Distractions in a digital world
Digital overload is a problem that defines today’s workplace: the challenge of concentrating on a piece of work whilst being bombarded with a constant stream of email alerts and notifications is an all-too-familiar feeling. And that’s without the easy temptation of online procrastination thrown into the mix - digital distractions are never more than a click away. Institute of Psychiatry researchers have found persistent distractions to have a profound effect, reporting that people who were constantly distracted by emails and phone alerts saw a 10-point fall in IQ over time. In a world where our most precious resource is our attention, experts have begun to shed light on how our devices are putting a strain on our ability to focus.
Nir Eyal, productivity expert and author of ‘Indistractable’, says digital distractions are an unhealthy escape from an often-uncomfortable reality (the daunting prospect of writing a report you’ve been putting off, for example). It’s the discomfort we feel when faced with a demanding task that precedes a distraction. Perhaps it’s the feeling of dread you experience before starting a piece of work that leads you to scroll through the morning news headlines “just for a minute”. Eyal explains that our susceptibility to digital distractions is a side-effect of our ‘always-on’ culture: we have a hyper-connected relationship with our devices, and it’s the norm that we can instantly reply to emails and phone-calls, and access endless online content.
But becoming distracted by an email or social media notification might not be the crux of the problem: it is the post-distraction period – how long it takes to refocus on a task - which causes setbacks to our productivity. The length of time it takes to refocus on a task after a distraction has been subject to debate, but the latest research by the University of California found that it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to refocus on a task (so 30 seconds to check Facebook isn’t just 30 seconds down the drain). On average, we experience a distraction every 8 minutes, and with a 9-5 job, this could lead to hours everyday spent in a refocusing limbo.
This doesn’t only lead to lost time: a Kent State University study found that we are more prone to performance and accuracy errors (especially during demanding tasks) in the refocusing period, because digital distractions increase our minds’ tendency to wander. We could be sacrificing some of our best, most concentrated thinking.
But whilst distractions can derail our concentration, pulling yourself away from work once in a while for focused, deliberate breaks is crucial. Experts recommend setting aside uninterrupted focusing blocks in which we limit our use of devices for a given time period – the infamous Pomodoro Technique suggests concentration periods of 25 minutes, punctuated by 5 minute breaks. And whilst there’s no question that technology can compromise our focus and productivity, it’s also a valuable tool for helping us stay on track. Browser add-ons like StayFocused allow users to activate a customised filter that blocks out distracting websites for a set amount of time each day, and meditation apps like HeadSpace and Insight Timer can help users to centre themselves following a distraction overload.
This article was brought to you by Dig Detox. Our mission is to help people use technology safely because we believe health is your most valuable asset. Please visit www.digdetox.com for more articles, research and information about the movement.
By Effie Webb
University of Oxford
First Published on 12 May 2020
The Institute of Psychiatry
Harvard Business Review
University of California
Kent State University