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Distractions run amuck                                                                                     Print this essay

Posted at: May/14/2010 : Posted by: mel

Related Category: My philosophy,

Concentration is defined as giving all of your attention to a subject or — hey wait, I just got an email message.

Okay, I'm back. What was I saying?

Oh right...something about concentration — a subject that any modern-day technology user knows is in very short supply now.

The flipside of concentration is distraction. And in our always-on and always connected environment, we have more of that than ever. E-mail, text messaging, video clips, push updates, sound bites, and chat sessions may make us more productive and connected than we've ever been — in fact, they may be vital in helping us do our jobs, but for many of us they come at a significant price: a reduced ability to focus on a single task for more than a few minutes at a time.

Distraction exists because we allow them to. It's human nature to wonder what we're missing and to want to be the first to receive an update from a loved one or a piece of gossip from a well-placed source. The reason people leave those childish "FIRST!" comments on message boards is to express the undeniable delight anyone would feel at beating everyone else to the front of the line.

And so, over the past decade, programmers have injected distraction into tech products, giving those products an instantaneous response mechanism — a way to counteract our perennial fear that the world may be passing us by. But that doesn't mean it's good. Refocusing after even a brief distraction may take anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes; and the more complicated the task was that you left behind, the harder it is to re-immerse yourself in it. Among the bad potential results of this pattern are longer workdays, a succession of unfinished tasks, and a seemingly haphazard final product.

The good news is that you don't have to live with distraction (except for your children). Here I'll shares some of the worst technology distractions, and consider some way of dealing with the onslaught of interruptions.

The telephone: They may be despised by many, but some people still make actual voice calls — and they have a nasty habit of ringing right when you’re in the middle of doing something that requires sustained focus. The telephone rates as the most audibly intrusive disrupter of work continuity, its insistent, Klaxon-like ring demanding your immediate attention. At home that ring seems to only demand your attention during dinner or your favorite movie.

Smartphones do more to distract us than just ring. Many smartphones invite you to link social networking and mail programs on the phone’s operating system so that the phone buzzes, chimes, vibrates, or dings whenever a new voicemail, text message or e-mail message arrives. You can even get these rings and buzzing when someone adds a new comment under your status on Facebook. The continual updates can be very distracting, and because the system is mobile, the distraction follows you even into the restroom.

Email: wow…what a wonderful way to communicate in a timely and detailed manner. If you have the self-discipline to check your e-mail only a few times a day — or even every hour — you’re a rarity. The rest of us click "Check Mail" or “Send & Receive” the way a gerbil returns to the sugar water tap, hoping that something new is coming in. People using desktop software like “Outlook” have it even worse, as it can fetch e-mail almost constantly, then break into your workspace with pop-up alerts and mini digested versions of each new messaged.

Text messages: These often-lifeless mini-messages consume an increasing portion of the average person's day, rarely do they communicate any substantive information but nevertheless they command an immediate and almost Pavlovian response (salivation not included). It’s virtually impossible to ignore an incoming text message, even when it consists of nothing more than “sup?” (Translation: what’s up?). During a recent family trip to the movies we brought along some of our kids friends, one continued to receive text messages from his girl friend throughout the movie to the unfortunate distraction of others. When asked after the movie what all the important texting was about I was told “nothing really, she just wants to know I am there”.

Instant messages: IMs aren't quite the same beast as text messages, but they're just as intrusive. Worse yet, the sending party knows you are there and that you are at a typing friendly environment. If you are IMing in a work environment with your leadership there is also an expectation for you to spell correctly.

Social networks: Friend request comments on every little updates, and of course the endless Facebook solicitations for your input. As of this writing I have never visited Facebook, but apparently someone who knows someone, who knows someone, who knows someone who knows me, has. I don’t really care if you changed your brand of toothpaste. If it is this annoying for me, what is the distraction level for those who actually participate?

Twitter: I explored this animal recently. In my judgment this is probably the most disruptive form of social network. Twitter combines the rudeness and shorthand speak of text messaging, the often pointlessness chatter of message-board comments, and the real time delivery of an RSS feed to form a running commentary. For me at least, I have reached the conclusion that most of this commentary means nothing to anyone except the author. Still, without self discipline it can also consume your entire day as you lapse into a mindless follower mode.

The Internet: The Web is a cruel and seductive mistress. With CNN, YouTube, web shopping, The Onion, Perez Hilton updates, and a million other possibilities becoming roped, tied, and hypnotized is deceptively easy. One of the best ways to describe the Web is with the notion that there “is always something new on”. Whether entertainment, information, a viral video, or something yet to be defined, the affects are often all consuming of your precious time.

How to overcome these obstacles of our technology driven age: Really, the goal is to be as productive with your time as possible while not ignoring too many of these thing too much. Remember that some of these phone calls, text messages, RSS feeds and news bites are important in you decision making or what you are trying to get done. I know, it sounds like an impossible balance but you can do it.

Focusing on work instead of diversions is ultimately a matter of personal and mental dedication. As with any adversary much of the technology responsible for these distractions also offers thier own solutions.

On you phone you need to begin by programming/entering in all your critical contacts, your boss, your kids’ school, etc. When the phone rings look first at the caller ID, if the ID is not in your critical list you can let them go to voice mail. Trust me, its okay to wait 2-8 hours before returning many of your calls; it was not but a handful of years ago that this was common practice. You may find after 4 hours many of your voicemails upon review are best deleted and ignored. If you are up against a critical deadline, start by turning off the ringer while you’re working. For a really aggressive tactic, let your voicemail service get full, so that it can't accept additional messages. Soon you will lose your devotion to checking your voicemail and others will lose interest in attempting to reach you if the reason is trivial. If you phone gets alerts for the latest Netflick release, you may have to read the manual, but there are ways to turn this functionality off. Remember that your phone comes with every feature turned on and it is up to you to parse the list and configure it for your life situations.

E-mail: I love email, but without good training this critter can become the annoying puppy that follows you everywhere and never shuts up. First and foremost, decrease the frequency with which your email program fetches e-mail messages. This is a simple setting in most email tools. An interval of 10 to 15 minutes is long enough to minimize the distraction while keeping you connected to your colleagues. During critical projects and deadlines you may want to set the email refresh to 60 minutes. Remember that you can also disable those annoying “Desktop Alerts”.

On your smartphone, similar to desktop email, set the mail app to check for new messages on a schedule that you specify. You could also choose to retrieve new messages only when you manually check for them.

Text messages breed more text messages, because psychologically no one seems to be able to resist responding and everyone wants to have last word, not that it is really words. The best way to avoid text message abuse is by responding with a timetable for when you can meet face to face. This moves the dialog to a mutually agreed to time and place. For heavy-duty blockage, you can call your carrier and arranging to turn the texting (SMS) service off. Again, remember that the devices and accounts come with all the services turned on and it is up to you to selectively turn things off.

Instant messages are a kind of all or nothing deal. If you are logged in, all the other users know it and expect you to participate. You have to either choose to not log in, or select the “Away” status.

Social networking tools such as Facebook will always be a distraction, but you can minimize the annoyance. Go into your Facebook account and uncheck the boxes associated with emails and notifications, this will dramatically reduce the amount of chatter you get. Many of these tools only work when your web browser is open so consider leaving your browser closed except when you expressly want to do something on the internet.

The internet is a fascinating place with as much cool stuff as junk, if you have something important to do, your best way to avoid these distractions is to simply not open your web browser.

I wrote this little essay in response to a comment a received recently in which someone pointed out in frustration how much I seem to be always be accomplishing. The truth is that I am not really that productive. What I am good at is avoiding distractions when I need to concentrate and get something done. There is no magic, choose to minimize the distractions when you really need to be productive and you’ll get more done in less time…then go do something frivolous and enjoy it.

Most important of all, the person infront of you should always take priority over any other device, phone, text or otherwise. Most people love attention and don't like to be preempted by an annoying ringtone.

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Alan Cohen
Our history is not our destiny.
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