Is the world more distracting? Sometimes it seems that way. With our devices perpetually buzzing, it seems that more events need our attention right away and more things try to entertain us while we're trying to focus.
Distraction is hardly a digital phenomenon, though. More than 2,000 years ago, Socrates and Aristotle debated the nature of akrasia" (pronounced "uh-crazy-uh"), our tendency to act against our better judgement. To the ancient Greeks, mere mortals were prone to distraction due to our weakness of will. Still, many of us feel we're living in a golden age of distraction, and we're more unsure than ever as to what it takes to stay focused. So we blame our puny attention spans and the devices we suspect are shortening them every day.
But while it's true that products affect our attention, it's not exactly the case that all technology is equally addictive or distracting. To understand why, it helps to look at your own relationships with your own gadgets to see if they're as toxic as you may fear.
I decided to use myself as a guinea pig, and plotted certain products and services on the matrix below. And for the sake of comparison—in order to see how my digital devices stack up against more basic commodities—I didn't limit myself just to tech. On one axis is the question of whether the product is harmful to my life. On the other, I asked myself whether I could stop using the product if I wanted to, or whether I was dependent.
It's a subjective measure, to be sure, but it helps you begin to quantify how you use certain products and the impact they have on your life. With this two-by-two tool, you can begin to classify certain products and decide how to put them in their place.
The top left quadrant is an easy one. Things that aren’t harmful and I can easily stop using are what I call "Goods." The vast majority of the products and services I use fit into this category. Goods are not problematic. In fact, some of these things, like my gym membership or water bottle, I wish I used more often.
In the upper right are "Necessities." These things aren't harmful, but I can’t stop using them without serious consequences—food, clothing, and shelter all fall into this bucket. As much as I might wish I didn’t have to shove nutrients into my face-hole to stay alive, or that societal norms permitted public nudity, unfortunately, neither are the case. I can’t realistically stop consuming these things even if I wanted to.
You could also argue that having a connection to certain technologies like an email account or Google have also become a necessity. Disconnecting won’t kill you, but neither would walking around the office in the buff. Rather, society expects certain things of us (like being web proficient and accessible through email) and we would find it difficult to live, work, and sustain personal and professional relationships without these services.
It’s interesting to note that this category can become harmful, though, depending on the degree of use. For example, eating too much food or spending too much money on clothing can have negative consequences, but there’s nothing inherently bad about these products when used properly.
To make sure we don’t overdo it, we set budgets, try to listen to our bodies telling us their full, and generally just set limits. The key is to monitor and moderate our usage. And when it comes to necessities, self-regulating is relatively easy. It’s the next category of products that presents a bigger challenge.
I love sweets, I love Facebook, and I love YouTube. But as much as I love these things, they don’t love me back. For me (but not necessarily you), these products are harmful. Your harmful distractions might include other indulgences, like being a sports fanatic, a romance novel reader, a Netflix binger, a political news junkie, or worse—in any case, it’s not for me (or anyone else for that matter) to point fingers at whatever poison you pick.
What all distractions have in common, however, is that they have the potential to keep us from living the life we want. When I think about what I want to accomplish with my remaining time on this planet, certain things just aren’t helping me.
If I could wave a magic wand and no longer want to use these products, I would. Unfortunately, there's no such craving-killing spell. Like it or not, the reality is that I do want to consume these things. They’re fun! They’re entertaining! They’re delicious! But they’re also sources of akrasia. The tendency Socrates and Aristotle warned us about lives right here, too.
So the question is: Why do we do things against our better interests in the first place? For the most part, when a product doesn’t give customers what they want, they stop buying it. You wouldn’t keep buying apples at a grocery store that sells rotten fruit. But distractions are sneaky. We use them despite knowing they aren’t doing us any good. Distractions trick us into hurting ourselves by dulling our awareness of the price we’re paying. They feel good now, but we feel bad later.
Yet as seemingly sinister as distractions might be, the responsibility to quit them is on us. Though I’d like to say I’m powerless against the pull of Facebook, YouTube, or sweets, that’s not really true. "Distractions" are defined as behaviors that harm us but that we can stop doing, if we choose to. And the way to do that is straightforward: realize and reduce.
The first step is to call these products what they are: distractions are bad habits. For me, a scroll of the newsfeed, a sweet snack after a meal, or a video binge after work are all things I do "just 'cause." By definition, habits are impulses to do a behavior with little or no conscious thought. So bringing consciousness to an otherwise unconscious act is the first step toward ending it. And when I finally asked myself, "Is this product serving me? Does it help me do what I really want?" I answered with a sheepish, "No."
Over the past several years, I’ve dissected what makes products habit-forming and discovered that they all take users along four basic steps that keep them coming back for more:
- a trigger
- an action
- a variable reward
- an investment
It’s not that candy makers and tech companies are evil; it’s that the market rewards them for making products people want. By and large, that’s a good thing. However, the result is more engaging Facebook feeds, more engrossing YouTube videos, and more delicious desserts.
In a world where the features that make a product better also makes it harder to resist, the answer is to be able to spot these hooks and deliberately break them where they don’t serve us. When we understand how products hook us, they lose some of their power. Getting unhooked starts with removing the triggers, making the action more difficult, delaying the rewards, and consciously not investing.
For the specific techniques I used to unhook myself from technology, see this video:
Our world is full of products designed to hook us, but only we can decide if they serve us. Once we divide helpful products from harmful, our distractions can be dealt with and controlled. Unfortunately, there’s one category of product that people can’t control.
When a product is harmful and users want to stop using it but can’t, the product is more than a distraction; it’s an addiction. A relatively small percentage of people suffer from true addictions, but the consequences of these compulsive behaviors can be serious. Whether it’s an addiction to gambling, pornography, video gaming, shopping, or alcohol, people caught in the cycle of abuse tend to harm themselves and, often, those closest to them.
The defining characteristic of addictions—that the user is unable to stop despite the harm caused—points to something deeper. It’s not just that the product is designed to hook the user, it’s that despite knowing the consequences, users can’t put it away even when they try. The user is no longer in full control; without help, it’s nearly impossible to quit. Recovery usually involves understanding the deeper psychology driving the addiction—a task most addicts find difficult, if not impossible, to resolve on their own.
Addictions are serious. And it’s important that we don’t trivialize the experience of somebody struggling with actual addiction by comparing it to our Facebook or sugar habits (unless, of course, you truly are addicted to those).
In the meantime, it's worth remembering that for thousands of years, people have struggled with distractions that keep them from leading the lives they'd like to. And while it's true that people today find themselves attached to their smartphones, history shows us that it’s only the latest in a long list of hindrances. Just a few decades ago, people complained about the mind-melting power of television. Before that it was arcade games, the telephone, the pinball machine, comic books, the radio, even the written word.
Not only is distraction here to stay, it will likely become harder to ignore as technology continues to make things even more engaging. But that’s not necessarily a problem—in one sense, it’s progress! We want products to improve, but we need to stay vigilant, asking whether "better" products bring out our better selves.