As the amount of digital information increases tenfold every five years, a conservative estimate is that the amount of information we are exposed to daily has doubled over the last 20 years (1). Now, I don’t know if that is good or bad, because humans adapt. But what is happening now goes way beyond incremental growth, and this quantitative change may begin to make a qualitative difference. After all, the human mind did not evolve to ignore new information…
Minds that ignored new information – that strange shadow over by the trees, the unfamiliar rustle in the undergrowth – were pretty rapidly rooted out of the gene pool. The minds that survived were the ones that paid very close attention to the new and unfamiliar, and worried obsessively about it until they understood it.
Fast forward a million years and today we’re working away on our PC and up pops that little envelope and where does our attention go?
Right there. We attend to it immediately. (Or is that just me?)
If we find it difficult to ignore new information and then the amount of information we deal with increases, what happens to the quality of our attention? It has to become shallower and more fractured. Again I am not arguing this is good or bad, simply that this must be the case.
The Costs of Distraction
Working in a distracted way certainly makes us feel busy. But nearly all research shows that apart from some very routine tasks it is spectacularly bad for performance. Effective multitasking is almost impossible with anything involving a cognitive load* – the brain is forced to refocus continuously as one switches between tasks, and this pause always costs time and accuracy. So although we feel busy we rarely feel effective. Is it any wonder about the explosion of the use of prescription drugs like Ritalin (“for better focus”)?
In fact if we attempt to multitask the effects are the same as if we were drunk (2). In fact, it might even be better to turn up drunk, because at least that can be fun.
In the short term multitasking can make us feel busy and purposeful. It can also make us feel needed and important. It can be a badge of honour to say you are busy. Being constantly distracted can also act as a barrier to dealing with difficult thoughts and emotions, so the emotional payoff can sometimes be even larger.
But what does the research say about longer term effects of distraction on our mental wellbeing?
Dan Gilbert’s lab ran a large study which is now an excellent TED talk by Matt Killingsworth. Basically, he found that the times when we were least content is when we are most distracted.
This makes sense from a theoretical perspective. High performance states involve intense focus on one thing. Flow is the best known example, a state where we lose track of time because we are so absorbed in one task. This, clearly is the opposite of distraction.
When we also consider the effects of distraction on relationships, perhaps we can begin to understand why there is an explosion in work disengagement, as well as the rate of anxiety? As Robert Leahy argues:
The average high school kid today has the same level of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient in the early 1950’s.
So how can we find focus in the age of distraction?
Well I am assuming that no one is reading any more and is instead looking at videos of funny cats. But if you are interested, I’ll post some ideas next time.
* your job involves a cognitive load
1. Institute of the Future
2. Strayer, David L., Frank A. Drews, and Dennis J. Crouch. “A Comparison of the Cell Phone Driver and the Drunk Driver.” Human Factors 48.2 (2006): 381–91.