Distracted Humans in a Distracting World: Managing Technology As You Pursue Your Goals
When I stand on the 18th floor of my office building in San Francisco, I inevitably find myself marveling: from my vantage point, I look out at the rolling hills, dotted with humble pastel-hued buildings, the tendrils of fog starting to cast a grey pall over the landscape. Everything in my sight was created by human beings, bit by bit over time, from the first tavern to the latest startup. If you stop and pay attention, you might be lucky enough to catch a quick glimpse of the vastness of creation, what many billions of small, individual human efforts looks like. It is frankly astonishing to imagine the lifetimes that went into creating what I can observe: each person working to change their external and internal realities, the millions of stories of love and pain held within these forty-two hills, and the creation of a world one tiny act at a time.
It is the ability to set and achieve our goals that enables the most astonishing accomplishments of humanity: language, community, commerce, society, art, and justice. Goals help us to connect the dots between our current selves and our future selves, the vision for who we want to be and the life that we want to have. Our goals shape our thoughts and our actions, and they are therefore what make us agents in our own lives, rather than merely bobbing along as hamstrung participants bound to the way the world turns.
Goals are essential to whether or not we live flourishing lives, for two main reasons. First, they direct our way of being in the world, in that they help us to translate our inner values into our lives. Second, many of the things in life that are most critical to happiness (such as relationships, meaningful work, interests and hobbies, physical and mental health habits) require that we set goals effectively and execute upon them.
But we all fail at goals that we set for ourselves. Whether it is a diet, a new exercise regime, or any other cherished vision of a life or a self, it can be extraordinarily difficult to work towards an objective. There are millions of books and blogs and podcasts and researchers who are all very concerned with this question: why is it so hard to change?
Our Human Nature
There are two major components involved in successfully achieving a goal: setting it and enacting it. Both are handled by that big organ in your head, but in two different ways: 1) Through the executive function, which is responsible for evaluating, making decisions, organizing and planning; and 2) Through the cognitive control functions, which include the ability to manage our attention, use working memory, and manage goals.
Remember the last perennial goal that you decided on, and how firm you were, and how determined, and how certain you were that this time, dammit, it was going to work?
Me too. We all have been there, and there is a reason why we all share this common experience.
It turns out that our executive functioning is far more evolved than our cognitive control. We are able to dream up extraordinary goals without breaking a sweat, and then, we are stymied by the path we must walk to achieve them. Our cognitive control is limited in many different ways: for example, it is nearly impossible to multitask, it is hard to hold more than seven bits of information in our mind at once (the average phone number length) and we become overwhelmed when we are required to switch between different goals.
Consider that these two parts of yourself are clashing all day long, every single day. Typically, we see this ‘goal interference’ play out in four different ways. For example’s sake, let’s imagine that you have decided to down at your desk and complete your expense report – a task that is decidedly not fun, boring, but likely one that is required in order to keep your job. (Incidentally, this is also a goal I am currently avoiding.) It is a lower-tier goal that is, in culmination with many others, necessary in order to achieve a higher-tier goal, like ‘put food on the table’ or ‘have a meaningful career’ or ‘impact my field’.
There are two types of goal interference. Distractions are things that come up that we wish to ignore; interruptions occur when we consciously make a decision to engage with the distraction and attempt to do more than one thing at a time.
- Type #1: Internal Distraction: You sit down to fill out the expense report. Suddenly, your mind starts wandering. You start to wonder why your boss was being so cagey this week about 2017 planning, and you begin to worry that there is something going on that portends your inevitable demise at the organization.
- Type #2: Internal Interruption: You sit down to fill out the expense report. You start to think about a fight you had with your partner last night. You find yourself going over and over the conversation in your mind, and simultaneously attempting to fill out your report.
- Type #3: External Distraction: You sit down to fill out the expense report. You overhear your boss saying your name. You know that she is talking about some great work you have done, so you consciously pull your attention back to the report.
- Type #4: External Interruption: You sit down to fill out the expense report. Your chatty coworker comes by with a question. You attempt to do your expense report and also answer their question at the same time.
It’s pretty hard to achieve our goals when we’re constantly being distracted. And now, just to mix it up even more, enter… technology!
The New World
I’m sure that you have read a million articles about how connected we are and why that is good/bad/other and what you should do/should not do/god forbid never do. I’m not concerned with a value judgment on the state of technology. (In fact, as someone who works in the technology space, I’m a strong proponent of it as a vehicle for enhanced well-being, under the right conditions.) However, every day, I see the way that my distracted mind responds to the chaotic world that we have created, and I do believe that we need effective strategies for learning how to manage both. Statistics paint the picture:
- The average teen exchanges 3200 texts per day
- The average office worker receives 121 emails per day
- The average adult has six different social media accounts
- Adults in the United States check their phones 150 times per day (roughly every six or seven minutes that they are awake)
- The average person believes that they can engage with 6-7 forms of media at the same time
Feel like you’re not reaching your full potential? Maybe it’s because you are a naturally distractable human by nature who lives in an increasing distracting world. Personally, reflecting on this makes me want to pull a Captain Fantastic and go live in the woods. However, treating technology as an addiction where sobriety is the only response doesn’t seem to work, either – there is no evidence that technology detoxes actually work, and they have actually been shown to increase anxiety and technology dependence both during and following the detox.
Instead, I argue that we might take the perspective that we have a responsibility to take control of our technology, if we do truly wish to live flourishing lives. By making ourselves aware of our limitations, and by recognizing the realities of the world, we can move towards a more thoughtful way of living that both benefits from these amazing advances but also knows how to gently disengage from its more devious propensity. Without an ability to execute on our goals, we are impacting our chances of experiencing lasting well-being; managing our technology is one important pathway that can be beneficial in pursuit of flourishing.
I care, very deeply, about achieving the personal, professional and societal goals that I have set for myself. I also choose to be responsible for my pursuit of these goals. The two are often equated, but are not equivalent. Care is wanting it; responsibility is doing the work that is required to have it. If you have goals that you keep missing, or find yourself constantly talking about the way that technology is "taking over" your life, I hope that the below strategies might be helpful for you. They are segmented into two groups: those that directly help to address cognitive control, and those that implicitly do.
Note: I have derived a lot of inspiration from Cal Newport’s excellent work, particularly his book Deep Work, which is one of the most influential books I have read over the past few years.
These strategies are always a work in process, and as a distractable human, I have certainly failed many times in their execution; however, I have decided to define my success as a continued attempt rather than the inevitable failures.
I live by my calendar. It is my mechanism for ensuring that my ‘best self’ (i.e. the person who dreams up the goals) keeps my ‘lesser self’ (i.e. the person who doesn’t quite ‘feel up for doing that right now, thanks so much’) on track. I schedule everything, and yes, that includes leisure time; I even have a whole calendar dedicated to adventures.
- Create blocks of time for internet activity: Keeping email open at all times is the single worst thing that I can do if I want to achieve my goals. I do not possess enough self-control to not flip screens and check it every few minutes. The (1) in my Gmail tab taunts me. It is simply impossible for me to ignore. Therefore, I choose to manage email in batches that are solely dedicated to that act:
- 9:00 am – thirty minute email batch
- 11:30 am – thirty minute email batch
- 1:00 pm – thirty minute email batch
- 3:30 pm – thirty minute email batch
The beauty of this strategy is that it helps to manage ‘attention residue’, the fancy term for the concept of ‘thinking of a previous task while you’re engaging in a new one’. You’re not going to be effective at your new task if you’re agonizing over an email response draft or an annoying client email subconsciously, which is exactly what happens.
- Structured Freetime: Another scheduling tool I find helpful is setting aside time when I can do whatever I want on the internet. I love to read blogs and follow the rabbit hole of someone’s Twitter feed – instead of turning it into an all day event, it is contained to a specific period of time.
Leverage Your Technology's Functions (i.e. THE OFF BUTTON)
- Notifications: I have disabled every notification on my phone except for VIP callers. When I choose to go look at something, I do it because it is my choice, not because someone else somewhere felt it necessary to reach me, or because an application wants my attention. You will feel like you are losing your mind for the first 24 hours, and then you will wonder how you ever lived. If this one terrifies you, I highly recommend trying it out, particularly because you can always turn it back on if you can’t handle it.
- Just Don't Download It: No work email on my phone. I am one of those people who loves their job, and those of us who love their jobs are often found working late into the night. When I had my email coming to my phone, I would check it every single hour I was not working, in a zombie-like manner.
- Do Not Disturb mode: Do you have a boss or a partner or a client who needs to always come through? Simply add them to the VIP function on your iPhone and their calls will always come through. Ignore distractions so you can pay attention to the really important stuff.
Define Your Own Boundaries
Next weekend, I’m getting a puppy. Every book I have read has talked about the importance of healthy, strict and loving boundaries to raise this puppy. I think that we can set our own rules and boundaries too. Some rules that I have set for myself:
- Phones stay in the purse or pocket while I’m engaged in a meaningful high-quality connection with someone. The mere presence of a cell phone in an interaction can lessen the quality of an in-person conversation – even if you’re not using it.
- The dinner table is a no-phone zone. There’s nothing I find more aggravating than sharing a meal with someone who is on their phone repeatedly. This is something I’m working on becoming more chill with, but I have been thinking about introducing a code word to call out when I’m frustrated. Has anyone ever tried this successfully?
- No instant messenger or texting when I’m in a ‘deep work’ period – that is, a period of focus where I am creating something. Deep work includes many of the big projects for my job, writing, reading academic articles, working on research projects, or just good old thinking time.
Get Comfortable with Boredom and Anxiety
Look back to that list of distractions. A lot of them arise because we are bored or anxious. Technology provides us with a reliable hit of arousal or distraction that teaches us that we don’t ever need to experience boredom or anxiety. Certainly, these are not preferred states to experience regularly, however, they can be extremely productive or insightful. Many brilliant ideas come to us when we relax, and anxiety can be a helpful clue to how we are feeling about our lives and what we might need to pay more attention to. If you find yourself looking down at your phone during a conversation, you’re probably bored. If you find yourself going to technology when you are experiencing an unpleasant mood, you’re accustoming yourself to not dealing with challenging emotions.
What Gets Measured Gets Managed
Every night I ask myself if I was present with the people in my life. I give myself a HIT or a MISS – one slip up means MISS for the day. Interactions where I'm multitasking on my phone or computer simultaneously do not count. This strategy works because I am not attempting to beat something out negative - instead, I'm taking the tack of promoting it's opposite, a wholly more positive thing and something that I deeply value - presence. I want to be present for my life, as it is the only one I’ve got, and it’s precious, and I’ve spent a lot of time crafting it. I want to be present for my loved ones. While I can’t control their behavior or the way they show up, I can control my own, and I choose to do so because i have decided that it is worth the sacrifice for me.
We can also engage in activities that help us to increase our cognitive control indirectly. For me, these are the two that have paid the most dividends:
Physical exercise has been shown in multiple studies to have a positive impact on our mental health, not just our physical health. Most interesting for our purposes, recent research has found that children who are fit are more successful in adjusting their cognitive control to meet the demands of the world than those who are less fit. Intervention studies have found that aerobic training in children and in older adults improves their cognitive control. (An excellent summary of exercise’s impact on self-control can be found here.)
Meditation has been widely studied over the last twenty years. Mindfulness meditation is the non-judgmental awareness of experiences in the present moment, and it can take many forms, such as through a sitting practice (where one is seated and brings awareness to the breath, a mantra, or one’s body) or through daily lived experience. Studies have found that it can increase the ability to sustain attention, improve processing speed, and increase working memory capacity.
Some Concluding Thoughts
I recently read the book Daily Rituals, a compilation by Mason Currey of many of the routines that were designed by our most luminous minds. They are all bonkers. Highly idiosyncratic, each routine is reflective of the person who designed it, formulated through many forms of trial-and-error, attempting to control the seemingly uncontrollable creative instinct.
In compiling this list of my own routines that 'work' for me, I am reminded of that book, and how reading some of these rituals made me laugh; furthermore, how many of them actively made me recoil, as something that I would never, ever want for myself (specifically, those who drank from morning til the next morning, or who used amphetamines to write, or who even write from 1:00am to 4:00am). Each of us can and perhaps should find ways to manage our technology that work for us, for our context, for our desires, and for our future visions. My hope in sharing my strategies is to empower a reader to see that they can be an agent over this domain, which is seemingly relegated to a necessary 'fact' of modern life nowadays, and move away from the total victimization of ourselves by our technology towards a greater experience of agency.
How do you manage your technology in our distracted world? I'd love to hear your strategies and approaches!