I find it weird that our phones come with a “do not disturb” button.
That means the default is “Go ahead and disturb all you want.”
If you don’t want to be disturbed, you need to actively search for and press a special button.
I recently read a disturbing Pew Research Center survey that was published last month. In the survey, 46 percent of American teenagers reported that they’re online “almost constantly” (up from 24 percent who said the same in 2014-15). 35 percent of teens say that they use at least one social media platform “almost constantly.”
It’s not just teens. The average American adult checks their email 74 times a day. The average knowledge worker switches tasks roughly every 10 minutes, shredding their attention into tiny, useless pieces. On average, Slack users check their messages every 5 minutes—fragmenting their focus at an absurdly high rate. (The irony about Slack is that it prevents people from having any of it.)
As the saying goes, there’s a reason why only drug dealers and Silicon Valley companies call their clients “users.”
Except this particular addiction is socially acceptable—even encouraged. Just look around an airport terminal. If everyone sucking on their digital pacifier were smoking a cigarette instead, we would announce an epidemic.
As you spend more time bouncing around distractions, and less time focusing on a single activity, the neural networks that support those old functions begin to weaken. We pick up a book and find ourselves reading the same paragraph over and over. We can’t sit through a film or have a long conversation without reaching for our phone. Our focus constantly flickers.
“A wealth of information,” as Herbert Simon says, “creates a poverty of attention.” If your attention is fragmented and impulsively pulled in a million different directions, you won’t be able to remember much. You can’t make associations, connect dots, and form new insights. You can’t think.
Ideas often don’t arrive with a bang. There’s no parade. The big thing never screams that it’s a big thing. At first glance, the big thing actually looks quite small. If there’s no silence in your life—if your life is full of constant chatter—you won’t be able to hear the subtle whisper when it arrives.
Distraction is antithetical to originality. If you can’t chill, you can’t innovate. It’s that simple.
Instead of constantly operating on “disturb” mode and occasionally switching to “focus” mode, change the default.
Operate on “focus” mode by default and then take the occasional break for distractions.