Social media and many other elements of modern life are impacting our ability to concentrate, harming our efforts to produce work that makes a difference.
James Williams, the former Google strategist, once addressed an audience of hundreds of leading tech designers. He asked them a simple question: “How many of you want to live in the world you are designing?”
There was silence in the room. People looked around. Nobody put up their hand.
Williams understood the shared guilt in the room. Reflecting on his time at Google: “I had quickly come to understand that the cause to which I had been conscripted was not the organisation of information, but of attention.”
Our era is often called the Age of Information – but a more accurate description is the Age of Attention.
Herbert Simon, the American computer technologist, noted in the 1970s that when information becomes abundant, attention becomes the scarce resource. Attention is what those tech designers have been mining over the past decade and a half. They’ve done it to perfection.
We feel it. A collective collapse of our attention span. The data is stark. The average smartphone user rarely goes two hours without using their device, unlocks it 50 or more times a day, and swipes or taps on it as many as 2,617 times in the process.
This robs our ability to concentrate, harming our efforts to produce work that makes a difference. Research shows our brain can only produce one or two thoughts in our conscious minds at once. Rapidly switching tasks back and forth slows us down and affects the quality of what we’re doing. This is constant. We are in a perfect storm of cognitive degradation.
We need a more intentional approach to reclaim our attention. There are solutions, but before exploring them, we need to look more closely at why we’ve lost our ability to concentrate.
The Great Acceleration
It’s easy to blame our diminishing attention spans on the internet, but the reality is more nuanced. Think-tank director Robert Colvile believes our concentration is suffering due to what he calls “The Great Acceleration.”
In the nineteenth century, news could take days to travel from place to place. Then, new technologies like the telegraph, radio and television sped up the spread of information. Add the massive amount of information inputs we now ingest. In 1986, the average Westerner consumed the equivalent of 40 newspapers a day through the various information inputs.
By 2004, that figure is now equivalent to 174 newspapers. Today, we’d expect even higher.The internet supercharged this acceleration, with information coming at us from every angle, intruding on our lives. Our brains can’t handle this. Research in speed-reading suggests there’s a finite limit to how quickly we can process information. Neuroscientists point out the cognitive capacity of the brain hasn’t significantly changed in the last 40,000 years, but the amount of information we put into our brain has massively increased.
Addictive By Design
This surge in information, aligned with the powerful innovations in technology and communications, has improved our lives. It’s never been easier to keep in touch with a distant family member, learn a skill from the comfort of your own home, or find like-minded groups of people online to explore common interests.
The problem is that many of the apps and online platforms born of this digital age are engineered to be addictive by design, not by accident. Social media companies are driven by the goal of consuming as much of your time and conscious attention as possible. The longer you engage, the more they can sell adverts. Time equals money. Your time.
Computer science professor and author of Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport says: “Technology greatly improves our life, right up until the point where you stop using it intentionally and unwittingly fall into manipulative black holes—on your phone, on Slack, in your inbox—that are specifically designed to be addicting.”
This addiction comes in the form of dopamine; a little hit once in a while to keep you coming back. Dopamine allows you to feel pleasure, satisfaction, and motivation. It creates a positive association with whatever behaviors prompted its release, training you to repeat them. Tech companies hijacked the dopamine reward system, engineering our actions. Dopamine is why your phone looks and feels like a slot machine, with its colorful notifications, whooshes and vibrations. It trains your mind to associate the rush of social validation with its visual, auditory, and tactile effects. It’s a Pavlovian effect.
The casinos understood this power decades ago. One of their most powerful secrets, which social media companies replicated, is called intermittent variable reinforcement—rewarding someone only sometimes and at random. It’s based on the research of psychologist B. F. Skinner and his work with rats, buttons, and cheese.
The rewards motivated rats to carry out tasks that had no intrinsic meaning to them. Now we are the rats. The unpredictability of the success of our posts keeps us engaged longer. Some posts pay off; others very little. The platform/AI decides who receives your content. Social media apps are the casino in your pocket, and just like the casinos, there are no clocks in sight.
As Max Fisher highlights in his book, The Chaos Machine: The Inside Story of How Social Media Rewired our Minds and Our World, social apps hijack a basic human compulsion—a need to connect. These are the “manipulative black holes” Newport talks about.
Another is infinite scrolling. In the early days of the internet, web pages were just pages. You reached the end, then clicked through to the next. Aza Raskin invented the infinite scroll to create an endless refreshing feed of content now ubiquitous on every social media platform. He estimated the infinite scroll encourages the average user to spend 50 per cent more time on platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Like those tech designers listening to James Williams, Raskin came to regret his invention.
The cost of rapidly switching between tasks
This addictive by design nature has a cost. When you switch between tasks—or you’re interrupted—your brain needs to recalibrate. The evidence shows your performance drops. You’re slower because of the switching. The quality of your work drops. That has an impact, both for you and the organisation you work for. You’re creating less value.
Many organisations today put a premium on an employee being able to multitask. Yet, humans are poor at multitasking. Computer scientists in the 1960s coined the word “multitask” to describe the function of computers with multiple processors. It was never meant to apply to humans. After all, we only have one processor: our brain.
One study at the Carnegie Mellon University’s human computer interaction lab took 136 students and got them to sit a test. Some of them had to have their phones switched off, and others had their phones on and received intermittent text messages. The students who received messages performed, on average, 20 per cent worse. Professor Earl Miller, neuroscientist at MIT, says, “Your brain can only produce one or two thoughts in your conscious mind at once. That’s it. We’re very, very single minded and have very limited cognitive capacity.”
Finding Flow To Reclaim Our Attention
Knowing how our brain works means we can be more intentional to help us achieve optimal performance, better training our attention and concentration, giving us back a feeling of more control. We can get there through the flow state.
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced six-cent-mihaly) is the foremost thinker on this state, and proposed the name flow. He describes it as an effortless condition of feeling both completely immersed and totally in control, a state of concentration so deep that people lose their sense of time, of themselves, of their problems.
We can achieve flow in many different environments and activities, such as rock climbing, coding, writing, playing a musical instrument, or doing a jigsaw puzzle. Anyone can achieve flow according to Csikszentmihalyi, as long as they meet three key conditions:
1. Choose one goal only—you need to direct all your mental energy to one task.
2. Choose one goal that is both meaningful and rewarding to you—it needs to be the process rather than the product that engages you.
3. Make sure the task is hard enough to demand your full attention, but not so hard that you’re tempted to give up on it. Something that stretches you.
Flow helps you rebuild attention and enables you to create new value that is hard to replicate. That makes it a competitive differentiator.
There’s another tool at our disposal—embracing boredom. The novelist and playwright Ayad Akhtar touched on this subject in his article for The Atlantic, making the connection to addiction. “The urge to reach out for the screen now feels like a rightful impatience with boredom of any sort.
But it isn’t that. It’s withdrawal. And from this endlessly recurring neurochemical deficit is born a sense of circumstance and a syllogism that goes like this: Something is wrong if nothing is happening. Something is always happening on this screen. Nothing’s wrong when I’m on this screen.”
Next time you’re standing in line or waiting for a friend to return from the bathroom, avoid reaching for your phone. Every time you do this, you reinforce a reaction you’ve been conditioned to. And again, it comes at a cost. If your mind is used to getting distracted every time you feel bored, you learn not to tolerate boredom. You reach for the stimuli of the phone and what lies within. That craving reappears when you’re working, especially when you’re working on something hard.
Learning to be “bored” helps break this relationship with your screen, giving you back your autonomy. It’s not really boredom either; it’s the quiet time your brain craves. Enjoy those moments with your own thoughts. Let your mind wander. It’s often how we get our best ideas.
Heal your attention, don’t attack it
Individual actions like deliberate practice of the flow state, embracing quiet time and being more intentional with social media can help rebuild your attention, create higher quality work and make you feel less stressed.
These are actions within your control. They will help, but we still need broader systematic change to fix the root cause. There are already positive signs.
Silicon Valley has disillusioned designers pushing back against the attention crisis. Their public stories may see more pressure on tech companies to abandon, or at least redesign, their current business model, making modifications that, in the words of writer Johan Harri, will “heal our attention instead of attacking it.”
A decentralisation of social media also feels more achievable, knocking down the walled gardens of a handful of powerful tech players to open up a much more fragmented social media landscape, closer to the “social networking” original vision, where people connect with groups and activities they’re interested in, rather than compulsively engaging with algorithmically fueled moral outrage posts.
Finally, more enlightened organisations can introduce new workflows and smarter tools that better address the dangers of context-shifting. This includes software from the likes of Trello and Asana, which provide digital boards and processes that both teams and individuals can use to reduce back-and-forth communications.
The struggle to disconnect
Today, about 35% of workers feel they can never switch off their phones because their boss might email them at any time of day or night.
In France, people lobbied their government for change. There is now a legal “right to disconnect” law. Workers have a right to defined work hours, and they have a right not to be contacted by their employer outside those hours. Companies that break the rules get huge fines. This could pave the wave for similar legislation in other countries.
These solutions might feel small, but they can be potent. We’re facing big collective issues that require our focus and attention more than ever. And in our personal lives, we want to be present with our families and friends, not lost in a screen.
We can feel optimistic. We have more control than we think. By being more intentional, we can better define the immediate world around us and unlike those tech designers, we want to be able to raise our hands when asked if we’re happy with the world we’re designing. Especially if it means putting down our phones.
About the Author
James Gibb is senior director and chief of staff for international markets at Dell Technologies. He is also an ASICS FrontRunner and running coach. His blog Deep Life Journey addresses many interesting subjects related to deep learning and how to lead a happier and more successful life.