Our modern brains seem to struggle to focus on just one task, constantly jumping from one activity to the next.
Skip rates on music download services like Spotify have never been faster; magazine articles now come with estimated reading times.
And nearly a quarter of people who took part in a British survey said they had been involved in distracted-walking accidents: heads down, staring at smartphones, bumping into lamp posts.
We seem to be facing a distraction crisis, but is there a ‘cure’ for not paying attention? And who is robbing us of our focus?
Stealing our concentration?
Social media, targeted advertising, YouTube, apps: big tech companies have learned how to monetise procrastination and are stealing our attention systematically and on an industrialised scale.
“There is an entire industry dedicated to stealing our attention, and most of us don’t even realise it’s happening,” says Belinda Parmar, a former tech evangelist who’s now so concerned about the effects of tech on our mental health she has become a tech-addiction campaigner.
“The tech industry keeps promising to bring the world closer, but really their prime target is to take time away from us,” she says, noting some companies, such as entertainment platform Netflix, don’t even disguise it.
“When Reed Hastings, Netflix’s CEO, tells you that their biggest competitor is sleep, you’ve got to think twice,” says Parmar, “If you are chronically sleep-deprived, how are you going to pay any attention in life?”
Parmar, now CEO of The Empathy Business, recognises technology has many positives, but points out that “tech also has a dark side”.
Another person who switched views on technology is James Williams, a former Google staffer who realised the goals that big tech companies had were not in line with his own values.
Their focus, he says, was on maximising clicks, views and the amount of time people engaged with products. But with so much technology around him, he found it impossible to find space for reflection.
He likens users of technology to serfs and the big tech companies to the lords of the manor. Today, he says, “serfdom isn’t the conflict over our physical labour, but over our attention”.
Although many digital products may be free to use, they are taking our most precious resource: our time.
Driven to distraction
Tim Wu, Columbia University professor and the author of The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads, says the need to check our phones constantly is down to the lure of what is called a ‘variable reward schedule’.
B. F. Skinner, a famous psychologist and Harvard University professor, came up with the idea after conducting a series of experiments. He showed that pigeons become more addicted to pecking a button that delivers seeds if they don’t know when the seeds will be dispatched.
The inconsistent stimuli of rewards are well understood to be the most addictive, says Wu, just like a slot machine. So, like pigeons pecking at that button, we tap away on our phones, often disappointed but sometimes getting something that we find exciting, like a good article, and that keeps us coming back.
“In this way you will lose hours of your day, days of your week, months of your life on things that you didn’t even really care about,” he says.
So, is there a way to stop our minds from wandering off?
Taking back time
Nir Eyal, a best-selling author who studies habit formation and an expert on consumer behaviour, knows all the tricks tech companies use to capture our attention. He used to teach them how to do it.
He says you can get back your time and concentration with a certain amount of personal effort. And he says it’s up to individuals, because “our government is not going to save us, and neither are the tech companies”.
He has a four-step plan to stop getting distracted by technology.
Step 1 – Manage your internal triggers: When we’re distracted, we’re normally looking to escape from something uncomfortable. Try to work out what it is and manage it.
Step 2 – Make time for distraction: Set aside time in your day to be distracted – that way it won’t feel like your time is being invaded. Give yourself a set hour that’s ‘social media time’.
Step 3 – Remove the external triggers: Turn off your notifications and the rings, pings and dings that tell you what to do.
Step 4 – Make pacts to prevent distraction: Get a technology app that tries to limit the amount of time you spend on your phone. The key factor is self-awareness: once you realise you’re being distracted by your phone or tablet, you start putting it down.