How to Stay Focused in the Digital World

The Price of Distraction

“In the new economy, the most valuable asset you can accumulate may not be money, may not be wealth, may not even be knowledge, but rather, the ability to control your own attention, and to focus.” – Mark Manson, In The Future, Our Attention Will Be Sold

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.

(53:06-55:50) Naval Ravikant explains the modern ‘Disease of Abundance’

The Importance of Attention

“A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” – Herbert A. Simon

Being able to focus your attention allows you to perform at your peak level and prioritise what’s important. Simply put, it grants you more freedom and control over your life. Without it, you become a slave to your impulses and it becomes much harder to resist immediate gratification.

Essentially, how well you’re able to do the things that you’d like to do comes down to how well you can focus on them without distraction. If your ability to focus decreases, so will the likelihood of accomplishing your larger goals – whatever they may be.

The important thing to recognise is that concentration is a skill that can be trained just like anything else. The more you practice it, the better you get at it. But like any skill, if you wish to be proficient, it’s not enough to know how to practice it, you must actually put in the time. You must see it as a worthy pursuit.

In his book Flow, Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi expands on the difference between pleasure and enjoyment. The former, he explains, we can experience without much effort – like we do when scrolling through social media. But enjoyment, he writes, is impossible to experience if attention is not fully concentrated on the activity involved.

“We can experience pleasure without any investment of psychic energy, whereas enjoyment happens only as a result of unusual investments of attention. A person can feel pleasure without any effort, if the appropriate centers in his brain are electrically stimulated, or as a result of the chemical stimulation of drugs. But it is impossible to enjoy a tennis game, a book, or a conversation unless attention is fully concentrated on the activity.”

The issue is that as our appetite for distraction increases, the more challenging it becomes to fully concentrate on anything, and our threshold for boredom falls. The lower our threshold for boredom, the more we end up flicking between different distractions, and the cycle continues.

Consider, for example, two people travelling on a bus: one is bored because there’s no phone signal; the other is happy just to sit. In this case, the second person (arguably) has more control over his inner experience as he is less reliant on external stimuli to feel content – he feels more relaxed and less restless as a result.

If we’d like to become more like the latter person and less like the former, the task is not to stop using technology, but to change how we use it. Rather than using the internet as a means to seek distraction and escape boredom, we should strive to use it more purposefully.

To do this, it requires that we know in a given moment what we’re using it for and why we’ve chosen to do so. Of course we’ll still get distracted at times – forgetting how long we’ve been scrolling, or how we ended up on that video – but if we can keep this idea in the back of our minds, gradually we’ll do so less. In this way, we minimise our dependency on the internet, yet we’re still able to use it for all the benefits it has to offer.

Using Tech Purposefully

“Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men.” – Martin Luther King Jr.

Since our time online is likely split between periods of purposeful engagement (i.e. when we’ve got a task we’re looking to accomplish and using the internet to achieve that task) and periods of mindless browsing, perhaps we should simply try to minimise the latter as best we can.

Note: purposeful engagement can still mean watching a show on Netflix or replying to DMs on Instagram; it just means not mindlessly scrolling through Netflix for ‘something to watch’ or mindlessly scrolling through Instagram to ‘fill the time’.

If we aren’t proactive in doing so, we ought to expect that, next year, we’ll be spending even more time scrolling through our phones – as that’s what the numbers would suggest.

We all know what the harmful effects of internet addiction are and yet we also know that apps and websites are designed to be addictive. These two reasons, alone, are enough to want to change course.

The first challenge in limiting our mindless usage is to try to recognise it as it’s happening so we can choose, in that moment, to make an alternative choice. The point is not to catch ourselves every time – we won’t. The point is to gradually get better at catching ourselves so we don’t get hooked as often.

The second challenge is to take responsibility for our internet use by setting personal boundaries. For example, by deciding how much time you’d like to be spending online and what sort of content you’d like to be tuning into. With so much information available, the challenge you face is to tune into ideas that improve or add to your life and, as best you can, to ignore the rest.

The third challenge is to pick your battles – deciding when to be strict with your focus and when to loosen up. We don’t have an endless supply of willpower, so if you’re just chilling out in the evening and you want to mindlessly browse through your phone, this doesn’t have to be a big deal – that is, if you are still making an effort for focused work during the day.

Again, the idea is not to never again give in to distraction, it’s just about making sure that you can still focus when you need to – and to realise that having this ability will always be a good thing for your life. Keep the bigger picture in mind; all your actions have consequences. Weigh the pros and cons and do what you think is best.

Practical Advice

To improve our focus we must create adequate conditions for focused, uninterrupted work. Here are several ways we can go about doing this.

The idea is simple: when you are trying to work, minimize distraction as much as possible and practice giving your undivided attention to the task at hand. If you need to take a break, stop and take a break – just resist the temptation to pick up your phone and distract yourself. Instead, try as best you can to do nothing until you feel ready to start working again.

Design your environment accordingly

  • When you’re trying to work, turn off your phone or disable notifications; put it on silent or ‘do not disturb’ – this way you won’t have your focus interrupted by incoming notifications.
  • Put your phone in a place where you can’t see it. Habits follow a cue > routine > reward cycle; by hiding your phone you remove the visual cue. 
  • Hide the time so that you’re not constantly checking it as you work. If you’re working on a computer you can do this by either hiding the taskbar (Windows) or removing the date and time from the menu bar (Mac).
  • If you’re working in a web browser, keep the main tab in a separate window. This way, when you’re in the flow of working there aren’t any other tabs for your attention to drift towards.
    • Another suggestion is to create a separate ‘work profile’ on your laptop, without the usual distractions of your personal account.

Practice time management techniques to stop multitasking

  • You may think you’re being more productive by trying to get multiple things done at once, but the research shows trying to do so only makes you more susceptible to distraction.
    • As Tim Ferriss explains in The 4-Hour Work Week, “If you prioritize properly, there is no need to multitask… Divided attention will result in more frequent interruptions, lapses in concentration, poorer net results, and less gratification.”
  • Create routines and rituals around when and how you practice working. For example, create a routine of starting work at the same time each day.
  • Experiment with focused time-blocks (e.g. the Pomodoro technique)
    • This is a time management method where you break your work into two timed intervals; one for working and one for rest. Typically, the Pomodoro technique is associated with 25 minutes of work followed by 5 minutes of rest, but you can modify this however suits you best.
      • The idea here is to focus for the entirety of those 25 minutes on the task you’re trying to accomplish, or to sit and do nothing. It’s important that you don’t multitask during this time.

Practice meditation

  • According to MedicalNewsToday, “Meditation is considered to boost a range of cognitive abilities, such as mental clarity, stability, and creativity, while increasing the length of time that someone can hold their focus.”
  • To easily get started, download a meditation app like Headspace, Calm, or Waking Up. These have been designed to demystify the process and make them more accessible.

Consider fasting or avoiding carbohydrates before work

  • There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence online to suggest that both of these methods are effective for sustaining focus over a longer period. Do your research on this one and see if it works for you.