According to a 2018 Ofcom report, people in the UK now check their smartphones, on average, every 12 minutes of the waking day. Whether we’re waiting for the bus or sitting on the toilet, our phones offer the perfect escape: novelty and distraction, anytime and anywhere.
Though scrolling through different feeds and bouncing between different apps seems trivial and of little consequence, the effects that we’re observing – particularly those surrounding our ability to concentrate – are not.
Over the past decade, technology has become more immersive, more powerful, and as a result, more addictive. Constantly checking our phones has become so ‘normal’ at this point, it’s easy to see why we’d overlook the downsides. It’s just what everyone does.
However, even the small and seemingly insignificant choices add up. By using the internet as a constant source of distraction, we gradually worsen our ability to concentrate intensely.
As Cal Newport, computer science professor at Georgetown University, explains in his book Deep Work, “Once your brain has become accustomed to on-demand distraction, it’s hard to shake that addiction even when you want to concentrate.”
The issue is that these effects are (a) difficult to measure and (b) they’re not immediately obvious, instead becoming more pronounced over time.
In our culture of constant connection, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to even practice concentrating if we’re not deliberate in doing so. There are a near-infinite number of things now competing for our attention online – and they’re all just a click or a notification away.
If we’d like to make room to focus in this new environment, we need to do exactly that – we need to make room. We can do this by (a) deliberately carving out the time and (b) creating the necessary conditions to practice.
To clarify, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ever give into distraction, nor is it to suggest that that’s possible – you don’t have to delete your social media and you don’t have to sell your smartphone. After all, the issues we’re observing are not an inherent result of using the internet, but rather some results that are stemming from some of the ways we currently use it. The point is to recognise that our ability to concentrate is like a muscle; we can use it and it’ll grow stronger, or we can stop using it and it’ll waste away. Ultimately, we get to choose.