Ignoring distractions in today’s highly connected world is no easy task. We’ve become habituated to hyper-connectivity and feel the pressure to respond immediately to incoming emails and messages. Many messaging apps display when a message has been both been delivered and read, meaning that the recipient feels obliged to submit a timely response. This extends to the workplace, where ubiquitous access to communications tools means that employees email each other throughout the workday and outside of work hours, expecting fast responses and normalising these behaviours.
On top of social expectations to keep our phones on hand at all times, we also receive regular push notifications from applications that lure us back to the device. Every time our phone pings or vibrates, we stop what we’re doing and shift focus. Even if we don’t swipe through, our attention has already been interrupted and this has as much impact as checking the notification itself.
These endless digital distractions are eroding our ability to focus, and the problem may be even worse than we think. Researchers studied employees in office settings to see how often they switch from one screen to another. In 2004 we looked at a single screen for three minutes before switching. Now we spend less than a minute looking at each screen. The number of screens in our lives has multiplied and it is not uncommon for us to own a laptop, tablet, phone and even a smartwatch, often all within easy reach.
Why is this modern technology so distracting? One reason is that every time we see a notification, our brains release dopamine, a chemical that provides a fleeting feeling of happiness. That explains why we get so excited when we see that someone has liked one of our posts or commented on one of our photos.
We’re not really addicted to our phones – we’re addicted to the neurochemical stimulation they deliver. But the feeling fades quickly, and we become locked in a vicious cycle of craving. Receiving notifications doesn’t bring us a feeling of long-term fulfilment, but we crave the short-term pleasure over and over again.
Researchers have found that some young people report experiencing a so-called phantom phone phenomenon. They feel their phone vibrate in their pocket or hear it ring, but when they check, they haven’t actually received a message.
Who hasn’t checked their phone out of habit recently? Research suggests we’re checking them, on average, 2,617 times a day.
Intentional Digital Consumption
The following model, also called the Digital Food Pyramid, describes recommended maximum connection to apps and technologies per day. Most researchers would agree that our optimal exposure to tech would be much lower than the times displayed below but the world is changing and humans need to adapt in order to stay relevant. Technology is an extension of our senses, conscious awareness and competencies.
Naval Ravikant describes the internet as the external brain pack of civilisation. The goal of digital wellbeing is to harness the skills in a way that upgrades the human experience.