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Driven to distraction

July 6, 2015
by

Thanks for taking the time to read this article I’ve written. Hold on, you are actually reading it, aren’t you? I hope you’re giving it your full attention and not also doing something else—listening to the radio, chatting on the phone, or (shudder) sitting on the toilet.

It’s difficult to focus on just one thing now that we are surrounded by devices clamoring for our attention. How many times has your phone pinged with a new message or email since you’ve read these few sentences? How many times have you thought about checking Facebook or Twitter, or playing Candy Crush? The days of lying languidly on a chaise longue with a dull book, desperately seeking distraction in the manner of a Jane Austen heroine, are far behind us. Research shows we are finding it harder and harder to concentrate, and that makes us less happy.

In 2004, American desk workers were monitored to see how much time they spent looking at one screen before they flicked up another one. They averaged about three minutes. In 2012, the same experiment found they managed about one minute, 15 seconds; by 2014, it was just 59.5 seconds. These are adult professionals being paid to work, not unruly children forced to sit and learn spellings. It’s a wonder anything gets achieved in a world with YouTube. (Did that prompt you to check out a video on YouTube?)

There are various innovations aimed at getting us to concentrate better. When I was writing my book, I used a program that blacked out my screen apart from the page I was working on, making my computer more like a typewriter than box of entertainment. There’s a range of apps, including SelfControl and Concentrate, that limit your access to the Internet, email, or certain enticing websites for set amounts of time. Others, such as Time Out, give you regular break treats.

Another company has compiled music streams designed to promote concentration. They avoid lyrics and even instruments that resemble a human voice that can distract. It even has a channel meant for people with ADHD.

If you are prone to distraction, as I am, then maybe it’s better to use those times not for checking your social networks but to wallow in a daydream. There’s evidence to show that daydreaming—or “mind-wandering”—enhances creative work, but more than that, it’s just plain relaxing.

Okay, you can check your Facebook now.

This column first appeared at The American Scholar

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