Why Am I Distracted?

The inability to focus is common to many forms of depression. But, even when we’re not depressed, more and more of us are finding ourselves distracted due to a 24/7 barrage of information strategically engineered to capture our attention.

distracted
Default Mode Locked to On

A common factor linked to every form of depression is constant activation of the default mode network. This is the area of the brain where the story of “self” is created. When the network is locked to the “on” position, it becomes challenging for us to process any information that doesn’t directly relate to us. That makes it difficult to connect with others, and it can get exhausting.

In an economy where the scarce resource that market forces are competing for is our time, the default mode for every device and app we use to manage that resource is “on” as well. And almost every ping from every message and every push notification is scientifically personalized to induce a dopamine hit in our brain and exaggerate our sense of self-importance.

Always in Touch

Will Schoder offers some problematic bullet points in his thoughtful video “The Attention Economy: How They Addict Us.” I would stop writing and ask you to watch it right now, but since it runs almost eleven minutes, I’ll share a couple bullet points instead.

• It takes us on average 23 minutes to resume focus after any interruption. Even worse, we do two different tasks before coming back to our original project.

I don’t know if this is true for everyone, but I know that it’s true for me. This is why I turn off all notifications on my computer.

But, there’s another statistic that Schoder presents that scares me more than any leaky duct dystopian sci-fi film I’ve ever seen.

• We check our phones an average of 221 times a day, or every 4.3 minutes.  

It’s enough to make me want to chuck the digital world and return to the days of analog.

Turning Down the Noise

In the days before digital sound, Dolby Laboratories specialized in noise reduction, which meant removing tape hiss in the recording studio and in consumer cassette decks. One of the specs audiophiles paid attention to was  signal-to-noise ratio. That meant the ratio of wanted signal (usually music) to unwanted noise (tape hiss). 

I remember that minimizing tape hiss made me happy, but I was surprised to learn from Shawn Achor’s book Before Happiness, that boosting the signal    to noise ratio in your life is one of his key strategies for 

  • Achieving Success
  • Spreading Happiness
  • Sustaining Positive Change

Achor notes that our brain has only so much processing power in a given day, and, if we want to concentrate on signal (what’s important to us) we have to turn down the noise.

Turning Up Signal

A time and attention management system that I use from the computer programmer community is the Pomodoro Technique. Its inventor had a kitchen timer shaped like a tomato (pomodoro) that he set to focus exclusively on a given task for 25 minutes at a time, which he interspersed with short breaks.

This allows the brain to focus, rest, and focus again.

Whatever task one focuses on during those 25 minutes is signal.

Instead of filling up the needed mental breaks by checking my devices, I answer email, social media, and text messages twice a day: at 11:00 a.m. (hopefully I’ve accomplished something by then) and at 4:00 p.m. to make sure I set the most important task for the following morning. I owe this productivity tip to Tim Ferriss and the 4-Hour Work Week.

But, in order to focus even for those precious twenty-five minutes, it’s important to keep my brain on a noise-reduced information diet during the rest of the day. 

Sean Achor offers the following criteria for identifying noise.

If it’s hypothetical, untimely, distracting, or unusable, it’s noise.

I remember these with the acronym HUDU as in “HUDU I think I’m fooling by wasting time on this?”

Hypothetical

Information is hypothetical “if it is based on what someone believes ‘could be’ instead of ‘what is.'” 

Nate Silver of the FiveThirtyEight blog was the most accurate pollster during the 2014 election cycle. Because of my interest in politics, his podcast was part of my feed in 2016.

His final call: Hillary Clinton had a 78% chance of beating Donald Trump. 

I hope he Mr. Silver better in the 2018 election, but I had turned down the noise by eliminating his podcast from my feed.

Untimely

Information is untimely, says Achor, “If you are not going to use that information imminently, and it could change by the time you use it.”

The noisiest untimely information in my life was the e-book How I Sold 1 Million e-Books in Five Months by John Locke.

The book was published on June 15, 2011. I purchased it on June 20, 2011. But, I didn’t have a book, let alone a series of books featuring the same central character, ready to publish on that date. 

By the time I was ready to join the fray with a first novel (in a mystery series) in late 2014, Locke’s strategy of outselling traditionally published $9.99 Kindle books by offering his at $0.99 had revolutionized the industry. The promotional price point of $0.99 became so universal for first books in a series that the new competitive price point was FREE.

The million Kindle books that had grossed Locke $330,000 at $0.99 would gross me $0 and put me in the red for Amazon server costs at the low low price of FREE.

Distracting

Information is noise if “it distracts you from your goals.”

distracting posts
Actual post from one of my Facebook friends that reached my feed by virtue of its high “like” and “share” statistics.

I’ll admit that because of my untimely entry into book writing, I have far more Facebook friends than actual friends.

One morning (at 11:08 a.m.) I noticed that several of my author Facebook friends (including an actual author friend) had been mentioned by a book review periodical for writing the “Best Books of 2018.” I re-posted the news on my feed and wrote: Yay (insert name) for each Facebook friend in the comments.

When one of them clicked “Like” by the comment with her name, I thought, “That name seems familiar. Do I actually know this person?” Turns out I had met her at a book launch two years ago.

Long story short, I had completely forgotten why I had gone on Facebook in the first place: to post something related to this blog. D’oh! 

Unusable

Achor writes that information is unusable “If your behavior will not be altered by the information or if the information won’t spur behavior change.”

The area where I confront the most unusable information is news. 

On the morning I’m writing this (01/28/19) it’s humbling to think how little I can do to ease Federal employees’ fear of another government shutdown, increase the supply of scarce Sweet Heart candies, influence who chooses to run for president, care for victims of a dam collapse in Southern Brazil, or weigh in on Venezuela’s power struggle.

There’s a news story on naming anger to tame it, but that’s basic mindfulness, not news.

So, though I’ve trimmed my noisy news consumption over the past few years, I can afford to turn it down even more.

Ten Minute Exercise

The exercise I discussed in “A Curious Path to Improved Concentration” can be tweaked to help you notice which distractions are the noisiest for you.

1. Find a place where you won’t be interrupted for ten minutes.

2. Set a timer to remind you when you’re done.

3. Pay non-judgmental attention to the inhale and exhale of the breath. Follow each breath from beginning to end noting as much detail as possible.

4. With each breath, extend your non-judgmental attention to your entire body.

5. As attention strays from the breath, follow it with curiosity to its next object: a sight, sound, smell, taste, tactile sensation, or thought.

6. When a thought arises, note whether it’s Hypothetical, Untimely, Distracting, or Unusable.

7. Maintaining non-judgmental attention, remain curious to see whether there’s a sense of peace when the thought subsides.

8. Repeat the process with the next object or return to the breath until a new object arises.

When you start to get a sense for what kind of noise distracts you, experiment with cutting back on the source of that noise in your life.

Some suggestions are to leave the radio in your car off for ten minutes of your commute or set your smartphone to airplane mode for ten minutes.

Whatever you do, don’t try to eliminate all noise at once. Silence can be scary. Just dial it back ten minutes at a time.

Author: Bruce Cantwell

Writer, journalist and long-time mindfulness practitioner.