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The Costs of Digital Distractions

Today’s employees and executives are working in a world where they’re experiencing constant digital distractions. Email alerts, phone notifications, auto-play videos, phone calls and messages 24/7, curated social media feeds and targeted ads are just some of the many ways that they’re being digitally bombarded. Our digital dependence and habits are changing our attention, compromising our productivity at work and impacting our well-being.

However, suggesting that we avoid or minimise technology is an untenable solution for most employees and executives. Technology is here to stay, so we need to alter our behaviours and tame our technology habits so we’re not slaves to the screen.  We need to find healthy, helpful and sustainable ways to be in control of technology, so it doesn’t control us!

The Attention Economy

As Tristan Harries, a former Google Design Ethicist, suggests, we’re living in an attention economy. There are so many things constantly vying for our attention. And our attention is the most precious, non-renewable commodities we have as humans. If we can’t manage and direct our attention, we can easily succumb to the sensory smorgasbord of the online world and the multitude of digital temptations that buzz, beep and flash. But our attention is under threat in this constantly buzzing and beeping world.  In today’s digital workplace it’s so much harder for us to manage and direct our attention (without getting side-tracked by a Facebook alert, or an email ping, or a pop-up menu from our online communication tool).

One of the biggest myths that we’ve adopted in our attempt to manage our attention and the constant onslaught of information is that we can multi-task to compensate. And we can’t. The neuroscience confirms that the human brain is incapable of multi-tasking. In fact, when we think we’re multi-tasking, we’re actually engaging in ‘task switching’ which results in continuous partial attention. Our brain is incapable of simultaneously processing two types of information.

Multi-tasking is a myth. We need to mono-task instead.”

Multi-tasking costs

  • Studies have consistently found that multi-tasking results in increased error rates and decreased performance. Studies suggest that interruptions disrupt our ability to commit information to memory and to later recall that information. We actually send information to the wrong part of the brain when we multi-task. Instead of it going to the hippocampus (memory centre of the brain, we send it to the striatum.

  • Multi-tasking also overloads our working memory. Our brain has a cognitive load (a maximum level at which it can process data) and multi-tasking basically causes it to reach its threshold.
  • Multi-tasking produces cortisol (the stress hormone) and adrenaline which can inhibit learning and memory. Stressed brains don’t allow neural pathways to form.
  • Multi-tasking results in fatigue as it depletes glucose levels in the brain. This is why we feel exhausted and disoriented after we’ve multitasked.
  • Multi-tasking actually takes us longer to complete each individual task. Even though we think we’re being effective when we multi-task, studies have shown it actually takes us longer to complete both tasks as we switch between them.
  • There’s a resumption lag when we multi-task because we have to re-orient our attention after we’ve been distracted by another task. Some studies have suggested that it can take up to 23 minutes to re-orient ourselves after we’ve been distracted. Imagine the financial cost those constant digital distractions would be having on employee productivity.

How do we tame our tech habits?

We need to help employees and executives build a fortress around their focus. We need to turn off alerts and notifications (do we really need to hear the ping of an inbound email?) so that we can complete tasks and projects without digital distractions hijacking our attention. We can also set our phones to ‘Do Not Disturb’ so that we’re not constantly being bombarded by unnecessary phone calls when we’re working on an important project.

Go greyscale on your mobile devices. That red icon that indicates you have 47 unread emails was strategically designed to be red as it triggers that it is urgent and requires your attention (did you also ever wonder why it wasn’t a blue or green icon?).

// Adopt the proximity strategy– ‘out of sight, out of mind’ works in taming our digital distractions. Pop your phone in a drawer, or in your bag when you need to be finishing a presentation. Hide your digital temptations off your home screen on your smartphone. If you succumb to Instagram or Facebook, drag them into a folder on the fifth page of your home screen.

// Tame your inbox– set an autoresponder on your email to inform people that you only check your inbox at set times of the day. Unsubscribe from unnecessary emails.

// Use technology– yes, I know it seems ironic, but there is a wealth of online tools you can use to help you form healthier relationships with technology. For example, you can use Self Control or Focus Me to stop you from opening specific websites at set times (so you can actually finish the task you’re supposed to be working on).

Technology is an integral part of our working lives. We need to find balanced, healthy and sustainable ways for us to use it and be in control, so that employees’ and executives’ health, wellbeing and productivity isn’t hampered.  That’s why I’m passionate about translating the latest research (from neuroscience and technology) into practical and relevant strategies that corporations can use to preserve their employees’ health and well-being and maximise their productivity. This is a sample of what I address in my Lunch and Learn seminar Digital Distractions Taming Your Tech Habits.

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I’m Dr. Kristy Goodwin

Researcher, speaker, author, and mum - and not only do I GET it, I’ve dedicated my entire career to helping my fellow professionals and parents explore this exact digital dilemma.

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We’re at the point now where we literally can not switch off. But without devices, most of us simply can’t do our jobs.

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