Our addiction to digital devices is increasing stress levels, reducing productivity, damaging relationships and physically rewiring our brains. Author and digital detox expert, Frances Booth, considers the toll of digital distraction and offers some solutions
Words: Frances Booth
Photograph: Carolyn Eaton/Alamy
started noticing that everyone was staring down at a screen. I noticed it on trains, on buses and in the street. In offices, I saw people fixed to their desks, eyes glazed, seeming frantic. And I started to question whether it was really all that urgent, or whether something had gone wrong.
I asked people how they felt about the way digital devices were changing their lives. Everyone I talked to had a story. They told me they wanted to throw their partner’s phone in the bin. They told me they had to be on call 24/7 because of work — but that they were exhausted and didn’t know what to do about it. They told me they couldn’t keep up with posting social media updates for business. They felt pressure from their boss, pressure from their clients, yet were also putting immense pressure on themselves to keep up. They asked me for help because, despite all this, they were getting nothing done.
So, in 2013 I wrote The Distraction Trap: How to Focus in a Digital World. I studied research done in this field, and gathered examples from business, technology and life. I took advice from productivity experts, psychologists and scientists, and created a nine-step programme on how to focus in the digital world, and have since taken this into businesses, developing solutions to manage distractions, improve productivity and achieve a better balance.
Digital distraction is costing businesses dearly. There is a significant cost, for example, of time wasted on email. Many companies are starting to realise this, and financial services and technology have been two of the first sectors to tackle distraction. Why? Perhaps because those working in technology can see sooner than most the impact it is having, and those working in finance are acutely aware of the cost of lost productivity.
Everyone I talked to had a story. They told me they wanted to throw their partner’s phone in the bin. They told me they had to be on call 24/7 because of work — but that they were exhausted and didn’t know what to do about it.
For anyone working in communications or marketing, distraction can be a near-constant issue. When you’re working in a communications role, you often consume vast amounts of information and communicate with many different people. This can quickly lead to information overload. You are likely to get frequently distracted by demands from other people or by unimportant information. Many people in this situation feel overwhelmed, or as though they are getting nothing of any substance done. We must all learn to take time out from consuming information. Particularly when we need to create something.
The picture that emerged during the work I carried out for the book confirmed and expanded upon what I had heard anecdotally with solid research: many people feel they are battling against a never-ending information stream. But, beyond that, I heard evidence that our dependence on digital devices is damaging creativity and productivity and, in extreme cases, is resulting in addiction. What is even more shocking is that our constant connectivity has actually physically rewired our brains.
As one neural pathway opens, another closes
Neuroplasticity is how scientists refer to the malleability of the human brain. When we learn a new skill, connections are formed between neurons creating new pathways within the brain. If we stop using that skill or spend more time practising another new skill, the connections weaken and stronger connections form around the new activity. The skill becomes easier as the pathways become stronger. If we think about how effortlessly we log into Facebook, Twitter or email, it’s clear this has become automatic through repetition — a very strong brain pathway has been established. We reinforce these new pathways every day, sometimes every few minutes, and it becomes very difficult to resist them.
As Nicholas Carr says in his book The Shallows: “If, knowing what we know today about the brain’s plasticity, you were to set out to invent a medium that would rewire our mental circuits as quickly and thoroughly as possible, you would probably end up designing something that works a lot like the Internet.”
Research on the changes that happen to our brain when we use the Internet has been carried out in various scientific studies. One piece of research was done by scientist Gary Small and his team. They found that after just five hours of Internet use, a person’s brain began to change. In a separate study of 19-year-olds in China, excessive Internet use was linked to changes in parts of the brain that control attention and emotional processing.
More recently, research has been done into wellbeing and Internet use. A study by researchers at the University of British Columbia found that checking email less often reduces stress — something any of us who have been overwhelmed by email might want to try.
One reason we struggle with digital distraction is that the Internet is very good at grabbing our attention. And we tend to give our attention away a little too freely — to every link and message that demands it. So we browse YouTube while Internet shopping, check our email every time it pops up, or Google a question and emerge 20 minutes later via a string of links, reading about a completely unrelated subject.
We believe the myth that we can effectively multitask (though research shows we cannot), and have forgotten how to focus on just one thing. Operating on ‘split attention’ has become a way of life for many of us. However, when we ‘switch-task’, our productivity goes down by as much as 40% (according to researchers including David Meyer).
We tend to give our attention away a little too freely — to every link and message that demands it
Digital distraction is damaging our relationships, disrupting our sleep, causing stress and reducing our productivity. In some cases, it is even putting lives at risk, with distracted walking and driving causing serious injuries. Even the way we form memories is affected by this new, distracted way of experiencing the world. We are so busy trying to do so many things at once that we are only processing memories on a superficial level. We are also using the Internet as an external memory. If we think we can easily find information we will need again later, we often remember how to get the information, rather than the information itself.
However, there is a growing recognition of the problems digital distraction can cause, and individuals and businesses are taking positive steps to make sure that we develop a more healthy and balanced relationship with technology at home and in the workplace.
This is a global issue that is increasingly being discussed. Since I wrote The Distraction Trap, it has been translated into Korean, French, Chinese, Italian, Spanish and Arabic. These are widespread issues that have an impact on us all. As technology and our relationship to it develop, we need to keep exploring what this means for us.
Focusing on a global problem
Financial services have been one of the first sectors to act on finding ways to stay focused in a digital world. I run training on managing distractions for businesses including Lloyd’s of London, looking at the cost of distraction, how to stay productive and what a difference being focused can make. This type of training highlights the importance of concentration skills, which are vital in business for things like decision-making and creativity. But being able to concentrate is in danger of becoming a lost art.
This is an issue that is being tackled worldwide, and companies have already developed and trialled some very innovative solutions.
German vehicle manufacturer, Daimler, introduced a policy whereby when someone goes on holiday, all their email is deleted.
In Sweden, government workers have been trialled on six-hour working days.
In France, labour unions and corporations agreed to an obligation not to check emails outside of working hours that applied to 250,000 workers in consulting, computing and polling firms.
IT giant, Atos, banned internal email on discovering that staff received more than 100 internal emails a day and thought only 15 per cent of them useful. They switched instead to instant messaging, social networks and cloud computing.
An experiment at Boston Consulting Group found that when people disconnected for a few predetermined hours every week, they worked more productively and were happier about work. The research found that people responding to demands and being highly available made the demands increase. By breaking this ‘cycle of responsiveness’ people adjust their demands.
Ferrari limited to three the number of people to whom staff can send emails, stopping endless ‘copying in’.
to do a digital detox
A digital detox is one way to stay productive and balanced in a wired world. When we return, recharged, we’re more productive and have a different perspective by allowing our thoughts and conversations to get all the way to their conclusion — rather than a smartphone interrupting by pinging every five minutes. Here’s how to go about it:
What is a digital detox? A digital detox is switching off all mobiles, smartphones, tablets, laptops and computers for a certain length of time. It should ideally be around 24 hours long as a minimum. Prepare for your digital detox by thinking about some of these things:
Remind yourself why you want to do a digital detox. Is it as an experiment to see what it feels like to go the opposite way in an increasingly connected world? Is it because you need to recharge your batteries? Do you want valuable thinking time?
Choose a time that’s realistic for you to switch off for 24 hours or more. Tell anyone you need to that you’ll be away from your email and smartphone.
Plan enjoyable activities for your time switched off. These can be things like cooking, walking or spending time with friends and family. You could pick up a neglected hobby or spend time reading.
Straight after switching off, you might feel a sense of unease, and will perhaps have a strong urge to check your phone or computer. Just wait, and these feelings should pass.
During a digital detox, there tends to be a feeling of having plenty of time (rather than rushing against time). You may well sleep better, think more clearly and more deeply, and feel re-energised. Enjoy the change and notice your reaction to not being ‘on call’.
Don’t be overwhelmed returning to the digital world. Use the perspective you have gained. Redefine what is urgent, what is important, and what doesn’t need to be done. Unsubscribe to email lists you don’t need. Check email and social media less frequently.
A digital detox shouldn’t be a one-off. We can’t expect to recharge our batteries just once all year. So plan your next digital detox, and see if you can go further this time.
This story is taken from the second issue of Poppy. Our print run is strictly limited but, if you are based in the UK, you can request a printed copy via the ReadPoppy.com website.
Frances Booth is the author of The Distraction Trap: How to Focus in a Digital World (Pearson) and is an expert in digital distraction and digital detox. She works with businesses to boost their productivity in a digital world. She has worked as a journalist for The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph, and is an experienced media commentator, featuring in publications including Wired, Vanity Fair and The Huffington Post. Frances also blogs regularly for Forbes. Find out more and get in touch at www.herearesomewords.com
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