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Article Movement & Migration

Driven to distraction – reclaiming our gap time

Constant connectivity is undermining our ability to live in the moment, argues Helena Greenlees

“Kuvit pois!” (“Pictures away!”) my two-year-old tells me if I even glance at my smartphone to reply to a text or email, or just check the time when I have what I think is a “gap”. She’s two and she gets it. She lives in the moment, fully in the moment, absorbed and with all her attention focused on the task in hand. She does not, ever, ever multitask.

I, on the other hand, am aware of the constant to-do list my modern, fast-paced life presents me and will use any free moments to catch up with emails or messages, add to my shopping list (on my phone), and often simply check Facebook before wondering why I am wasting time checking Facebook. “Free moments” might be anything from waiting for water to boil, brushing teeth to pushing a swing.

How do you feel about your phone? Does it pull at you all the time, asking to be checked? Do you automatically turn to it if you are waiting for a bus, waiting for someone to come back from the toilet, waiting for the kettle to boil? How long after you get up do you switch it on? Do you ever even switch it off? Do you fill all your gaps with it? Sometimes you might be bored, sometimes just alone and otherwise unstimulated.

Since I first got a mobile phone I took to switching it off or putting it on silent to avoid the constant interruptions those pinging text messages brought. Since getting a smartphone I’ve started putting it on silent and in another room because I have become increasingly unhappy about the amount of attention it demands of me.

At first smartphones seemed revolutionary – all that “wasted” time could now be productive: get your shopping done, reply to an email… but how much longer does it take to reply to an email using your phone? It either takes longer, or you write one sentence in poorly constructed text speak when once you might have set aside time to write a letter.

As instantly contactable adults we have forgotten long-form living.

We don’t focus fully on what we are doing because if there is a momentary pause we use it to check our email, text messages or social media stream. We stop living our lives in order to engage remotely in other people’s lives – other people that we often barely know. We multitask - or we think we do. We have no more time gaps. Gaps are increasingly filled by gazing into our phones. We don’t give ourselves time. Time to think, to consolidate thoughts, to create, to be inspired, to give one subject long deep consideration.

Wasted gaps

Ideas come to us in our “gap moments” - but those gaps are now frequently filled with status updates. If every gap is filled with stimulation, we prohibit creativity and inspiration. Since Archimedes famously stepped into a bath we have found inspiration while taking time out from our busy lives.

What’s the one place you don’t take your smartphone? It’s not bed. I know plenty of people who check their phones before they even get out of bed. But you can’t take (most) smartphones into the shower yet. How many times have ideas come to you in the shower? Showering or bathing is a sort of meditation; you can’t do anything else but be there with your thoughts while you wash. For many of us it’s the only gap we have left that isn’t filled. Finns take bathing to another level with sauna culture. The sauna is a place where friendships are forged and bathing can take hours. A 10-minute shower can’t compare but even that can be enough to give your mind some time to think.

If you have ever been in “the zone”, whether it’s creatively writing, painting, working or even just focusing on the moment and what or who is in front of you, then you have been “lost in the moment”, thinking long-form; you were not distracted. If someone or something distracts you, well, the moment is gone. You lose the magic.

Alerts and distractions

Since the mass take-up of smartphones, daily internet access has skyrocketed. Before smartphones we would go online a few times a day for longer periods. Now we go online much more frequently and for shorter periods. Because we increasingly access mobile devices we are less likely to sit and write long “letter” style emails and more likely to send brief messages and check social media than read long articles.

Along with constant internet access, smartphones have also brought us constant distractions and interruptions. Our phones ping and flash with every text, call, email and social media update: demanding our attention NOW, even if we are doing something important, be it work, study or spending time with loved ones. We are losing the ability to pay attention to each other and ourselves, our ideas, creating a culture of distraction. We are increasingly disconnected from the people around us. When our phones ping and we attend to them instantly we are prioritising phones over those we physically face. We no longer pay attention - to ourselves, to each other, to our ideas or to tasks.

Try an experiment to see how often you are distracted from what you are doing during a morning. Some of these distractions will be a phone call or a colleague coming over for a chat or to ask a question. But many are likely to be chat messages, texts, Facebook updates and emails that draw your attention. We distract ourselves, too, by constantly allowing our mind to wander even if alerts are switched off, wondering if anyone has replied to our post on Facebook.

Alarms normally indicate danger or to be alert in some way. Our brain naturally focuses attention on any alarm, and the alerts, bleeps and flashes from our phones are a form of alarm. Most of these alerts are not important, but occasionally one comes in that’s urgent. Because of those occasional important alerts we feel compelled to check every alert instantly. Add to that the pull to check something on the internet or to check Facebook and we can quickly find we are checking our phones almost constantly.

With time we are becoming less able to pay attention to things for long periods, more easily distracted. And the more easily distracted we are, the more distracted we become.

Isolation

As adults many of us find the lure of our phones becoming ever stronger, but it is worse for teenagers. Many teenagers communicate more by text or other media than they do face-to-face. Digital devices are increasingly widely available to younger and younger children. A common belief is that this constant task switching and hyperconnectedness is making young people nimble and quick-acting multitaskers. However, it is doubtful that they are really learning this skill - more likely they are simply training themselves in distraction. By constantly seeking stimulation they may inevitably seek instant gratification, make quick choices and lack patience. Their mental health may also suffer as one study suggests: “Regression analyses revealed that increased media multitasking was associated with higher depression and social anxiety symptoms, even after controlling for overall media use and the personality traits of neuroticism and extraversion.”

Dr Clifford Nass, who was one of the first people to study the impact technology has on face-to-face communication, suggested young people spend too much time gazing at screens and as a result are losing the skills needed to interact face to face, such as reading emotions and body language. In his study “Media Use, Face-to-Face Communication, Media Multitasking and Social Well-Being Among 8- to 12-Year-Old Girls”, he found that media multitasking and online communication had a negative socioemotional impact and resulted in lower self-esteem and less sleep. A higher ratio of face-to-face communication by contrast resulted in positive socioemotional outcomes and feelings of social success and normalcy.

The problem with multitasking

We may think we are multitasking, being more productive by using gap time, our “wasted time”, in this way, but actually we are losing the ability to think and live long-format, to pay attention to the task in hand and, ironically, getting worse at multitasking. We are losing the ability to pay attention to each other and ourselves and teaching ourselves to be easily distracted. We are losing our inspiration.

Many jobs require us to juggle tasks, doing several things at once. With massively increased technology use we have taken task-switching to a new extreme in work and in personal life. Researchers have labelled this “skill” chronic multitasking.

We are losing the ability to pay attention to each other and ourselves and teaching ourselves to be easily distracted. We are losing our inspiration.

Many believe multitasking to be a skill that makes them agile and able to think and act quickly. It even sounds quite positive and semi superhuman: “multitasking”, except that people can’t multitask. A computer can. A human brain, however, switches back and forth from one task to the other, one task at a time. People who multitask are in fact just doing two minutes of one task before doing three minutes of another.

Research suggests that the brain copes very badly with multitasking, and that it can even have a negative impact on brain function. Not only do chronic multitaskers use their brain less efficiently when focusing on a single task, but they are also, perhaps surprisingly, worse at multitasking than light multitaskers. The more we multitask the poorer we in fact become at multitasking, because we are training ourselves to be increasingly easily distracted.

A study compared differences in information processing between light and chronically heavy media multitaskers. “Results showed that heavy media multitaskers are more susceptible to interference from irrelevant environmental stimuli and from irrelevant representations in memory. This led to the surprising result that heavy media multitaskers performed worse on a test of task-switching ability, likely due to reduced ability to filter out interference from the irrelevant task set.”

Nass, one of the study’s co-authors, notes that scholarship has remained firm in the overall assessment: “The research is almost unanimous, which is very rare in social science, and it says that people who chronically multitask show an enormous range of deficits. They’re basically terrible at all sorts of cognitive tasks, including multitasking.”

The most distracting of them all - Facebook

Media multitasking involving Facebook appears to have a particularly negative effect on individuals. A study looking at the grade point average (GPA) of multitasking students found that texting and Facebook had a negative impact on GPA, while email, phone calls and instant messaging did not.

The study, “Facebook and Academic Performance”, also counters the frequently held belief that today’s youth are growing up able to simultaneously process multiple information streams: to multitask. The study shows that attempting heavy multitasking (specifically relating to Facebook use in this study) has negative effects on individuals. Heavy multitaskers make more mistakes and need more study time to achieve the same level as students who process the same information sequentially (rather than multitasking): “Results show that Facebook users reported having lower GPAs and spend fewer hours per week studying than non-users.”

Why does Facebook in particular have such a negative impact?

In one study Dr Larry Rosen’s research team observed 300 students of different ages studying something important for 15 minutes in their natural environment. Students only stayed on task for an average of three minutes at a time, mostly being distracted by technology (smartphones and laptop screens). The better performing students stayed focused for longer, the worse performing students used more media and tended to multitask.

There was another very surprising result; those who checked Facebook, even just once during the 15 minutes, were poor performers. Many people reported that a beep/vibration/alert flashing would compel them to respond. However, Dr Rosen noted that even without sensory reminders many reported constantly wondering whether someone had commented on their Facebook post, replied to a text message or even wondering what interesting things their friends might have posted.

So our minds are constantly wondering if there is something we are missing when we aren’t checking our phones or Facebook, even if we aren’t receiving alerts. It might feel like we are connected to a huge friendship network but really we are mostly just watching other people’s lives the way we did when TV first arrived. We are, as we were then, spellbound by this new “shared experience”. In turn we hope that others are watching our lives and count the likes or comments on our posts as a measure of our popularity.

Professor Sherry Turkle put it well: “We are lonely but fearful of intimacy. Digital connections offer the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. We expect more from technology and less from each other.”

Can we slow down to speed up?

This constant distraction, inability to focus on the moment, to stay “in the zone”, the loss of our gap time and our hyper-connectedness appears to be resulting in an increasingly disconnected, uninspired and isolated society. A society of chronic multitaskers who believe we are agile and fast-thinking but actually lack focus and inspiration, we’ve filled our “wasted” time but lost our creativity. We’ve obsessed over Facebook and forgotten our family and friends who are actually in the room.

If you have ever been lost in the moment, creatively, solving a problem at work, doing research or just gardening or running, you will know what it’s like to be fully in that zone. To focus all your attention on what you are doing without distraction. You are more productive, your brain seems to function more effectively. If you are distracted, even just briefly, you lose the magic and sometimes you just can’t get it back. Distractions can make a 15-minute task take a whole hour.

How can we slow down and reconnect with ourselves and each other? Could slowing down even lead to more productivity and ultimately getting tasks done faster? Would we actually be more productive if we stopped trying to fill every gap with mini tasks? Given the results of research it does appear that multitasking is making us much worse at managing any tasks. So perhaps if we stop trying to multitask, do so much all at once, if we try to slow down we might actually find we can be more productive and get tasks done faster.

Rosen believes understanding the concept of focus will help us live with internal and external distraction. In other words, metacognition: the ability to understand when focus is necessary and when it is not, and therefore also knowing when it is a good time to be distracted and when not.

One strategy suggested by Rosen is the use of “tech breaks”. Check your phone (or other technology) for one or two minutes before switching it to silent and focusing on what you are doing for 15 minutes, lengthening the focus time gradually. He has advised teachers in classrooms, parents at dinnertimes and bosses during meetings to try this with success, though he reported it is difficult to achieve for longer than 30 minutes.

It’s not just focus that suffers, but relationships too. Looking at a phone rather than the person you are currently interacting with tells them that they are not as important as what’s on your phone: not as important as what some semi-stranger is saying on Facebook about a life you have very little to do with. When we let our phones interrupt our lives constantly, we are letting other people’s lives interrupt ours to the point where we miss what’s going on in front of us. We live other people’s lives, or snippets of their lives, but stop living our own.

We can’t shut off from technology now we have it, but we can definitely learn to manage it better. We can take tech breaks. Breaks from technology as well as breaks from long-form living to check technology. When you want to focus, be it for an hour to work, a day to spend with family, or a morning to go for a walk and enjoy nature, switch off your phone, put it in a drawer or leave it at home. Focus on what you are doing. Then, when you are ready, set aside time to catch up with what you need, with emails, Facebook or whatever else is important to you. You can catch up quite fast; you won’t miss much. But by allowing your phone to tear you away from life moment to moment you could be missing everything that’s important.

The more I leave my phone out of reach, the less I’m finding it pulls me to check it.

I have been practising being more mindful of how I use technology. When I need to work I put my phone on silent and out of reach. I might allow myself a tech break, say after an hour of work, to quickly check for important emails. The more I leave my phone out of reach, or even better in another room, the less I’m finding it pulls me to check it. Uninstalling Facebook also helped phenomenally. Instead of spending half an hour trying to write a short email on my phone, I can take 20 minutes to write a long one on a keyboard at a set email slot. I took my daughter out for the day to explore the countryside where there was no mobile or internet reception and we had one of the best, most connected days ever.

I’m still terrible for trying to multitask constantly, I expect to continue to get told off by my two-year-old for checking my phone when I should be focusing on something more important like a daisy chain, but every time I leave my phone on silent or off in another room I can feel the spell becoming that little bit weaker and the life in front of me becoming a little bit more vibrant again.

Just for now, just for the next half hour I’ll put those pictures away and push my daughter on the swing. I won’t check my emails while her back is turned. I’ll watch the view with her not the one on my screen, share that view, share that experience – live my life, not other people’s.

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