Is the world filled with more digital distraction? Sometimes it seems that way.
With our digital devices buzzing, world events demanding our attention, and more things to entertain us than ever before, it certainly seems harder to focus on what’s really important. And yet, understanding how to stay focused is exactly what it takes to get things done and get ahead.
Distraction might appear more available than ever, but it is nothing new. Over 2,000 years ago, Socrates and Aristotle debated the nature of “akrasia,” (pronounced uh-crazy-uh), our tendency to act against our better judgement.
To the ancient Greeks, mere mortals were prone to distraction due to our weakness of will. Easy for them to say — Socrates and Aristotle never had to resist binge-watching “Game of Thrones.”
Who’s Really Addicting Us to Technology?
The technologies themselves, and their makers, are the easiest suspects to blame for our dwindling attention spans. Nicholas Carr, author of “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains,” wrote, “The net is designed to be an interruption system, a machine geared to dividing attention.”
Online services like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Buzzfeed and the like, are called out as masters of manipulation — making products so good, people can’t stop using them. However, as good as these services are, there are simple steps we can take to keep them at bay.
After all, we’re not injecting Instagram intravenously or freebasing Facebook. For example, we can change how often we receive the distracting notifications that trigger our compulsion to check.
Can Distraction Be a Good Thing?
Is distraction a curse or a blessing? Not giving full attention to what we should be doing makes us miss deadlines, fail classes, and crash into other drivers. Distraction certainly has a price.
Nonetheless, we love our distractions! Social media, spectator sports, movies, books, TV shows, the news, video games — what would we do without them?
Clearly, there are benefits to distractions as evidenced by the fact that nearly everyone on earth seeks them out. But why? Although they seem to pull us away from more important things, what purpose do they serve? And, when at times we seem to give in to distractions, how do we ensure they serve us well?
Can Distractions Ease Pain and Make Us Better?
Our brains have a limited ability to focus. We can’t pay attention to everything around us all at once so we must choose what to focus on. For example, we may choose to focus on work while struggling to resist more interesting distractions.
Multiple studies have demonstrated the power of distractions to lessen negative experiences. For example, a new virtual reality game designed by scientists at the University of Washington Seattle demonstrated the extraordinary power of distractions in fighting pain.
In fact, playing the virtual reality game was more effective at reducing pain than using medication. The researchers concluded that the more immersive and engaging the game was, the more it helped direct attention away from the pain of the procedure.
The ability to shift our attention away from negative experiences is also helpful outside of a hospital setting. Distractions can help us cope with the pains of everyday life. Research on how distractions can be used to control our urges and impulses show that certain games, like Tetris for example, can help reduce cravings for fatty foods and even addictive drugs.
Researchers suspect the cognitive demands of these games redirect our attention away from craving triggers, reducing the painful urge to indulge. Playing matching puzzle games like Candy Crush, Puzzle Blocks, or Interlocked might actually help us distract ourselves away from digging into that pint of ice cream in the fridge.
When are Distractions Destructive?
Clearly, distractions can help us deal with pain but what about the many products and services, like video games and social media sites, designed to be so good we want to use them all the time? Sometimes we have trouble limiting their use and find ourselves sucked into distractions.
Identifying why and how you engage with personal technology may be the difference between healthy and destructive behavior. Take a look at your favorite digital distractions . Social media, video games, puzzles, television shows, podcasts, news, and spectator sports — and ask yourself what you use these for.
Are you using them as tools to build strength, skills, knowledge, and self-efficacy for the future or for temporary escape from an uncomfortable reality. If it’s the latter, you may want to reconsider the role these distractions play in your life. If the pain you’re escaping is permanent, no distraction will ever heal it. You must either learn new coping strategies or fundamentally fix what is broken.
How Can We Manage Digital Distraction?
Personal technology is indeed more engaging than ever, and there’s no doubt companies are engineering their products and services to be more compelling and attractive. But would we want it any other way? The intended result of making something better is that people use it more. That’s not necessarily a problem, that’s progress.
These improvements don’t mean we shouldn’t attempt to control our use of technology. In order to make sure it doesn’t control us, we should come to terms with the fact that it’s more than the technology itself that’s responsible for our habits.
Our workplace culture, social norms and individual behaviors all play a part. To put technology in its place, we must be conscious not only of how technology is changing, but also of how it is changing us.
Check out our articles on digital distraction to better understand the underlying psychology and how to effectively manage digital distraction by putting it in its place.