Our work days are filled with a never-ending barrage of audible pings and flashing badges from our email, Slack, Twitter, social media, browser tabs, and more. Despite our best efforts to focus, constant electronic distractions steer us off course and fragment our concentration. Ironically, many of these intrusions originate from the very tools required to complete essential tasks and run our lives.
This is not by accident. The world’s best product managers, designers, and engineers are tasked with getting us to open their apps more often and stay for longer. Notifications and badges are particularly insidious, representing what neuroscientists call variable rewards. When a notification is received, it triggers the anticipation of a dopamine release upon checking it, establishing a habit. This addictive loop yields staggering statistics: interruptions arrive about every 2.8 minutes and the average knowledge worker ends up spending 28% of their work week “messaging” from various applications.
It’s more than a lack of willpower. These behaviors are hardwired into human evolution, allowing our brains to be acutely aware of changes in our visual and audio fields-whether to detect impending danger (Sabertooth tiger!) or a few remaining berries on a branch. Our impressive capabilities are hijacked to divert us, leaving important matters and people waiting as these distractions beg for our attention. The solution to this may lie in artificial intelligence.
AI algorithms “learn” from humans , then attempt to respond similarly when presented with new data. To date, though, our tools (minus spam filters, perhaps) don’t use AI to shape what we see on our screens or hear through our speakers to help us focus on our priorities. Quite the opposite. We see emails and messages in the order they arrive; and, as we work, countless tabs and windows remain open, inadvertently distracting us from the task at hand.
It’s possible to eliminate those distractions completely, of course. You can shut down messaging clients or go into airplane mode, and hope that nothing critical comes in while you’re heads down on a project. But there is friction in that. Often the work requires information or files from the inbox or internet, making this approach feel cumbersome and unnatural.
Why can’t our computing environments do better? If a smart OS could figure out what we are working on, then why can’t it filter out irrelevant intrusions and allow us to focus through completion? The key design challenge might be summed up as: what should I be seeing (or not) to remain focused on my most important current task?
My personal example: I’m not a fast writer. The optimist in me assumes writing a blog post will take an hour or two. The right AI could track my writing sessions and learn that it usually takes me eight. It could also catalog the distractions that diverted me-and help eliminate those the next time it detected the start of a new post. New emails and Slack notifications would stop arriving, all non-relevant windows would get minimized, a browser would be there for information lookup but without ads and extra tabs. If it detected unusual productivity, it might even try to push back an internal meeting, or if it predicted I would finish my draft, request a short calendar slot from my collaborators to give me timely feedback and bring in the delivery date.
This is beyond time management, it’s attention management. The goal is to change behavior patterns in a way that we don’t feel any sacrifice, but instead experience the joy of more cognitive flow, where time passes quickly, our output increases, and our focus peaks.
Attempts to reduce distraction and strengthen focus are nothing new. In the late 1980s, Francesco Cirillo invented a time management system called the Pomodoro Technique, which broke projects into 25 minute intervals, followed by short breaks. Today, as they say, “There’s an app for that!”. Currently topping the AppStore productivity category is an app called Forest, which rewards 25 minutes of focus with a virtual tree that grows from a sprout. But these approaches still require users to be proactive and self-directed in their time management, limiting how widespread their impact will be on daily life.
Most of us don’t realize how distracted we are, how costly the distractions are, nor how quickly those distractions are increasing each year. Interruptions like email and Slack are context switches, forcing you to refocus your brain in a momentum-killing way. Think of your brain as a computer. As you work on a project, you’re uploading and processing information into your RAM to create a fresh mental model. But the minute you shift your focus, there’s a re-write of the RAM. So, if you were in the middle of making a good point, you might lose it. You must refresh your context to be effective on that task again, both delaying the deliverable and increasing stress.
Building this AI will require addressing several challenges. It will need to work in conjunction with existing operating systems and apps, acting as a smart layer between the two. In this “AI focus mode” the device I’m on would need to understand the work I’m trying to accomplish, holding unrelated notifications at bay and hiding irrelevant windows and tabs out of sight, while still offering unfettered access to apps and data as required. When users aren’t working from an electronic task list — and most don’t — it may be difficult for the AI to discern the intent in progress . And, as is true for any successful consumer application, success demands a polished user experience.
The key will lie in delivering an effortless experience, regardless of the nature of work. The AI’s attention management models need to behave very differently for a reporter versus an author. And nobody likes being told what to do. The pixels on the screen and sounds from the speakers should guide attention naturally. When we reach a flow state, either by accomplishing important tasks or staying focused on a meaningful conversation, we go home feeling happier and satisfied with our workday outputs.
Building an AI-powered productivity tool that people embrace is no small feat. But if someone can deliver a solution for shepherding attention in service of our most important relationships and work, enterprises and investors will undoubtedly appreciate the ROI. Imagine how well the world would function if we all could accomplish the three most important (not urgent!) things on our to-do list every day and forever cease our phubbing. Eliminating just 15 minutes of distraction each workday would add almost $100 billion in productive labor to the US economy. There’s an untapped opportunity here and I look forward to seeing how founders respond.
Originally published at https://www.forbes.com.