Why Tech Distractions Make It Hard to Get Anything Done

NEWS ANALYSIS: If you're like most professionals, you're struggling to get your work done. It's not your fault. Understanding this phenomenon starts with ecology.

Tech Distractions 2

Don't look now, but there's an acute attention shortage. It's becoming increasingly difficult to carve out time to focus and get real work done.

It's happening to you. And it's happening to the people you work for and those work for you.

Don't beat yourself up about it. It's not your fault.

If you want to understand both the problem and the solution, you need to look at it as an ecological phenomenon.

Why it's a jungle out there

The way to think about our current distraction problem is to look at the world of consumer tech like animals in an ecosystem. The different categories of products—smartphones, games, social networks, etc. —are like species fighting each other for the finite resource of your attention.

Within these "species," there has arisen a fierce "intra-specific competition," which is when members of a "species," in our case games for example, compete against other games for the attention and time of gamers.

Increasingly, we've seen what ecologists call "inter-specific competition," which is when one species competes with an entirely different species for user attention. For example, social networks compete against video hosting sites for the attention of users. And mobile apps compete against console games for the attention of users.

In all cases, these consumer tech animals compete by evolving ever more effective ways to distract you.

Facebook is the alpha predator in this ecosystem. It sees every human activity that involves not using one of their apps or sites as a threat to their survival and they have sought out ways to hog your limited time and attention.

For example, Facebook boosted its competitive standing by adding auto-playing videos to user streams and also boosting its algorithms to favor videos. Viral videos now spread much more quickly and widely on Facebook. Users are spending far more of their Facebook time watching frivolous or scandalous videos on Facebook than they did even six months ago. Facebook evolved this ability because it sees the time people spend on YouTube as a threat.

Twitter is on the same evolutionary path. Twitter started showing larger pictures and now adds some of the more engaging tweets to your stream that you missed since the last time you logged on.

Vine, Instagram and other social networks have also added the ability to easily create and share highly distracting videos.

All social networks have become far more visual. And users are taking advantage of those visuals to share emotionally charged content, such as cute cat photos, terrorist outrages, neighborhood fights or celebrity scandals.

Games like Grand Theft Auto V add extremely detailed graphics and removed limitations for what you can do to encourage you spend more time doing it.

Every shiny consumer electronics device and application, from search engines to social streams, is algorithmically enhanced to more competently suck you in and hold your attention.

So when you sit down to work at your computer or you have a few minutes to get something done on your phone or tablet those distractions call to you. They're always just a click or a tap away. And you will click or tap. It's human nature.

As we're trying to get things done, we're fighting this jungle of distraction with a limited toolset. We're human and we're bound by human nature. We feel discomfort and tech distraction provides relief. For example, when we get stuck on a problem, or face a very complex problem, or get bored, or get frustrated, or start day-dreaming about more exciting things, computer-enhanced distractions always help ease our discomfort.

The more we indulge that impulse to give in to the distractions the more giving in becomes an ingrained habit.

The problem with all these products and services that are rapidly evolving new and better ways to grab your attention is that you, the very resource they're evolving to consume, are not evolving.