The True Cost of Distraction

Image: Hawin Rojas

Image: Hawin Rojas

You have a limited amount of attention each day. How do you want to use it? 

Image: David Grandmougin

Image: David Grandmougin

This summer, I attended a music festival where I witnessed, first-hand, the powerful impact of that the game, Pokémon Go, has had on so many. It was late at night as I left the festival, and I found myself walking through what seemed like a Pokémon epicentre (my nephew tells me it was a PokeStop, a place where both supplies and Pokémon can be found). Slowly, I weaved my way through the throng of people staring at their screens completely engrossed in what they found there. The scene was eerie and hushed and I felt a bit like an alien visiting a new planet.

It was not long after navigating my way through the mass of Pokémon aficionados that I found myself in a full rant (to anyone who would listen, really) about our impending doom as a society as more and more sophisticated augmented reality destroyed humanity as we know it.

Feeling rather self-righteous after my passionate tirade, I continued to my car and solemnly wondered what is in store for us as a society as we become more and more removed from life as it is happening in the moment. At the same time that I was lamenting the fall of humanity,  I managed to fire off a few texts (to tell friends what I had just witnessed) and check my Facebook page and email for new messages. All within the 5 minutes it took to get to my car.

The truth is that most of us live in a culture of distraction. Whether we love to play an online game or we find ourselves checking our phones repeatedly, our own version of distraction can have a serious impact on our ability to focus deeply and effectively.  

More often than I would like to admit, I find myself caught in a pattern of repeatedly checking social media and my phone for incoming messages and interesting updates.  What starts as a simple search on Google, ends some time later with a journey to a number of random websites, and me having forgotten what I was searching for in the first place. The impact that distraction plays in our lives cannot be underestimated. Being distracted lengthens the time it takes to complete a task, increases the pressure we feel to get our actual work done, and often impedes our ability to focus deeply on the task at hand.

Most importantly, distraction takes us away from our life as it is occurring in the present moment.

It was a beautiful night as I walked to my car after the festival and I was not present for any of it. I missed the feeling of the warm air on my skin, and the look of the trees at night. I missed all of it. When I reached my car and realized how distracted I had been, I took a moment to reflect on what made my experience different than those I had just passed (and full-heartedly judged!) playing Pokémon Go. Not much. We were both missing so much.

According to David Rock in Easily Distracted: Why it is Hard to Focus and What to Do About It, there is a true cost to distraction. According to Rock, each of us has a limited supply of attention each day, and when we use up this finite amount of attention by checking our emails and texts, it can make us less effective when we need to be present, think deeply or be creative. Will Knight’s 'Info-mania' Dents IQ More Than Marijuana cites research from the University of London that shows modern workers who wade through a relentless stream of emails, texts and cellphone calls can experience a reduced IQ of 10 points which is, astonishingly, more than double than the loss experienced with marijuana use.

So, not only do distractions shrink our ability to be present in our day-to-day lives, but they inhibit our ability to be sharp and think clearly when we want to. In fact, according to Knight, the loss of mental sharpness and lack of focus experienced by repeated distractions is similar to losing a full night's sleep. 

When we consider our ability to be effective and productive in our lives, it becomes clear that being distracted by a hyper-connected and face-paced landscape can really hinder our ability to show up fully. Likening the effects of being overly distracted to pulling an all-nighter and smoking cannabis all day made me think about the impact that distraction is having in my own life. When I fall into the flow of being constantly distracted it can become much harder for me to get things done (I'll just check my phone one more time!) and definitely more challenging for me to access a deeper level of thinking or creativity when needed. As an coach, an educator and and artist, I am often relying on these deeper levels of thought and creativity to allow me to be effective at what I do. When I am distracted, it makes it much more challenging for me to be productive and efficient. This means longer stints working and less output for my effort. 

This feeling of not being able to focus when needed can lead to feelings of anxiety, stress and disconnection that can impact how satisfied we feel in our lives. Time can start to feel scarce because we are not using it effectively. 

So, what can we done about all of this distraction? 

As mentioned in, Rethinking What Productivity Looks Like, perhaps it is time we rethink what productivity should look like. 

Taking a serious look at the role that distraction plays in our day-to-day life will go a long way to helping us understand how we can create the optimal conditions for us to show up more fully in our own lives. 

Working smarter, not longer.

Learning how to be more present and focused on that task at hand can actually translate into working less. According to the OECD, Germany works an average of 26.37 hours per week compared to Canada’s 32.7. How they use their time, however, is the most impressive. When Germans are at work, they are at work. This means no time spent on Facebook, chatting about the weekend, or making private phone calls. Choosing specific times of the day to check email and text messages is not only a way to avoid unwanted distractions, it can also help to preserve our attention so we can think clearly and deeply when we need to. When not at work, Germans take their downtime seriously. Valuing a separation between work and private life means that work hours do not bleed into the evening and weekends. For many in Germany, work-related emails or phone calls do not happen after hours. Creating a firm boundary between work and private life allows Germans to be more present, and to focus in on the task at hand whether it is a meeting at work, or enjoying their time with family or friends.  In fact, being productive at work may mean working smarter, not longer. Limiting distractions so that we can be focused and on task when we need to be, and preserving our breaks as a time for recharging our batteries may be the key to get more done in less time.

Recognizing when we are distracted.

Image: Andy Tootel

Image: Andy Tootel

If you are like me, and you struggle with distraction, you likely already know that changing one's behaviour can be tough. As humans, we fall into habits and ways of being in the world that can be really challenging to change. Ever tried to stick to a new diet or exercise regime? Becoming more aware of our habits is the first step to being able to choose a different way of operating in the world. This awareness also allows us to stick to that choice once it is made. Recently, I have become more aware of the kinds of distractions I allow to infiltrate my workday. I have set a rather lofty goal of only checking my emails, texts and social media three times a day (morning, noon and after work). When I have a day where I reach this goal (which has happened a few times), I congratulate myself and take a moment to notice what this lack of distraction brought to my day (usually a feeling of being more focused and connected to what I was working on). When I have a day when I do not reach this goal (which happens more often than not, right now), I gently notice that I didn’t meet my goal, but congratulate myself for noticing. It is this gentle awareness (rather than beating myself up for failing to reach my goal) that will help my awareness to grow. As my awareness grows, I will become better able to make a different decision the next time I feel compelled to connect online.

The quest to be more present.

So, the question remains, if we only have a limited amount of attention each day, how do we want to use it? In the quest of becoming more present in our own lives, we need to raise our level of awareness of how we are using our finite amount of attention. Working smarter and creating boundaries that allow for uninterrupted focus can help us to do what we do with greater presence and efficiency.