We complain about being deluged by distractions, but are things really worse than ever?

While distractions of the digital variety are a fairly recent phenomenon, distractions per se are really nothing new. Lack of self-control, or ‘akrasia’, has been one of the core concepts of philosophy since Greek antiquity. First debated by Aristotle and Socrates over 2,000 years ago, akrasia explains the interplay between our desires and our intellectual or rational thoughts. Humans are hardwired to be easily distracted.

Some distractions have remained largely unchanged:

The temptation of uneaten food luring us away from work…

The pleasure of lying in bed instead of getting up in the morning...

On the other hand, a slew of new distractions, particularly digital distractions, have taken things to a whole different level. After all, Aristotle never had to contend with WhatsApp notifications or resist the urge to binge-watch philosophy documentaries on Netflix, did he?

However, as we’ll see, digital distraction has brought with it almost as many benefits as drawbacks and has even spawned its own self-help industry. Here is a brief overview of how digital distraction can both help and a hindrance, as well as five practical ways to control and master digital distractions.

Is technology really to blame for our current state?
Yes, according to Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. Carr notes that as the internet is designed to be an “interruption system”, it may be responsible for rerouting our neural pathways. Mental fatigue, poor memory and an inability to focus are all consequences of riding the app merry-go-round, he says. Drawing on history, neuroscience and philosophy, Carr argues that our ability to concentrate and to think deeply may have been irrevocably diminished from overexposure to the internet.

The usual culprits - YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, among others – are often referred to as the ‘masters of manipulation’. However, there are simple steps that we can take to keep them at bay. We can turn off notifications or choose which features we want to keep or disable, for example.

The problem with this is that as soon as one service falls out of favor, others spring up in their place. A recent study from the Pew Research Center found that just 51 percent of US teenagers regularly use Facebook this year, down from 71 percent in 2015. As Facebook’s popularity wanes, however, other services such as YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat have risen to plug the gap. Each service brings with it a whole host of new distractions that we must learn how to manage and deal with.

Can digital distractions be beneficial?
The ultimate double-edged sword, digital distraction can be both a blessing and a curse. Nowhere is this more apparent than with driving. According to the US National Safety Council, texting whilst driving makes you six times more likely to cause an accident than drunk driving. Conversely, over 40 percent of Americans admit to falling asleep at the wheel at least once in their lives and some anti-sleep apps can help you stay awake by making random noises to jolt you into alertness.

Clearly, there are both benefits and downsides to the distractive nature of technology. It’s hard to imagine a world completely free from distractions. From movies to books, TV shows, video games and social media, distractions can help us relax, unwind and escape our daily problems. A series of 11 studies conducted by the University of Virginia and Harvard University found that people would rather receive a small electric shock than have to sit alone in a room, bored, for 15 minutes. Therein lies the conundrum: we complain about digital distractions but love them for the benefits they bring.

So the real question becomes, what purposes can digital distractions serve and how can they serve us well?

Do digital distractions improve our lives?
Researchers at the University of Washington Seattle studied the effects that virtual reality games can have on people’s perception of pain. They concluded that immersive and engaging VR games can be more effective than medications at reducing certain types of pain. This research joined a raft of other studies that have demonstrated the ability of distractions to help people deal with negative situations and emotions.

Certain games, such as Tetris, can have other benefits too. Researchers at Plymouth University’s Cognition Institute discovered that the visual stimulation provided by playing Tetris for three minutes can reduce cravings for food, cigarettes and alcohol. The 2014 study concluded that distractions have a powerful role to play in terms of helping people control their impulses and urges.

While highly addictive apps such as Candy Crush or engrossing video games such as Fortnite are usually viewed in a negative light, we need to consider how the cognitive demands of these games could be redirecting people’s attention away from other urges and triggers. Yes, the phenomenal success of Fortnite may be increasing the amount of screen time that teenagers indulge in, but it could be distracting them from other more destructive pastimes. According to a 2017 study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, teen drug use is declining, for example. Could digital distractions be responsible?

How can we recognize the limits of digital distractions?
While there are cases where distraction can be beneficial, such as anti-sleep apps for long car journeys or Tetris to help deal with cravings, too much distraction can be dangerous. There is a fine line between healthy and destructive behaviors. Social media sites and video games can take over and control our lives, taking us away from our families and limiting our ability to think clearly.

We need to identify why and how we engage with technology in order to decide whether we get the best use out of it. Are you using technology for temporary escapism? Do you want to leave behind the realities of your life? At some point, you must either fix the underlying problem or learn new coping strategies. On the other hand, if you are using technology as a tool to build knowledge and skills, you can see how it is helping to shape your future.

5 Ways to Control and Master Digital Distractions

Ultimately, digital distraction is just the latest incarnation of an age-old problem that has faced human since antiquity: the lack of self-control. While companies continue to pour billions of R&D dollars into making their apps or products as addictive and distracting as possible, we can learn to effectively manage digital distraction and put it in its place, in the same way as we’ve adapted to deal with all types of other distractions.

Here are the top five strategies for learning how to control and master digital distractions:

  1. Take a digital distraction detox: Many popular books and courses, including How to Break up with your Phone, by Catherine Price, offer regimes that help people deal with digital distractions and dependencies.
  2. Use paper to manage your workflow: Learning how to manage and prioritize your tasks on a daily basis is a great way to avoid distractions. A simple five-step workflow such as the Getting Things Done system by David Allen shows you that staying focused is possible. Use a paper-based list to jot down your tasks and decide which can be prioritized.
  3. Study the underlying psychology: The best way to effectively manage digital distraction is to understand the underlying psychology. In the same way that seeing how hot dogs are made will likely put you off them for life, the more you learn about the psychology of distraction, the more easily you can avoid triggers and pitfalls. Knowledge can help you to consciously recognize when a device or an app is trying to take you away from an important task.
  4. Identify helpful distractions. You can’t stay on the distraction detox forever. Learn to distinguish between helpful and unhelpful distractions. You want to keep your work email notifications and block the unhelpful ones such as Facebook status updates.
  5. Turn to tech: Yes, it seems counterintuitive to solve tech dependency with … more tech, but hear me out. You can use apps to block other apps, such as AppDetox, BreakFree or Flipd. If your fear of impending digital doom is out of hand, why not buy a so-called dumbphone? These stripped back mobiles only handle messages and calls and may be just the ticket for a distraction-free life.