Waiting for the next e-mail or internet "hit" means we are constantly distracted from our everyday tasks. But don't blame technology because the causes are human, says author Damon Young.
I put down my pen, opened my laptop to write this, and instantly received two e-mails.
Then my smartphone rang - it had the e-mails too. Without thinking, I clicked the inbox: one e-mail about a conference I'm organising, another from my father.
I automatically replied to my colleague, and clicked on my dad's embedded link - photographs from the Hubble space telescope. Breathtaking glowing spirals, vibrant gaseous pillars, and...
Wait. What was I doing? Oh, right. Writing for the BBC on technology and distraction.
Instead of focusing on our work or home life, we're waiting for the next 'hit'
I'm not alone in my diversions. According to a 2007 study by Loughborough University academic, Thomas Jackson, most of us reply to e-mails immediately - many within six seconds. Then it takes at least a minute to recover our thoughts. Not long after, more e-mails arrive, with more checking, and so on.
As a result of this constant stimulus, we can become habituated. Instead of focusing on our work or home life, we're waiting for the next "hit": clicking on "new mail" every few minutes. King's College research commissioned by Hewlett Packard suggested that this e-mail preoccupation was reducing the mental sharpness of volunteers.
This combination of distraction and addiction also occurs with the internet. Psychologists call it a "variable interval reinforcement schedule".
As with gambling, the internet doesn't always lead to a "hit" - the predictable pleasure of novelty, recognition or humour. So we keep chatting, typing and trawling until it's two in the morning, our lunch break's finished or we realise dinner's burning. And we still haven't enjoyed the gratifying buzz we sought.
Harmless entertainments like gaming can also slide from distraction to pathology. Counsellor Peter Smith, from Broadway Lodge rehabilitation unit in Somerset, said some gamers "get so obsessed
they forget to eat and drift towards an anorexic and undernourished state".
It's tempting to conclude that technology is to blame for all this; that we're being assimilated by malicious machines, like Star Trek's Borg. And today's technologies certainly can deplete our psychological resources.
Is YouTube a respite from the mundane?
But distraction is nothing new. Over a century ago, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche described his harassed peers. "One thinks with a watch in one's hand," he wrote in 1887, "even as one eats one's midday meal while reading the latest news of the stock market".
Yet Nietzsche didn't blame clocks or markets. "We labour at our daily work more ardently and thoughtlessly than is necessary to sustain our life," he wrote in his Untimely Meditations, "because it is even more necessary not to have leisure to stop and think. Haste is universal because everyone is in flight from himself."
In other words, the technologies were certainly aiding distractions - but they weren't providing the urge. This, said Nietzsche, was human, all-too-human.
Centuries earlier, philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal put this very succinctly. "The sole cause of man's unhappiness," he wrote, "is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room."
For Pascal, like Nietzsche, man was a restless, jittery creature, always looking for distractions from life. If we've no smartphones and online social networking, there's gossip, gambling or booze.
At distraction's heart aren't silicon chips, but an unwillingness to confront very human issues: pain, boredom, anxiety. Distraction certainly has neurophysiological underpinnings - physical bottlenecks of sense, response and cognition. But these often work because we allow ourselves to be managed by machines' rhythms and logic.
Rather than cultivating our faculties, these distractions can weaken them, leaving us unproductive, muddled or fettered.
Work is alienating, and silly YouTube links provide respite. Marriage is stressful, and internet forums offer reprieve from embarrassing conversations. We're exhausted, and television gives our minds familiar, pre-programmed idling. In each case, we're seeking some consolation, asylum or easy pleasure.
Unfortunately these diversions are less rewarding than they appear. As we've seen, unrestrained internet browsing, e-mail and gaming can encourage compulsion or confusion.
In 2002, psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi also noted the dangers of excessive television. "Survey participants commonly reflect," he wrote in Scientific American, "that television has somehow absorbed or sucked out their energy, leaving them depleted." Other research reported by Csikszentmihalyi suggested diminished attention, problem-solving and patience.
Rather than cultivating our faculties, these distractions can weaken them, leaving us unproductive, muddled or fettered. They are truly distractions, from the word's Latin root: to "draw away" or "pull asunder". They wrench us from what's best in ourselves.
To avoid this, we needn't ditch technology (a romantic pipe dream). Instead, we can remind ourselves of what it's for: enriching and amplifying our potencies.
Happily, the solution isn't always radical. It might require timetabling: I'm trying to avoid e-mail in the workday, only checking in the morning and at night. I set my own cadence, rather than obeying the inbox's beeps.
Switching technologies can also help. I use a blog for creative writing, rather than Twitter for quick updates. As philosopher RG Collingwood argued, expressive writing can aid emotional clarity - something hard for me to achieve in 140 characters.
Instead of lethargically play-fighting with Tekken 6, I prefer real martial arts, like Judo or Karate. As Csikszentmihalyi noted, sports lead to "improvements in mood" missed with sedentary playing.
These might not work for everyone - there's no one-size-fits-all solution. Some of us require new jobs or relationships, others a little more patience or willpower. But we should do what technology cannot, that is to honestly, lucidly decide what's most valuable for life.
For me right now, this means turning off my gadgets, and grabbing my silent, unhyperlinked fountain pen. Alone with ink and paper, I can stay quietly in my room.
Distraction, by Damon Young, will be published by Acumen in May
Below is a selection of your comments.
Tell me about it... I started reading this article four days ago and have only now just finished it. I've tried structuring my day with breaks to refresh and regroup, but somehow I never seem to stay entirely on track when online. All good intentions are but a hyperlink away from going down the pothole. I work from home though, which makes it much harder (laundry has suddenly become a very appealing task). Focus, focus, focus! Now what was I meant to be doing again?
Najube, St Gallen, Switzerland
A colleague of mine, always with several hundred new e-mails in his inbox, will often break off from a conversation, exit a meeting etc saying: "Must dash - I've mail to delete." For that is what it mostly entails these days.
I am easily distracted these days - I am always rushing to BlackBerry to read the next e-mail coming in, checking work mail and then checking out the news every hour or so. I am a bit of an information junkie, but I think it does make me more productive, as David mentions. However, I do regularly write letters to friends instead of e-mail, I switch the computer and BlackBerry off in the evenings, and would never even think about buying one of those digital books which I am seeing more and more. A bit of distraction is good, but we should never forget the simple pleasures of reading a book, or writing a letter.
I remember this from when I worked in a publishing company. It is psychologically very difficult to ignore the red envelope reminding you that you have unread messages. The only solution I found was to quit my job and leave the country. It works brilliantly, I can go for days without a single e-mail.
Sarah, Bordeaux, France
Rather than being an addiction, checking e-mails for me is a welcome break that I crave during work - especially when writing. Concentrating on writing becomes too difficult after about 30-40 minutes and checking email turns out to provide a good break with potential surprises - although often it turns out to be not the case. Other options include browsing BBC news and Wikipedia.
Anup, Kerala, India
E-mail is currently messing up my PhD. I take my notes on my laptop which means that I am also able to check my mail regularly. Recently this has become worse and worse, and even reading this article (in the Rare Books Room of the University Library) was a distraction...oh dear...
Claire, Cambridge, UK
Simple trick... DON'T give yr e-address to all and sundry. DON'T tick the box for daily/weekly/monthly updates/special offer alerts, they will be on the home page of the site anyway. Why didn't Damon Young's dad pick up the phone and say "Have you seen the latest Hubble pics yet?" instead of embedding what's already out there into an e-mail? They could have then gone onto a family conversation about Aunty Betty's hip or whatever was important at the time. We don't HAVE to use e-mail for everything.
Alex the Hat, Cardiff, Wales
Intermittent distractions improve productivity. Endless studies have shown that the human brain is incapable of intense, single-minded concentration for long periods. Thirty-five minutes seems to be an absolute maximum for gifted individuals under ideal conditions. Enlightened managements (we don't do that in Britain!) builds in periodic breaks for their staff. Not doing so leads to reduced performance, engenders bad labour relations and staff 'sloping off' to refresh their bodies without approval. Unlikely the culture in GB will change this century? There is much criticism of the short attention spans associated with media presentations, esp TV and esp transatlantic material. However, the psychologists employed, eg in advertising, are smarter than often credited. E-mail checking would seem to be the ideal opportunity?
Good article, but there's another element to obsessive email checking that hasn't been mentioned: the urgent desire to keep on top of the Inbox so it doesn't swamp you. If I only checked my emails twice a day, each time I would have 20-30 new ones to plough through. It's easier to read and deal with two or three mails per session and avoid the fear that a pile of work is accumulating out of sight, which will still need to be looked at eventually.
John, Sidmouth, UK
Just finished sending the link round the office... doh!
G Weir, Edinburgh
I found the Pomodoro Technique a great help - basically set a timer for 25 minutes and get on with the task in hand until the bell rings. Then spend a couple of minutes checking e-mail, texts etc before starting another 25 minute session (or 'pomodoro'). Works for me!
EV, Ipswich, UK
Great. Affords marvellous opportunities for getting off the phone. The contents of a lot of "information" pieces, magazines, in are probably part of the same applied emptiness.