We live in distracted times. How often have you been thinking about something and one of your many electronic devices goes ping and then...hang on what was I talking about?
Consider the sheer number of things that might be vying for your attention at any given time - a new email arriving, a text message on your phone, a new mention on Twitter, a Facebook message, a LinkedIn share.
These notifications / events announce themselves with a sound, a vibration, a pop-up or the change of an icon on a screen (or maybe all of those!). On top of this many of us feel the urge to regularly check our Twitter feeds, Facebook News Feed, favourite forums and websites.
A study by Edison showed that:
- 49% of Facebook users check their account more than once per day
- 23% percent of Facebook users check their account more than five times per day
- 8% percent of Facebook users check their account eleven or more times every day!
This study took place in June 2012. I wouldn't be surprised to find the numbers are shifting toward more frequent checks and consider that these stats are from a single social media site - most people who use social media are members of multiple sites. Add this to all the other distractions and we're looking at the potential for a severe productivity drain.
There are other problems with this constant stream of information. We're turning into a race of horizontal thinkers. We're trying to think about many things at once but there's no depth to our thinking and this is hampering our ability to solve problems.
I was recently discussing this with a CTO of a software company and he was seeing the same thing. He's seeing programmers now relying heavily on code snippets from the internet that appear to work but those programmers often don't know why. And even more worryingly, they often don't care, it's just how programming is for them.
Consider these symptoms for a second:
- Urge to check for information frequently
- Distracted by extraneous sources - notifications on phone, email pop-ups
- Difficulty in concentrating on a single topic for an extended period of time
- Thinking about many things - mind flitting between them
- Finding it difficult to switch off at night, lots of thoughts racing through the mind
That list sounds an awful lot like ADHD. The NHS website lists common symptoms as:
- a short attention span
- restlessness or constant fidgeting
- being easily distracted
It's no wonder really, many of these applications are designed very carefully to provide a degree of addictiveness. Just like a drug, each time we hear or see a notification and check to see what triggered it the reward centres in our brains light up.
Charlie Brooker described this brilliantly in the TV show "Video Games Changed the World". (spoiler) Twitter was described by Mr. Brooker as the most influential game of all time because of the way it works to provide the user (pun intended) to continually go back and check for new information. Retweets and favourites give us a warm fuzzy feeling and so we keep going back for more.
I heard recently about a group of friends who, in order to reduce the amount of distractions when they go out for dinner, stipulate that everyone must put their phones in a pile out of reach. The first person to check their phone during dinner picks up the bill. For a group of ten friends, that could be a rather large financial penalty, yet still people will violate it because the urge to check is so strong!
So what can we do about it? I recently came across a podcast from a functional medicine practitioner, Chris Kresser, who recommends what he calls a digital detox. The name sounds a little new age, granted, but I can see its merits.
There are two elements to it, firstly what you can do each day and then what you can do less frequently to help your brain recover from constant bombardment.
- Stop using your electronic devices a couple of hours before bed.
- Schedule periods throughout the day when you focus only on the task at hand - remove all distractions, turn off notifications. Use apps like Freedom ( https://freedom.to ) or https://www.rescuetime.com/ - to provide timed blocks of access to your email, Facebook, RSS etc. The latter will tell you how long you're spending accessing various sites or apps to give you an accurate picture of where your time goes. You might be surprised.
- Don't start your day with social media. Give yourself a couple of hours from waking before you check your various news feeds.
Once a year:
- No social media or email. Tell your friends and colleagues that you need only to be contacted in case of dire emergency. No unfocussed browsing (trying to find a restaurant on Google maps when on holiday is fine, as long as you stop immediately when you've found what you need) - Do this for 5-10 days
- If you can't trust yourself to focus when using the internet then you need to practice total abstinence
- Avoid news sites, the world will carry on and news will be there when you get back.
In the workplace - think about how you want your workers to make use of these apps and services. They can be hugely beneficial but, as with many things, too much of a good thing can be detrimental.
Many companies have banned access to Facebook and Twitter altogether on their corporate networks. However, most employees have smartphones they can use for access so I suspect that doing this will have a limited impact. I think that for many businesses this might actually harm morale and productivity.
If effective communication is the benchmark for productivity then it follows that employees should be encouraged to use social media. Giving your employees a voice that is attached to your brand can make your business appear more human and so there's a recent trend of some companies actively encouraging the use of Facebook, Twitter etc. in order to get their message and values across and provide new channels of communication with customers and partners.
Social media is here to stay and the number of things that are vying for our attention will only increase from this point on so understanding how best to thrive in this environment is key. Stay focused, make the best use you can of the power of social media but understand the risks, take an occasional digital detox and you may just be able to increase personal productivity and that of your organisation.