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.
Why Tech Distractions Make It Hard to Get Anything Done
You’ve still got the same limited attention span and the same rigidly finite amount of time. The only difference is that everything around you is becoming increasingly better at luring you into the quicksand of distraction.
That’s why it’s harder now to get things done than it was five years ago. And five years from now it’s going to be harder still.
Addictive and distracting technology doesn’t harm all aspects of your professional life equally. It’s still easy to do the quick and dirty tasks—fire off an email, return a phone call, check on the status of a project. But the deep-thinking, long attention span projects become increasingly difficult. And those are the things that tend to be most important.
While the distracting consumer tech stuff is trying to survive by taking more of your attention, it gets to the point where you need to consider your own survival as an effective professional.
How to survive in the attention jungle
It’s getting to the point where simply being in the attention jungle—being online or interacting with consumer technology—means that your limited attention is going to be taken from you.
A small number of highly-evolved members of our species have figured out the solution, which is this:
Unplug: Leave the jungle systematically and regularly.
One such evolved human is comedian, actor and producer Louis CK. This is a guy who manages to write, edit, produce, direct and star in his award-winning TV series, while simultaneously maintaining a stand-up career which involves constant travel and writing completely new material every year.
His stage persona is that he’s a lazy schlub, but in fact he’s highly productive, effective and successful.
In a Rolling Stone interview two years ago, he revealed his secret (note that this is Louis CK, so the interview has some very profane language). Here’s what he said about how he gets things done:
“When it’s time to write, I have one computer that has no ability to get on the Internet. Because the ability to just move your finger less than a millimeter and be looking [at highly distracting content]—it’s too much. So if you put a couple of moves between you and that, you’ve got a fighting chance. When I hit a stopping moment in what I’m writing—a moment of agitation—that itch always leads to a brand-new thing, to inspiration. But if you bail out and [give in to distraction], you’re robbing yourself. It’s terrible… The worst thing happening to this generation is that they’re taking discomfort away from themselves.”
So that’s part of the secret: A “computer that has no ability to get on the Internet.” An extremely powerful and effective method for beating distraction is to gather all the files you need to work on your project, then put yourself in a situation where it’s super inconvenient to get online. Turn off your phone and put it away. Use a computer that’s not connected. Go to a room or some other place where nobody can interrupt you.
In addition to beating distraction, this method actually changes your mindset and helps put you into a mental space of creativity, focus and flow.
There are other methods that help, too. One is to isolate some of your distracting activities for certain times of day or specific days of the week. For example, limit your social networking activity to after hours, and only once per day. Break the habit of checking your phone constantly for incoming messages, posts or status updates. Play video games only on weekends.
We live in an attention jungle, where all the predators around us are evolving super effective ways to consume our most precious resource—our attention.
The only way to get it back is to get out of the jungle once in a while.