Managing Distraction in the Digital Era

Managing Distractions in the Digital Era
Great Leadership by Dan, Amy Blankson
June 8, 2017

In 2013, the National Center for Biotechnology Information reported that the average attention span of a human has dropped to a mere eight seconds, one second behind that of a goldfish. Why does this matter? Distraction in the digital era has become an epidemic, robbing us of our focus, decreasing our productivity and hindering our overall life satisfaction. Our jobs today are “interrupt-driven,” with distractions not just a plague on our work—sometimes they can mean the difference between success and failure.

According to Cyrus Foroughi, a doctoral student at George Mason University one minute of distraction is more than enough to wipe your short-term memory. An interruption as short as 2.8 seconds (the length of time it takes to read a short text message) can double error rates on simple sequencing tasks and a 4.4 second interruption can triple error rates.  Linda Stone, a software executive who has worked for both Apple and Microsoft, explains that we are so busy keeping tabs on everything that we never focus on anything, a phenomenon she calls “continuous partial attention.”

Instead, messages undiscerningly bombard us, with the senders rationalizing that we can choose when and where to open a message. A recent survey of smartphone users found that:

As New York Times Magazine’s Clive Thompson writes, “Information is no longer a scarce resource—attention is.” In this Digital Era where work/home/play are blended together, we may not always have a choice about our work schedules or our work priorities; however, there are powerful things that we can do to regain a sense of control about our happiness at work.

5 Happy Hacks to Get You Started:

  1. Unplug strategically. In the Digital Era, most employers expect employees to be plugged in via email, phone, text, instant message, or all the above. This constant barrage of communication can be incredibly frustrating, if not counterproductive. While completely unplugging from email or phone may not be realistic in today’s working world, stepping away from technology, even briefly, can increase your focus, which leads to a 57 percent increase in more effective collaboration, an 88 percent increase in learning effectiveness, and a 42 percent increase in socializing effectiveness. If you can’t step away from technology completely during work, consider limiting how often you check email.  A recent study found that individuals who limited their frequency of checking email to three times a day experienced significantly lower daily stress, which in turn predicted higher well-being on a diverse range of well-being outcomes.
  2. Know your stats. The average person checks his phone 150 times every day. If every distraction took only one minute (a seriously optimistic estimate), that would account for 2.5 hours of distraction every day. That’s 912.5 hours a year, or roughly thirty-eight days each year. Knowing your stats increases your awareness so that you can make proactive choices about how you spend your time and energy. Download the Unplugged app to see how many times you turn on your phone each day and how you are using your time.
  3. Tell others what you are really doing.  When you need to step away from technology to focus, set a short-term auto-responder explaining what you are really doing and when you will be back (i.e., I’m stepping away from my email to finish this project. I’ll be back in one hour). This small gesture communicates to others that you value them, but you also value your work (of course this only works if you are actually using your time productively). If you worry about how such a message will be perceived, fear not. Many employers are actually thrilled that you want to focus more (and even inspired by your initiative to communicate this because they secretly want to do the same thing).
  4. Hide your phone. We have become joined at the hip with our phones—afraid to step back from this electronic umbilical cord for fear that someone might need us for something.  However, recent research shows that the mere presence of a cellphone can decrease your productivity and attention on cognitively demanding tasks.  Chances are that seeing every text message, email, or social media alert as it comes in won’t make you more productive, and it certainly won’t make you happier. To focus on your work, move your cellphone out of your line of sight (put it in your bag, behind your computer screen, or in a drawer); if that’s not possible, at the very least, turn off nonessential notifications. You also can get noise-canceling headphones to help you focus.
  5. Use the “Really?!” Rule.  When you find yourself tempted to use technology to zone out at work for a bit, stop and ask yourself: Does this tech truly make me happier and/or more productive? For instance, does taking my phone to the break room really rejuvenate your mind or does it prevent you from connecting with your colleagues? A recent study of 450 workers in Korea found that individuals who took a short work break without their cellphones felt more vigor and less emotional exhaustion than individuals who toted their cellphones along with them on their breaks, regardless of whether they actually used the phone! If you find yourself using tech to zone out rather than to tune in, try to shift your behavior to use your time in a way that will genuinely fuel your long-term happiness and productivity.

By practicing these happy hacks in your life, you can learn to manage distraction in the digital era and set yourself up for a future of greater happiness and well-being in the long run.


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