Do you find that you are more distracted as you try to focus on tasks these days? If so, you are not alone. And, this is not even a new problem. Nietzsche wrote; ‘one thinks with a watch in one’s hand, even as one eats one’s midday meal while reading the latest news of the stock market.’ Nietzsche blamed his habit of distraction on a human desire for haste. ‘Haste is universal because everyone is in flight from himself.’
Blaise Pascal wrote, earlier still, that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room. TS Eliot wrote of being distracted from distraction by distraction.
Today we sigh over the newer habits of being distracted by social media and gaming. We hit the brakes while driving because pedestrians are so absorbed in texting or playing Tetris, that they forget they are crossing a road. Harvard Business Review cites 77% of employees using social media while at work. (The Psychology of your Scrolling Addiction by Woolley and Sharif). And according to research from Roman Krznaric, 75% of us cannot sit on the loo without looking at our mobile phones.
In 2002 Mihalyi Csikszenmihalyi worried about excessive television, somehow absorbing or sucking out the energy of survey participants, leaving them depleted. And that was before streaming and widespread binge watching. We scroll through anxiety-laden news delivered in sound bites. It is quickly forgotten, which is probably just as well, since we rarely hear any stories that give us closure.
I am as guilty as anyone. I am finding these days that I rarely read a page of anything without being distracted. I scroll through social media while I’m watching something on TV. I can go down rabbit holes on the internet with the greatest of ease, particularly watching old favourite songs on You Tube. Suddenly hours have gone by.
In an article called The Distraction Society, Damon Yong suggested that constant distractions can weaken our faculties, leaving us unproductive, muddled and fettered. Other researchers point to diminished attention, depleted abilities to solve problems and lowered patience. Throw in the noise and distraction of the open plan office (that curse of modern life for all introverts) and ask yourself, what is this doing to our ability to produce good work and make thoughtful decisions? And why do so many of us make the excuse, I don’t have enough time, when clearly, we have quite a lot of it to waste.
In 2009 Eric Schmidt, the Chief Executive of Google raised his own concerns about the effect technology was having on us. “I worry that the level of interruption, the sort of overwhelming rapidity of information and especially of stressful information, is in fact, affecting cognition. It is […] affecting deeper thinking. I still believe that sitting down and reading a book is the best way to really learn something and I worry that we’re losing that.”
The irony is that Schmidt’s organisation, Google, is among those who profit from and promote unrestrained internet browsing and the flickering shallow state of so much of our reading, especially around current events. Combining all this with the boasts that younger colleagues have made to me that reading books is ‘so old school’, I have a sense of unease that we are sleepwalking on a road to general ignorance and generalised anxiety in the younger generations.
Quality news coverage is easily accessed, but the same can be said for QAnon. We have choices. We can choose to subscribe to the Washington Post, but we can just as easily spend hours watching cat videos.
So should we strive to be more focused in our reading and thinking, in the same way that our sedentary world now forces us to ring-fence time for fitness? Can we cure ourselves of the desire to glance one more time at our phones, laptops, the computer, the television and all the modern-day stopwatches?
Like most other bad habits, a bit of self-control may assist, because we are free to turn off the ping noises on our emails and our texts. And no-one is stopping us from reading a book as opposed to scrolling through our phones incessantly. Checking email twice a day is sufficient, despite what any panic merchant expects of you. If you require someone’s attention urgently, call them. Leave a message. Say it’s urgent and better still, learn the true meaning of the word urgent. We have these wonderful gadgets that make our lives easier. What on earth are we doing turning them into our masters?
What do you think? Is this new level of distraction a real concern, or just part of being human in an ever changing world? Send me your thoughts, without the ping thanks, because I may be busy with urgent panda videos or listening to Build Me Up Buttercup, just one more time.