There has been more than one occasion this week when I’ve found myself being sucked into the internet wormhole of distraction. I start off with the best of intentions… ‘Oh, I’ll just quickly look up the address of the place’… 45 minutes later I realise that I’m just watching Taika Waititi and Rhys Darby give each other lie detector tests for Vanity Fair on YouTube.

It happens so slowly yet time speeds up once in there. I think that a video is only a few minutes long so it couldn’t possibly hurt to watch it but it then leads to the next, then the next and all of sudden I’ve lost an hour. I do the same on facebook. If I didn’t have to have an account for work purposes I would’ve bailed years ago. I don’t know how many times I find myself aimlessly scrolling through a feed - it’s as if I ‘come to’ in the middle of a ridiculous video about interesting ways to tie a ponytail! I don’t even have long hair! 

It makes me really cross at myself for being sucked in - again. Especially considering I normally pride myself on great time management. I only work 4 days a week and I spend half of Friday writing this very blog so that leaves me even less time to get my client work complete. I use Timely time tracking software that records everything I do on my computer so at the end of the day I can allocate tasks to projects and clients, however this also highlights how many ‘non-billable’ hours I accumulate as well.

I’m well aware that I have a problem and unfortunately we all do. I’ve just started reading Stolen Focus - Why you can’t pay attention by Johann Hari and he confirms that the age in which we live is actually reducing our capacity to remain focused on the task at hand. There have been countless studies conducted that reveal frightening statistics like the average American college student switches tasks every 65 seconds and the average adult is close behind with task switching every 3 minutes. If you get interrupted while focusing on something, it will take on average 23 minutes to get you back to the same state of focus. One study showed that US workers never get an uninterrupted hour of work during a typical day. NEVER! Thats fucked. 

What seems to have led to this distraction filled world is information and our access to it. We’re constantly bombarded with beeps, pings and notifications. We obviously have a choice on how we respond to these intrusions but even if we decide not to engage, that vibration of your phone has already taken your mind off what you were doing - even if it's just a moment to acknowledge that you're not going to acknowledge.

The reason this is a problem, not just for the success of the tasks we are trying to achieve but reduces our opportunities to problem solve and come up with new ideas. Our brains form new ideas when they’re given the space to connect existing ideas and thoughts together thus creating something new. Constantly interrupting this process, or worse yet, never letting it happen in the first place is scary.

When it comes to solving really big problems in society (like climate change for example) we require sustained focus of many people over many years and we’re lucky if any government thinks past their three years in office. Interruption and distraction isn’t just a personal problem, it's a cultural problem.

Johann talks to Sune Lehmann from the Technical University of Denmark about his study to determine if our collective attention span was actually shrinking and the results were surprising. Firstly Lehmann’s team looked at where we get our information from, places like Twitter where you can track different topics and how long they are mentioned. In 2013 the top 50 topics were discussed for an average of 17.5 hours and in 2016 that had dropped to 11.5 hours. They looked at (among other things) what people were searching on google, movie ticket sales to see how long they were popular and they studied Reddit and how long topics lasted there. Across the board all of these data sets showed an accelerating trend - they’re faster to reach popularity and faster to drop again.

This acceleration in information gives us less time to focus on individual pieces of it. Think about reading the newspaper for example. When I read the news online I fly past most of the stories that aren’t of interest to me however if I sat down to read the paper I would be more inclined to read into stories that I may not have otherwise read. Reading a newspaper the old fashioned way gives you more time to absorb what you're reading. I feel the same about print magazines.

‘It’s like drinking from the fire hose - there’s too much information coming at us’

The news is a great example of super charged information overload - we all sore this during the pandemic when people were refreshing web pages for the latest update every couple of minutes. Back in my day, the news was on once a day at 6pm and the newspapers were delivered in the morning. If some catastrophe happened during the day, you wouldn’t know about it until the next paper came out. If it happened overseas it might take a few days to reach NZ media.

In 1986, if you added up all the information being blasted at you from TV, radio and reading it amounted to 40 newspapers worth of information. In 2007 this had risen to 174 newspapers worth of information. I can only imagine that it would be outrageously high if looked at 2022.

The onslaught of information is alarming and I could go on about how incredibly bad distractions are but I’ll stop here because I’ve only just started the book and I can’t offer any incredible tips (yet) that will help you regain control over your own attention. What I did want to do is highlight this lack of focus. Sometimes it really affects my day and I get so mad at myself for wasting such precious time. If anything this book has brought both good and bad news - good that it's not just me and bad that it's not just me - it's all of us. 

When I think about how I want to spend my time, watching Youtube doesn’t make the list at all. In fact it's on another list of shit I DON’T want to be doing, things like waiting in queues and hanging out with dickheads. Just being aware and noticing when I’m getting sucked into a wormhole is a start. I also have to be kind to myself when this happens! No more yelling inside my head that I’m an idiot for getting caught in the whirlpool again. Nope. Kindness is the key. Notice, acknowledge, stop, forgive - now get back to work!

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