You may have heard it said that social media is an irredeemable demon, a complete waste of time. And before the days of social media, we were told that hours of television and video games amounted to an utter waste of a life. It seems that Bertrand Russell’s old adage that ‘Time you enjoy wasting is never wasted time’ does not apply to our entertainments in the age of distraction.
But is this cultural evaluation a tad hasty? As appealing as it is to relieve life of all its fun, perhaps it would be best if we traded out all the guilt and self-loathing for something with a little more panache. Maybe we’d all be better off harnessing this profligate procrastination as a weapon in our personal productivity arsenal because harnessed correctly, distraction is a fuel for deep, focussed work.
The basis for this audacious statement is that we are not, as they say, in-dividuals. On the contrary, we are very much “dividual” and our overall identity is better understood as a congress of inner microselves than as a single unified mind. Our bodies can most accurately be described as the home of multiple selves that take over the steering wheel at different points throughout the day.
An example: you decide to go on a diet and you feel excited about this. You are doing well for five days, but then, one afternoon you forget your packed lunch and there’s no good option within easy reach; then, in the afternoon you find your mind polluted with salacious fantasies of a KitKat Chunky. Now you find that your mind has gone through something of a transformation: all dietary qualms have gone out the window and you want to eat something sweet and by God you want to eat it now, health and image be damned. Fast forward fifteen minutes and you’ve got a mouth plastered with the chocolatey biscuity remains of temptation’s sweet fruit and a heart filled with all the self-loathing and regret of the vanquished.
In figuring out what happened here, the notion of our in-dividuality generates bizarre explanations. If that were the case, we would all be best bound for the padded walls of Bedlam. In the space of an hour you go from being adamantly on a diet to changing your mind and wanting a KitKat Chunky more than any dietary outcome and then within another 20 minutes you are back on wanting to diet but feeling like a abject failure. It is absurd. What happened of course is that there was an internal struggle. Willpower only lasts so long and the noble idea of dieting folds like a cheap tent in a gale before the primal hunger for sugar. There is the rational self that makes long term plans according to noble ideals and then there’s the stomach that wants to be fed. Now. When they come into conflict willpower tries to assert its dominance but, when will is not enough, you will inevitably be left with the chocolately aftertaste of KitKat and the bitter indigestion of regret. And with the belly full, the ebbing tides of lust retreat and we are left feeling rather woeful as if we have betrayed ourselves and are somehow morally inferior.
Another example: the snooze alarm. When you go to bed, you set your alarm for 6.30 and you reckon that this is the best time to rise. But then you wake up to the jarring sound of your alarm at 6.30 and after doing some quick maths you figure that actually you can afford to snooze once (or twice). It is not that you forgot that you were supposed to get up at 6.30, it is just that you failed to factor in another one of your micropersonalities: the snooze alarmer. Again you can try and rely on willpower but that is a weak long-term solution.
In both these examples which we all know so well, the same situation is seen with very different eyes depending on the perspective we are viewing it from. This is I think the essence of the trouble with our relationship to distraction. We fail to take into account the other selves that share this psyche. The cookie-monster and the snooze-alarmer are just two among many.
Now let’s take this into the workspace. In this modern era, the highest virtue is productivity. We are motivated to be busy constantly and if we are anything but (and don’t have the excuse of being fantastically wealthy) then the condemnation for all that we are finds an easy target. What we are and what we do is never enough. We have run out of hours in the day and so we start stealing them from the night in the hopes of catching up and finding some peace at least. Exhaustion has become a status symbol, a new way of measuring our worth. The mother who works full time but still manages to take her kids to a hundred and one extra-curricular activities during the week and to chair the neighbourhood watch committee is exalted; Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos trumpeting their work hours like a badge of honour—working 70-120 hour weeks—is now something to enviously aspire to. It all seems quite noble but it ultimately amounts to little more than the misery of a slog redeemed only by the status badge of superiority. No matter, it has become a cultural standard.
Too often, the majority of us fail time and again to meet our high expectations for ourselves. We try hard and work hard and then find that tomorrow our energy can’t sustain what today carved out for us. We work and work and find ourselves inexplicably undermined in a moment of weakness by a hasty click on the Instagram or Facebook app and away we go squandering our time and clocking up our many minutes of distraction which are inexplicably destined to surprise us when we see our screen time summary at the end of the week.
There’s a lot of interesting studies out there on distraction which I’ve been pouring through over the past few months putting together the Time Management course for Udemy. In one study it was found that workers who use computers waste one third of their day switching between tasks and switch between windows or other programs nearly 37 times in an hour. One NYT reporter earned a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for a series he did on the costs of distraction when driving. Apparently if you talk on the phone while driving you decrease your reaction times to the same level as someone who’s drink-driving and 16% of all traffic fatalities and half a million injuries annually in the United States alone are down to distracted driving.
The work of Dr David Meyer on multitasking is also quite fascinating. He has discovered that every time you want to take action your brain has to load the context of what you’re doing into working memory. If you constantly switch the focus of your attention you’re forcing your brain to spend time and effort loading the task up again and again. The cost in extra time to each task ranges from time increases of 25% or less for simple tasks to well over 100% or more for very complicated tasks. Over a whole day it has been found that workers are interrupted on average every 11 minutes and spend one third of the day recovering. Multitaskers make more mistakes than non-multitaskers and they experience higher levels of stress.
It seems that wherever we are there is never enough time and we are always trying to do a million things. This attempt to do everything though undermines our attempts to do anything and we are left with a great deficit of productivity. So, you might ask, how exactly do we deal with this? If we don’t have enough time and we keep getting distracted what can we do?
Again, I think the answer comes back to the mistaken notion that we are in-dividuals with a single will. We already talked about the snooze alarm and the KitKat Chunky and how some other aspect of our selves undermines our best intentions. This sense of being undermined comes back to our being very much dividuals: collectives of micropersonalities. There is the dieter and there is the one who breaks the diet. There is the hungry micropersonality and the ambitious one and they come into conflict when hunger comes on the scene. The same thing happens with the snooze alarm and so too with distraction.
What we need to do then is to stop the vicious cycle of undermining ourselves and to do this we have to keep all the micropersonalities happy. We are not going to stop needing to relax and so what we need to do is make it a conscious choice to do so lest we find ourselves undermined by an unconscious force. The best way to stay on a diet is to keep the hunger fed with good stuff. If you are never hungry then it’s difficult to feel temptation. The analogy is the same for distraction. So long as we feed the part of us that wants to relax and be distracted, that part will not undermine us and hijack us by clicking on the Instagram icon in a moment of absent-mindedness and we won’t be left zoning out into a newsfeed while our rational self stews in an increasing sense of guilt and powerlessness.
If this sounds like a drain or an extra task to be done then think again. It is in fact quite the opposite. When distraction is scheduled its nature changes. We can then harness it as an ally rather than being undermined by it. The way to feed the distraction demon consciously is to schedule it. Choose a time when you allow yourself to indulge in your favourite distraction whether that be scrolling down the newsfeed or playing Candy Crush for the millionth time. Instead of having distraction be a time waster in your day, use it as a reward for doing good work. Put your phone on silent for an hour. Sit and work on one thing without distraction and then at the end of the hour reward yourself with ten or fifteen minutes of indulgence in distraction.
If this sounds wasteful, think about the alternative: switching windows up to 37 times an hour, spending one third of the day getting back on track and taking 25-100% longer to do a task. Why waste so much time splitting your energies and doing mediocre work when you can focus your energies and do far more productive work while also getting the reward of your favourite distraction afterwards without the burden of self-loathing and guilt? Rather than going cold turkey and saying never again, make it easier for yourself and lower the friction of your behaviour change by making it easy. Harness your weakness as a strength, use it to drive your success rather than inhibiting it.
The key is to understand that just because you don’t choose to entertain it, doesn’t mean that it won’t get entertained. Willpower is a finite reserve and so the secret to a successful diet is to never be hungry and the secret to a productive workflow is to separate relaxation and productivity and feed them both in their own time.