (or actually) passing us by.
An inherent conflict of interest
Beyond the social pressures we experience, another element that complicates distraction is the fact that many times we use the same tools for both socialization and business. I know people who make a significant portion of their livelihood through Instagram. Some businesses in some industries make using such types of tools virtually mandatory—we all must go to where our audience is, after all. Even if we access a social tool to do business, we can easily let ourselves be swept away in a flood of updates from every possible context.
No matter the medium, the seemingly inevitable convergence of the tools we use for business and social connection means one thing as far as productivity: discipline. Many of us aren’t afforded the simplicity of leaving paper and pen at work and entering a world completely disconnected from it at home—we have to do the work of drawing those lines ourselves.
This and the other factors mentioned above make fighting distraction difficult.
At the end of the day the question I need to ask myself is: “Am I using interacting with the tools I use with purpose—using my limited hours intentionally—or am I living in a state of reaction and allowing distractions to dictate my time (even when it doesn’t necessarily feel like it)?”
In a previous article I said:7
Each day I’m faced with more to do than can possibly be done, both at home and at work. Without a belief system to guide where and how I use the precious, limited number hours I’ve been given, I will inevitably waste them on things that do not move me closer to where I want to be. That would’t mean catastrophic disaster (and might be OK for some people), but I won’t be satisfied with a life where I had the potential to do great things and settled for less.
That goes for distraction too—many times I’m settling for less without even feeling it. If we are to be as productive as we’d like, recognizing and battling distraction is paramount.
1. You can read the story behind this blog series and find links to all of the resources here.2. You can read the original post on distraction here.3. Here are a slew of articles on the subject: Wired on Digital Overload, Nicholas Carr on The Web Shattering Focus, the Telegraph on our attentions span decreasing to only 5 minutes, the Wall Street Journal on ending the age of inattention and the Washington Times on how TV rewires children's brains.4. You can read the New York Times article about distraction and the quality of work here.5. Read the Fast Company article about the time costs of interruption and task switching here.6. Read the entire post, The Political Perils of Big Data, on Sacasas' blog.7. You can read my post called, “Values, Beliefs and Precious Hours,” here.