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Four ways to stop yourself getting distracted

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 us say that we’ve been involved in distracted walking accidents: heads down, staring at our smart phones, bumping into lampposts.

In Driven to Distraction, historian Rhys Jones asks: are we facing a distraction crisis? And if we are, what can we do about it? He meets some of the people who are fighting back.

So, what can we do to stop ourselves getting distracted?

Change from within

Nir Eyal studies habit formation. In the past he has used his expertise to help teach tech companies how best to capture our attention.

Experiments showed that pigeons will become more addicted to pecking a button that delivers seeds if they don’t know when the seeds will be dispatched.
Research by psychologist Burrhus Frederic Skinner

He says we need to look to ourselves: the Government’s not going to save us, and neither are the tech companies, but the things that we can do to put distraction in its place are really simple.

He’s come up with a plan for managing distraction:

  • 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 traction
    Actually 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 realisation: once you realise you’re being distracted by your phone or tablet, you start putting it down.

Attention stealing on an industrialised scale

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 devoted to taking our attention and most of us don’t even realise it,” says historian Rhys Jones.

James Williams used to work for Google but a few years ago he turned against his own kind, having realised the goals that big tech companies have are not in line with his own values: They were things like maximising number of clicks, number of views, the amount of time you spend with a product, says James. Surrounded by technology, he found it impossible to pursue his goals or find space for reflection in his life.

James provides a helpful metaphor: If you look at the power dynamics at play, a reasonable analogy would be that of serfdom. We are the serfs, and the big tech companies are like the lords of the manor. But this modern day serfdom isn’t the conflict over our physical labour, but over our attention. Although many digital products may be free to use, at the same time they are stealing our most valuable commodity, our most precious resource: our time, adds Rhys.

Don’t get distracted by the quick items

Why you shouldn't get sidetracked by something that you think you can quickly sort out.

Why are we so addicted to distraction?

Tim Wu is a Professor at Columbia University and the author of The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads. He explains how the need to check in, the ritual of getting our phone out as we wait for the bus, is called a “variable reward schedule” – and the idea comes from a Harvard Professor and famous Psychologist called Burrhus Frederic Skinner.

There is an entire industry devoted to taking our attention from us and most of us don’t even realise it.
Historian Rhys Jones

Skinner’s experiments showed that pigeons will become more addicted to pecking a button that delivers seeds if they don’t know when the seeds will be dispatched.

Those inconsistent stimuli of rewards are well understood to be the most addictive, says Tim, 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 and stimulating, like a good article – and that keeps us coming back. In this way, he says, 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.

So how do we fight back?

Turning technology off completely

All of us – my three children and myself – had become increasingly dependent on and, dare I say, intimate with our screens at the expense of our interactions with one another, says mum Susan Maushart. Technology was affecting the way that her family paid attention. Susan decided the solution was to turn off all her screens and live in the dark for six months.

I switched off the power at the source, she recalls, I collected all of our technology, all of the televisions and all the laptops and everything and wheeled them out to the shed and put a blanket over them.

I wanted people to make eye contact and have conversations. I wanted them to sit around the dinner table and not speed-eat so they could get back to their texting and messaging and YouTubing. I wanted my family back.

So, did it work?

There was more time spent actually talking to one another, Susan says, but there was also a lot of boredom. So, although it had made her rethink her relationship with her screens, after six months of trying she was ready to go back. She admits that the day she turned the devices back on felt like Christmas.

So if switching off our screens doesn’t work, what else can we do?

Reforming the tech companies

James Williams, the former Google staffer, believes that the key to solving the problem is to create a new ethical system that can govern the attention industry. If ethics and the values we have for ourselves aren’t guiding technology design then something else is, he flags, and that’s not a good place for us to be.

We should desire worlds where just trying to capture someone’s attention for the sake of it is seen as an indignity.
James Williams, former Google staffer and founder of Time Well Spent

He’s started a group called Time Well Spent, with other rebels from within the attention industry, and is campaigning for the app companies to change the way they design their products.

We should desire worlds where just trying to capture someone’s attention for the sake of it is seen as an indignity and something approaching a form of evil, says James. These companies say they want to improve our lives but what they’re taking from us when they take attention is far more precious than anything else in the world.

But what if attention isn’t a commodity to be bought and sold, but something we have control over? Maybe it isn’t the tech industries that need to change, but us.

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