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Undoing Distraction, Technology Edition

by Michael W. Taft

Does anyone you know not have a problem with too many distractions? Here in the Bay Area at least, it seems to be an epidemic—many people report feeling frazzled from the pressures of too much technology. In Part One of Undoing Distraction, we looked at a few of the basics of reclaiming a hold on your attention, but the frantic world of smartphones and social media presents an entirely new set of challenges to concentration. These technologies are the result of a long Darwinian arms race among competitors for the best way to capture attention. Brighter screens, higher resolution, faster processors, and a vast, teeming ecosystem of apps has given rise to generations of extra-powerful distraction devices. In this article, we’ll look at specific ways to handle undoing these concentration challenges more gracefully.

You weren’t built to handle this

In a way, the tech in our lives is like the food in our lives. Just as contemporary cuisine presents a level of gustatory temptation which we are hard pressed to turn down, contemporary distraction devices manifest a level of attention seduction that is very difficult to resist. To a brain that evolved to seek out hard-to-find sugars, fats, and salts in order to keep the body healthy, a concoction such as the candied bacon chocolate chip cookie (no link provided—you’re on your own with that!) functions almost like a virus: it penetrates our defenses and defuses our willpower because it pushes so many compulsive buttons at once (see hyperpalatability).

In the same way, to a human brain that evolved to seek out novelty, a smartphone loaded with flashy lights, addictive games, music, videos, shopping, porn, as well as instant access to the latest news and information makes a device that is almost irresistible. There is a whole body of research which demonstrates that we get a shot of the brain chemical dopamine (a strong reward) when we experience a novel stimulus. So we are powerfully motivated to check texts, emails, and other message channels over and over, because there just might be something cool or interesting there. The fact that we’re not sure if something awesome will show up this time makes it even more addictive (see the fascinating video below).


Do Not Disturb mode

It would be best if you could turn off your smartphone completely while trying to concentrate, but practically there are certain calls that it wouldn’t be safe or responsible to miss. Sometimes turning it all the way off actually increases anxiety to the point where it’s worse for concentration. Yet leaving the phone all the way on while you’re trying to concentrate is a strong distraction. Luckily, there is an answer: smartphones now come with a “Do Not Disturb” mode, which allows you to silence all but the most important interruptions. In the preferences settings, you can set the phone to allow only calls from, say, your teenager, and silence all other interruptions. You can set it exactly to whatever makes it easiest for you to relax and focus while still feeling comfortable. If you want to go really crazy, just completely disable email and web-browsing during the day, or whenever you’re trying to focus.

Full screen mode

Most of the interruptions and distractions present on the phone are also present on our desktop computers. Probably even more so. In response to plummeting productivity, and the near helplessness we may feel around keeping focused in the face of this distraction deluge, many popular applications have added a “full screen mode.” This means that they black out all other applications while you work with them, a simple but useful feature that instantly removes major sources of distraction.

Another fast-growing genre of applications cuts off the Internet from all your devices.  Here is a current list of applications for your computer which will help cut down distractions. You can help me keep it updated in the future (by using the comments field)—these things change fast.



Calm Down

Calm Your Box



Mac Freedom





Getting rid of badges and notifications

We are also an extremely social species which evolved  to prioritize friends and family above all else. The presence of so many social media apps on most smartphones One of the catchiest aspects of a smartphone is its ability to notify you of incoming items of interest. Text messages, calendar alerts, Facebook updates, emails, Twitter follows—there’s a seemingly endless stream of things you could possibly want to be alerted about, and the smartphone caters to all of them. If you are a doctor or fire fighter, getting such alerts makes a lot of sense: your job requires it. For the rest of us, getting alerted all the time is just another way to get constantly interrupted.

White noise

If you’re in an environment that is noisy, the best thing to do is to get rid of as much of the noise as possible. However, there are many situations where that’s not possible or practical. However there is still something you can do to counteract the negative effects all that random noise has on your concentration—use white noise. White noise means sound that is many frequencies at once, without any particular signal or information. It sounds like static, or the hissing of a radio attuned to no station.

In one sense it is pure noise pollution, but there is a way that it can really help you. White noise, it turns out, is perfect to drowning out other noises. For example, if there are a lot of cars, beeping, voices, ambulances, and so on in your environment all the time, these sounds are very distracting because they are something specific to pay attention to. If you have white noise playing in your space loud enough, however, it will cover up these distracting sounds. And because white noise has nothing in it to pay attention to—your brain interprets it as environmental background sound, like wind in the trees—it allows you to overcome the distraction these other sounds would have caused.

This fight-fire-with-fire strategy has been proven to be effective in many experiments. There are a lot of white noise makers for sale on the market, but you don’t have to buy one to get some white noise for yourself. For example, here is a link to 12 solid hours of white noise, totally free, which you can play in the background to help you concentrate.

For God’s sake just turn it off

Many of us have to use the Internet for work, and our smartphones may be vital links to our family, children, and others. Tricks like the ones above can be lifesavers in terms of making the tsunami of information and alerts something we can cope with in a sustainable way. However, there are many times when these devices just aren’t necessary at all. How many times do you find yourself checking your email in bed, or compulsively texting when you’re out for dinner with a friend? Situations like these represent a voluntary immersion in the digital deluge. And that is a whole lot of distraction that you have complete power over. All you have to do is turn it off.

Remember the world outside the screen? Filled with people and animals and plants and sky and stuff? Why not check that out for a while?  Time away from overwhelming technology is really restorative. So turn off the screens for a while, and take a nice deep breath of the real world.

Learn all about how to concentrate

photo by Outsanity Photos


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