How bots can help us win the battle against distraction

Justin Lee
Feb 26, 2018 · 9 min read

Last Tuesday, my brain nearly exploded. I was writing some marketing collateral and I had finally slipped into the zone. The words were starting to flow.

Then five red Slack notifications appeared. A colleague messaged me on WhatsApp. My cell phone buzzed and I cursed myself for failing to put it on silent. Three urgent emails popped into my (regrettably open) inbox and, worst of all, my actual desk phone rang.

My focus was gone. I forgot what I was doing and turned my attention to all these bright, buzzing alerts. I looked up some research numbers and got sucked into a story about the Cape Town water crisis.

When I finally got back to the task at hand, I wasn’t just distracted; I was angry. Overwhelmed. I suddenly felt the weight of my to-do list and everything I wanted to accomplish.

I love technology (I work at HubSpot, after all), but intrusive tools can make it harder for everyone to do their most important, most innovative work. Constant task-switching also prevents us from entering the deep satisfaction of a flow state.

Wait… what is flow?

Coined in the early 1990s by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, flow is a state of consciousness marked by creativity, enjoyment and deep involvement with work and life. It’s the feeling of being so absorbed in an experience that nothing else seems to matter. Your concentration becomes so intense, there’s no space left for intrusive or irrelevant thoughts. Time gets distorted and you lose yourself in the moment. We’ve all had this incredible feeling — and the basis of flow is focus.

No one achieves an optimal psychological state while checking Instagram or juggling five active text threads. But, while technology can be a massive distraction (and a topic of sophisticated brain research), the tools we’re all trying to master may actually set us free.

The bots are here to help

You’ve heard about bots — and most people have interacted with them — but a bot is simply a computer program that automates specific tasks. It usually works by chatting with a user through a conversational interface. Hence, the term “chatbot.”

Some of the early experiments with chatbots have been less-than-helpful and even downright annoying, but here’s how they can work:

Imagine we’re in the middle of a Skype call. I need to send you some new materials. Instead of switching programs, finding the right file, and eventually sending the document or URL, a bot would “hear” the reference in our conversation and automatically share it via the messaging field.

The chatbot serves as a digital assistant. It does the task-switching, so we can stay in the flow of our conversation. We can remain focused and finish without interruptions.

The bot could play a similar role while you’re writing an important report. When you realize a date is missing, you would just ask the bot, instead of digging through your email, CRM or Slack history. You can keep writing — which also prevents you from checking Facebook, since your attention is already fractured.

But what about the creep factor?

When I share that Skype example, people often use the word “lurk.” They imagine the bot as a digital eavesdropper, compromising their privacy and chiming in at inopportune moments.

I understand the reaction, but remember that the bot is simply a computer program. It has the artificial intelligence required to learn preferences and behavior patterns, but it lacks critical thinking skills. It doesn’t judge. It’s completely private. And it’s there to help, not to assess anything about who you are, how you’re working, or what you’re discussing.

An even more heightened response is straight-up fear. Some people worry that bots will replace human jobs. We’ve already seen how automation has eliminated everything from typesetting to vehicle assembly. Technology continues to transform our world.

But bots are not meant to replace humans. In their best use-case, they can help us to remove distractions. They help people to work more effectively. For business owners, they can actually fuel growth by minimizing busywork and supporting macro, strategic-level thinking.

Human vs. machine

Let’s clarify the essential differences between people and machines.

Computers are good at processing, storing and explaining data and information.

People are good at developing insights, determining next steps, reviewing data, and creative thinking, which connects disparate ideas in order to solve a problem or express an idea.

Machines shouldn’t be trusted to come up with insights, just as humans aren’t good at storing or processing large amounts of data. We should leave that to the machines.

Here’s where freedom through technology comes in. When bots can free us from storing and processing, we can reclaim mental space to do our inherently human work — including finding that sweet spot of flow. We can turn the volume down on distraction.

Five ways to think about emerging technology

If you’re an entrepreneur, marketer, sales leader or anyone who’s trying to grow a business, I want to share something we’re exploring at HubSpot. Just like many organizations, we’re eager to harness emerging technologies. These are all the buzzy innovations like Artificial Intelligence, blockchain, AR/VR and bots (including our new GrowthBot).

But, we don’t want to add to the commotion. Our goal is to help people regain their focus. We believe new technologies should serve the work that matters most to you, rather than hindering your ability to achieve flow.

Bot technology, for example, will evolve as it goes mainstream, but there are five principles we’re testing as we build in this uncharted territory. These are our hypotheses — and I hope they spark new ideas for you and your team.

1. Users behave differently on every platform

The most successful bots (and other new technologies) will integrate with applications we already rely on, but these digital spaces are not created equal.

People who chat in Facebook messenger and Slack, for example, use the platforms differently.

Messenger conversations tend to be more personal in nature. And while Facebook has billions of worldwide users, there’s also a lot of noise. Many companies are already releasing Facebook-based bots for everything from shopping to weather reports.

Slack is primarily a business app. Most people use it to communicate with colleagues and co-workers. Traffic is high during the traditional 9–5-ish workday and it slows in the off hours. There’s a greater emphasis on utility and efficient information exchange.

If you’re working with emerging technologies, consider the arena. Think about what truly serves your users. Any new product should function and communicate in a way that supports what people are already there to accomplish. Make sure you understand the platform and integrate your tech as seamlessly as possible. You can also leverage what you understand about the space to enhance your marketing.

2. Messaging apps can encourage viral adoption

For the first time since their debut, more people now interact with social messaging apps (like Messenger, Slack, WhatsApp) than social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram). That’s a massive shift. And if we go deeper, what does that change mean?

It’s the next, logical step in communication technology. For example, many of us grew up with the one-way information flow of television. You just sat back and watched. The internet enabled two-way digital interactions. With the rise of mobile, we became constantly connected. Messaging apps now provide two-way, 24/7 connections to our own personal networks.

Chatbots that add value to that connected, mobile and personal context will be poised to lead. Looking with a broader lens, any new products and technologies that respect the nuances of that space will gain more loyal users and customers.

Think, too, about how social technologies go viral. It’s not through advertising, but through use and one-to-one recommendations. If your friends on those five text threads are using a certain app, bot or technology, chances are you’ll start using it, too. That’s exciting news for anyone who can provide a truly valuable service.

3. Connected applications enhance value

Speaking of value, research shows that most people use just five different apps on a regular basis. We have core tools that enhance our daily work and life. So, battling distraction won’t happen by downloading new apps. It’s a matter of digging more benefits from the ones we already use.

For example, we’re building GrowthBot to work with over a dozen systems and APIs. That means the bot can pull data from a CRM, ERP or email system, plus platforms like LinkedIn. After all, we have Google. No one needs an information retrieval system. But having a smarter way to connect, integrate and manage your information is a different story.

New technologies should minimize the noise, not add to it. Work to streamline and connect. Reduce those activities that computers do best and free up people to work and live better.

4. We all crave high-level experiences

“Disruptive technology” is such an overused term. But it’s tough to find a better reference. Industry-disrupting ideas like Uber, Airbnb and Postmates changed the game because they improved an experience. They enhance utility — and they also satisfy our emotional needs.

For example, we might take Lyft instead of renting a car because there’s less hassle (no confusing insurance packages) and it’s usually cheaper. Probe deeper and the emotional pull is all about freedom. It allows you to go where you want, when you want. You’re not constrained. You can be someone who has choice, freedom and independence.

If we think about chatbots and the battle for focus, what is distraction, anyway? People want to be more productive, but again, the experience goes deeper. Eliminating the stress and anxiety of distraction makes us feel that we can do great work — work that matters. We can become the best version of ourselves. That’s a big deal.

Explore the core identity that drives your users and customers. Technology that helps people to achieve those higher-level desires will find a solid place in their lives.

5. Education needs to match technical expansion

Yes, the bots need education, but so do people.

Think about it this way. Have you ever yelled at Siri? I know I have. We let the expletives fly when there’s a disconnect between what we expect and what we experience. You think Siri’s going to open a map and she dials KFC instead. That’s frustrating.

With any new and disruptive technology, we need to ensure that users understand its role — and its limits. A chatbot isn’t a web browser. It doesn’t behave the same way, and that’s not how it provides value. Yet most people have almost two decades of experience with browsers. Opening Google is a tough habit to change.

As founders, product creators, and marketers, our job is to help people learn new skills. We can keep stretching what the technology can do AND we need to show people how to harness it.

These are our current hypotheses. I can’t claim they’re airtight, because GrowthBot is still an experiment. We’ll know more as we test and learn how to better serve our users.

Above all, I truly believe that bots (and other emerging technologies) have the power to enhance human conversations. I’m passionate about the possibilities. Technology can ultimately free us from the mental chaos that the digital revolution has unleashed and help us to reclaim space, creativity and connection.

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