Managing Distraction in the Digital Era

Guest post from Amy Blankson:

In 2013, the National Center for Biotechnology Information
reported that the
average attention
span of a human has dropped to a mere eight seconds
, one second behind that of a goldfish. Why does this matter?
Distraction in the digital era has become an epidemic, robbing us of our focus,
decreasing our productivity and hindering our overall life satisfaction. Our
jobs today are “interrupt-driven,” with distractions not just a plague on our
work—sometimes they can mean the difference between success and failure.

According to Cyrus Foroughi, a doctoral student at George Mason
one minute of
distraction is more than enough to wipe your short-term memory
. An interruption as short as 2.8 seconds (the length
of time it takes to read a short text message) can
double error rates
on simple sequencing tasks
and a 4.4 second
interruption can triple error rates.  Linda Stone, a software executive
who has worked for both Apple and Microsoft, explains that we are so busy
keeping tabs on everything that we never focus on anything, a phenomenon she
calls “
continuous partial

Instead, messages undiscerningly bombard us, with the senders
rationalizing that we can choose when and where to open a message. A recent
survey of smartphone users found that:

  • 67 percent of cell owners find
    themselves checking their phone for messages, alerts, or calls
    when they don’t notice their phone ringing or vibrating
  • 44 percent of cell owners have slept with their phone
    next to their bed because they wanted to make sure they didn’t miss any
    calls, text messages, or other updates during the night
  • 55
    percent of workers reported
    their email after 11 PM

As New York Times Magazine’s Clive Thompson writes,
“Information is no longer a scarce resource—attention is.” In this Digital Era
where work/home/play are blended together, we may not always have a choice
about our work schedules or our work priorities; however, there are powerful things
that we can do to regain a sense of control about our happiness at work.

Happy Hacks to Get You Started:


1.    Unplug strategically. In the Digital Era, most
employers expect employees to be plugged in via email, phone, text, instant
message, or all the above. This constant barrage of communication can be
incredibly frustrating, if not counterproductive. While completely unplugging
from email or phone may not be realistic in today’s working world,
stepping away from
technology, even briefly, can increase your focus
, which leads to a 57 percent increase in more effective
collaboration, an 88 percent increase in learning effectiveness, and a 42
percent increase in socializing effectiveness. If you can’t step away from
technology completely during work, consider limiting how often you check email.
A recent study found that
individuals who
limited their frequency of checking email to three times a day experienced
significantly lower daily stress
which in turn predicted higher well-being on a diverse range of well-being
Know your stats. The average person
checks his phone 150 times every day
. If
every distraction took only one minute (a seriously optimistic estimate), that
would account for 2.5 hours of distraction every day. That’s 912.5 hours a
year, or roughly thirty-eight days each year. Knowing your stats
increases your awareness so that you can make proactive choices about how you
spend your time and energy. Download the
Unplugged app to see how many times you turn on your phone each day and how you
are using your time.
Tell others what you are
really doing.
 When you need to step away from
technology to focus, set a short-term auto-responder explaining what you are
really doing and when you will be back (i.e., I’m stepping away from my email
to finish this project. I’ll be back in one hour). This small gesture
communicates to others that you value them, but you also value your work (of
course this only works if you are actually using your time productively). If
you worry about how such a message will be perceived, fear not. Many employers
are actually thrilled that you want to focus more (and even inspired by your
initiative to communicate this because they secretly want to do the same
Hide your phone. We have become joined at the hip with our phones—afraid to step
back from this electronic umbilical cord for fear that someone might need us
for something.  However, recent research shows that
the mere presence of a cellphone can
decrease your productivity and attention on cognitively demanding tasks
.  Chances are that seeing every text message, email, or
social media alert as it comes in won’t make you more productive, and it
certainly won’t make you happier. To focus on your work, move your cellphone
out of your line of sight (put it in your bag, behind your computer screen, or
in a drawer); if that’s not possible, at the very least, turn off nonessential
notifications. You also can get noise-canceling headphones to help you focus.
Use the “Really?!” Rule.  When you find yourself tempted to use technology to zone
out at work for a bit, stop and ask yourself: Does this tech truly make me
happier and/or more productive?
For instance, does taking my phone to the
break room really rejuvenate your mind or does it prevent you from connecting
with your colleagues? A recent study of 450 workers in Korea found that
individuals who
took a short work break without their cellphones felt more vigor and less
emotional exhaustion
than individuals who
toted their cellphones along with them on their breaks, regardless of whether
they actually used the phone! If you find yourself using tech to
zone out rather than to tune in, try to shift your behavior to use your time in
a way that will genuinely fuel your long-term happiness and productivity.

By practicing these happy hacks in your life, you can learn to
manage distraction in the digital era and set yourself up for a future of
greater happiness and well-being in the long run.  

Amy Blankson has become one of the world’s
leading experts on the connection between positive psychology and technology.
She is the only person to be named a Point of Light by two U.S. presidents for
creating a movement to activate positive culture change. A sought-after speaker
and consultant, Amy has now worked with organizations like Google, NASA, the US
Army, and the Xprize Foundation to help foster a sense of well-being in the
Digital Era. Amy received her BA from Harvard and MBA from Yale School of Management.
Most recently, she was a featured professor in Oprah’s Happiness course. Amy is
the author of two books:
The Future of Happiness and an award-winning children’s book called Ripple’s