In this dense, somewhat plodding, and potentially off-puttingly Buddhist – but incredibly important and often fascinating – work of nonfiction, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang describes the way in which modern technological devices (like smartphones) have predisposed many of us to a “distraction addiction” and suggests ways in which we can practice more “contemplative computing” in order to put our devices in service of our happiness and productivity rather than shaping our lives to their capacity.
After describing technological devices as an extension of our own minds, he offers up a choice. You can allow your extended mind to be a racing and inefficient jumble (characterized by “[toddleresque mobile devices]: they’re super-responsive, simultaneously eager to please and oppressively demanding, always on, and insistent that we pay attention to them”), or “[y]ou can create an extended mind that’s strengthened by the joining of diverse skills, not weakened by unending distractions, unhelpful complexity, and unexamined habits.” No Luddite, Pang writes, “The aim isn’t to escape, but to engage – in our case, to set the stage on which we can bring our entanglement with devices and media under our control so we can more effectively engage with the world and extend ourselves.”
Since getting an iPhone a few years ago I’ve told myself that stopping any given activity just long enough to glance at my email is restorative and efficient; after all, John Medina’s neuroscience research shows that our brains can really only focus in ten-minute chunks: “At 9 minutes and 59 seconds, you must do something to regain attention and restart the clock – something emotional and relevant. Also, the brain needs a break.” And yet, I’ve harbored a growing suspicion that all the toggling back and forth between apps isn’t as fulfilling, or even as productive, as it seems.
Pang validates this unease, summarizing research regarding three concepts: “switch-tasking,” “flow,” and “real time”:
- Switch-tasking: “[W]e use the word multitasking to describe two completely different kinds of activities. Some are productive, intellectually engaging, and make us feel good. Others are unproductive, distracting, and make us feel stretched thin. It’s important to distinguish these different kinds of multitasking, because we use the word very casually, and often incorrectly. [True multi-tasking] we do when we’re engaged in complicated projects; we have to juggle lots of balls so they’ll land in the right places, in the right order, at the right time. [For example, performing lots of separate cooking tasks all aimed at preparation of the same meal.] We do this fairly naturally . . . . [But with what many of us erroneously refer to as multi-tasking, switch-tasking,] your brain is toggling between different activities, constantly redirecting its focus, tearing away from one task to deal with another [like when you attempt to simultaneously watch TV and scroll through your Facebook feed] . . . . [S]witch-tasking is a lot harder for the brain to manage . . . . Every time you move from one window to another on your computer or move from reading your e-mail to listening to a conference call, your mind has to spend energy. By some estimates, you can lose several working hours every week to these moments . . . . You also make more mistakes when you switch-task.” Moreover, the more you switch-task, the more addicted to fragmented thought your mind becomes, and the more difficulty you have concentrating. It also “mak[es] us less creative . . . and caus[es] us to be susceptible to self-delusion [regarding how much we’re accomplishing and how effectively].”
- Flow: “Challenge, exhilaration, worthwhile and rewarding difficulties, and an intense awareness of them: these are what produce flow, and flow is the key to happiness. . . . [Think of flow like being “in the zone” when playing sports or successfully pulling ideas together in writing.] The ability to pay attention [and to be entirely engaged in a single pursuit] . . . is critical to a good life. This explains why perpetual distraction is such a big problem. When you’re constantly interrupted by external things – the phone, texts, people with ‘just one quick question,’ clients, children – by self-generated interruptions, or by your own [switch-tasking], the chronic distractions erode your sense of having control of your life [and impede your ability to feel happy.]”
- Real-time: Describing the work of Ruth Schwartz Cowan (which analyzed the impact of household appliances), Pang writes “time studies of housework conducted decades apart showed virtually no change in the number of hours women spent keeping house: women in the 1970s spent as much time doing dishes, washing clothes, and cleaning house as their grandmothers had. Technology made housework easier, but it didn’t make life easier. . . . [This example is just one] cautionary tale of how technology makes work easier but then creates new work by changing who does the work and raising the standards to which it must be done.” Similarly, as technology has improved, we’ve tried to speed everything from correspondence to financial trading up to our devices’ capacity. “Trying to keep up with real time . . . disrupts life [in an attempt] to make life more seamless. . . . ‘Minds, organizations, cities, entire societies all need time to integrate and process new ideas,’ futurist Anthony Townsend says. ‘If you think you have to constantly, instantly react, rest and contemplation and deliberation . . . disappears.’” In other words, allowing computing capacity to determine our timeline, rather than our own brains’ needs, allows our “extended minds” to drag us down rather than serve us well.
Pang then turns to solutions, in part by looking at “a group of people who are regular users of social media but who seem immune to its effects[:] . . . monks who blog.” The following suggestions particularly resonated with me:
- “Are there times of day when it feels most satisfying to check your mail?” Keep track for a while and then only check it at those times.
- “If it seems like simply spending less time on e-mail would be good, try setting a couple of specific times a day for you to check your mail. Do it on one machine only . . . .”
- With respect to social media use, try to “[e]xperience now, share later, and give yourself time to make sense of what you’ve done.” Only make comments that you feel are beneficial. In other words, “tweet mindfully.” Also, “give up trying to follow all your friends all the time, [and] accept that you’re just going to miss some fascinating things.”
- “[U]se the design principles behind contemplative environments [like churches and garden paths] to create restorative experiences and interactions in small, temporary, and unexpected places [like an airplane seat].”
- “Turning off the million little requests and interactions that cascade into distraction and exhaustion is good, but trying to recover your mind just by unplugging is like trying to fix a building by abandoning it. T[ry employing a] digital Sabbath [but remember that it] is defined not only by what you turn off and ignore but also by what you do with the pauses.”
- “[L]earn to be aware of how devices and media affect your breathing and mood.”
- “[R]eplace switch-tasking with real multitasking.”
- In general, consciously “adopt tools and practices designed to protect your attention.”
In sum, through “a bunch of small observations and experiments,” you can “[l]earn how to focus on your ultimate goals, be mindful about the technology at hand, and switch tools when they don’t work – this is how you enhance your extended mind.”
A few years ago (long before I first read about the concept of “flow” in “All Joy and No Fun”), I decided to stop trying to engage in flow activities (like reading and writing) when the kids are present. Since reading “Distraction Addiction,” I’ve also gone on a massive unsubscribe binge, set filters to reroute emails I don’t need to see immediately but would like to be able to search for later, switched from the “most recent” to the “newsfeed” setting on Facebook, tried to create little “digital Sabbaths” by leaving my phone on silent, and adopted a host of other policies that leave me feeling less overwhelmed and living more in the moment.
Perhaps none of Pang’s suggestions (or the practices I adopted) will work for you. Some will, but that’s not why you should read the book. At the end of the day, “Distraction Addiction” adds immense value simply by calling attention to a problem we each suffer from in varying degrees and urging us to think about what separate steps each of us can take to resolve it. Pang would say that “contemplative computing” can mean a million different technology protocols for a million different people – but we should all do it rather than letting our devices’ computing capacity drag us toward a default of constant distraction and mindless action. Bottom line: “Distraction Addiction” is worth the slog.