In a world of constant distraction from incessant emails, text messages, phone calls, social media, and 24-hour news media, it can be difficult if not impossible to really focus. Yet, time to focus is exactly what we need to solve the biggest challenges we face as individuals, organizations, and societies.
Today in the United States, teenagers can focus on one task for only 65 seconds before being distracted. Adults working in an office can do so for just three minutes. These are the findings of author Johann Hari, which he explores in his book Stolen Focus: Why you can’t pay attention—and how to think deeply again.
Further, the number of Americans who read books for pleasure is now at its lowest level ever. Gallup found that the proportion of Americans who never read a book in any given year tripled between 1978 and 2014. Currently, 57 percent of Americans do not read a single book in a typical year. While average Americans spend 17 minutes a day reading a book, they spend nearly five-and-a-half hours on their phone.
The advent of the internet and smartphones have certainly been beneficial to our society. But at what cost? What we consider essential tools to help us be better informed, more connected and improve our productivity, are in many cases causing us to be misinformed, increasingly lonely, and unable to focus on anything long enough to solve real problems or make progress.
Think about this for a minute. When was the last time you had an hour of uninterrupted time to think deeply about something? How about just 15 minutes before you were distracted and had to switch back to focusing again? Was it something external that distracted you or was it your internal desire to reach for your phone for just a second?
The problem is not only the amount of time you are distracted. It is the switching back and forth because it takes so much time to be fully focused again.
We can certainly find fault with those companies who are focused on creating and running the devices, websites and apps that keep us in this distracted state of mind. These companies are incentivized to keep our eyes glued to what they’ve created. Facebook could easily create a feature making it easy for you to find out who in your network is in a particular location so you could meet up with them. You would then have a real social engagement, but Facebook would lose the ad revenue once you disengage the app.
Nir Eyal, author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products and Indistractible, says there are things we can do as individuals to fight back. He suggests the 10-minute rule: When you feel the urge to check your phone, wait ten minutes. This short pause can help you stop simply reacting to the behavior that’s become a habit for all of us.
The moments in our lives that push us to give in to bad habits are what Eyal calls internal triggers. “An internal trigger is an uncomfortable emotional state,” he says. “It’s all about avoidance. It’s all about—how do I get out of this uncomfortable state?” He suggests thinking about our triggers nonjudgmentally. Find ways to disrupt them. When you are triggered to pick up your phone or Google something you’re curious about, instead, simply make a note and plan to do it later. Rarely, is it something you need to do immediately.
Other suggestions include:
- Silence notifications on your phone so that you’re not constantly interrupted.
- Turn on “do not disturb” when you want to focus or move your phone to another room.
- Delete all the apps you can from your phone, especially social media.
- Set up limits on how much time you can use each app so you are forced to disengage.
- Unsubscribe from email lists that are not important to you.
- Choose to have “office hours” for when you’ll read and respond to emails and stick to it.
My 18-year-old daughter recently attended a training where nobody knew each other. They were first seated in a circle and, although everyone else in the group pulled out their phones and began staring at them, she chose to simply sit and be present. Though no conversation ensued, I think that if only more of us would behave in this manner, we might begin to reclaim our humanity. We may realize our phones are simply a tool, which can be used by us or ruled over us.
Choose productivity over immediately satisfying your curiosity. You’re more likely to remain focused and you’ll be able to think deeply about things that really matter.