“We are creating and encouraging a culture of distraction where we are increasingly disconnected from the people and events around us, and increasingly unable to engage in long-form thinking. People now feel anxious when their brains are unstimulated.” – Joe Kraus
Joe Kraus is a Partner at Google Ventures. A few years ago, he gave a talk about his concerns over the “crisis of attention” he sees in the world today. He believes that our increasing “addiction” to technology, and smartphones, in particular, is at the heart of a “pervasive culture of distraction” and our diminishing ability to concentrate on anything for any length of time.
Attention is a Muscle
We all know the expression practice makes perfect, and with most things in life, this holds true. However, the odd thing about distraction is that it’s a worsening condition. You see, the more distracted you are, the more distractible you become. For some, doing several things at once isn’t considered being distracted, it’s multitasking, but studies have revealed that the human brain is unable to multi-task effectively. You might think you’re multitasking, but in reality, you’re achieving less as your brain is having to switch from one task to the other. When you’re multitasking, you’re practicing distraction, and the more practiced you become at moving your attention from one thing to the next, the less able you become to keep your attention (longer-term) on one thing.
Wired for Distraction
Being distracted is not a new thing. Long before the advent of smartphones and other technological advances, humans were already biologically wired for distraction. If our early-man ancestors hadn’t looked over when they heard a rustle in the bushes, then chances are they’d have been ambushed by a lion. Our ancestors are the ones who looked up whenever they heard a noise!
The problem today is that technology is making it all too easy to over-train the easily distracted fast-thinking part of the brain, allowing the long-form thinking, creative, solitude-seeking, thought-consolidating parts to effectively wither away.
We’re losing creativity and insight.
Take a moment to think about times in your life when you’ve felt at your most creative or times when you’ve been at peak performance. Whether it was a physical or a mental task, you undoubtedly performed at your best because you were completely lost in the moment, right? When you’re completely absorbed in what you’re doing, you’re no longer distracted, and your thinking becomes longer-term rather than “quick-twitch”, keeping you in the present in what can be described as “the zone” – a place of peak performance and peak creativity.
Mind the Gap
According to research, people today report feeling least distracted when they’re in the shower. The shower has become the place for thought-consolidation and insights – unless you choose to take a waterproof phone in there with you – so shower time is gap time; a time when you can relax and let your mind wander. Creativity needs gap time. In the days before we had mobile technology in our pockets, gap time was a regular occurrence. There was gap time on the commute to work; gap time waiting in the queue for a coffee, gap time meeting friends for lunch… but those gaps no longer exist because we fill them with messaging, emailing, and checking social media alerts, even when we’re sitting across the table from someone else. Gap time today makes us anxious – so we pull out our phones.
We’re losing creativity and insight because we’ve lost our ability to make time for and manage gap time. So, what can we do about it? Well, ditching all technology would be one way to solve the problem, but it’s simply not realistic – or necessary. Technology is part of modern life and there’s lots to like about it, so the answer to the “crisis of attention” is to learn how to manage the way we use it. We need balance.
Finding balance begins by simply recognising the value of gap time or downtime. From there, everyone needs to find their own way of balancing the distracting brain-training we’re doing on a daily basis with time out doing something that doesn’t involve technology or fast-twitch thinking. Maybe that’s going for a daily walk with your phone turned off; maybe it’s unplugging for a day or going gadget-free for a set period of time each week; maybe it’s meditating, but in effect, it’s finding a way to capture that mind-wandering time experienced in the shower and then extending it.
The bottom line is that we need to get reacquainted with pausing because it’s through taking a pause or solitude and time for thought consolidation that we’ll learn to reconnect with the world around us and our creative mind. The last word on the dangers of continuing to live in a distracted state go to Joe Kraus, who says…
“Paying attention to anything will be the missing commodity in future life. You think you’ll miss nothing, but you’ll probably miss everything.”
Don MacNaughton is a High-Performance Coach, Mentor and Key Note Speaker.
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