How to learn effectively in the age of digital distraction

Six steps to help you limit connectivity and improve your focus and productivity.

  • Share on Twitter 123
  • Share on Facebook 123
  • Share on LinkedIn 123
  • Email this article
  • Print this article
  • Add to library

Did you make any New Year’s resolutions? If you did, they probably included lose weight, get in shape, and have more sex. I would add something else for 2019: Get a grip on your digital distraction. Limiting your connectivity will give you back time, energy, and control.

In less than three decades, computer technology has moved from being in the room (the desktop), to being anywhere we like (the laptop), and now as computers have shrunk to fit in a pocket, to being always in our hands (the smartphone). This has ushered in a culture of nonstop use that is compulsive and, quite simply, distracting.

Our connectedness is now so total that a recent British study says that we pick up our devices every 12 minutes: That is roughly 80 times during one day’s waking hours. We know how addictive algorithms are designed to be: We are familiar with the term clickbait because we regularly fall prey to it. Two recent studies show that people enjoy social situations less when they keep their smartphones with them. An article in Psychology Today described “the powerful psychoactive impact of the Internet” that results from positive neurological pathways that are created when we compulsively check our phones. A famous Stanford University study published in 2009 concluded that multitasking is a myth and that in practice those who juggle online and offline tasks are what one of the authors called “suckers for irrelevancy.… Everything distracts them.”

How to learn effectively in the age of digital distraction

Photograph by Tetra Images

We also know that circuitry of the human brain cannot cope with too much distraction or focus-switching: Torkel Klingberg, professor of cognitive neuroscience at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, posited in his 2008 book, The Overflowing Brain, that “attention is the portal through which the information flood reaches the brain” but that our brains lack “boundless capacity” to both pay attention and process attention.

Get a grip on your digital distraction. Limiting your connectivity will give you back time, energy, and control.

This “always on” behavior isn’t improving our performance. Recent research from Pew Research Center found that 15 percent of adults believe it is impairing their focus at work — which is nearly double the share of teens (8 percent) who say they often lose focus in school due to their phones. One result is that sales of so-called dumb phones, which can be used for calls and texts but cannot connect to the Internet, are rising.

The Six-Step Program

I present this research not to make some neo-Luddite argument about switching off our technology — that genie is clearly not going back in the bottle — but both to understand the extent of our digital distraction and to devise more effective strategies to combat the problem. I conclude from both the neuroscience and the cultural unease around our embedded reliance on technology that the only answer is to resolve to behave differently. Here are the steps I recommend.

Related Stories

How Artificial Intelligence Can Make Us Better at Being Human

Why corporate wellness programs fall short

Human Creativity in the Age of Smart Machines

1. Get distance. The closer you keep your smartphone, the more tempting it is to use it. So get smarter about your smartphone and get a dumb phone too, which you use only to call and text your favorite contacts. A dumb phone allows you to be reachable at all times and begins to wean you off being “always on.” Managers should not ask employees to be available 24/7. The science behind stimulus control reveals that a repeated response to a stimulus, such as checking your phone, only reinforces the behavior.

2. Go deep. Switching among email, the Internet, and social media shreds attention and robs you of time and focus. Computer scientist Cal Newport coined the phrase deep work to describe “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration” — and cautions against “the pinprick onslaught of small obligations that seem harmless in isolation but aggregate to serious injury to a deep work habit.” Learn to recognize the difference between what Newport calls “shallow” work (heavy on digital distraction) and a deeper mode of attention.

3. Limit choices. Barack Obama famously stuck to simple and limited clothing options to prevent “decision fatigue,” a principle that can be applied to information overload too. I recently found I had spent more than two hours weighing up different airlines. I was in a vortex of choice. We need to accept that when we try to make perfect choices we are often just equivocating. Consciously limit yourself to only the information you need to review.

4. Go analog. Remember pen and paper? It turns out that your mind may remember what you write by hand far better than what you type. When you write something down, you encode it in your memory. The point is to let go of the assumption that using your smartphone or laptop all of the time is inherently better and saves more time than using the best digits available: your hands.

5. Value face-to-face. Remember “dress-down Friday”? Well, what about starting “face-to-face Friday,” a day when all meetings are in-person, so all digital interactions are finished by Thursday evening? The more fanciful this thought seems, the more likely it is that you need it. And instead of simply hitting “reply,” try something radical: Pick up the phone and invite a colleague for coffee. Why? Because being face-to-face builds trust.

6. Re-route. If you want to minimize your digital distraction, you have to change your habits. Think of this in the context of re-routing: Instead of juggling technologies, decide to go off-piste, not with a one-off digital detox session but with a daily routine in which you build in time to focus without dipping into and out of different apps. A smartphone can do at least 10 digital activities at once. You can’t. Around seven is considered our cognitive limit (pdf).

Be the Lightbulb

Finally, a joke: How many psychoanalysts does it take to change a lightbulb? One, but the lightbulb has to really want to change. There is ample evidence that willpower is like a muscle and needs to be strengthened. Motivation is key to making real changes in your relationship to tech.

My advice: Make 2019 the year that you are the lightbulb. As Cal Newport says: “Leave the distracted masses to join the focused few.”

Failed to save article

Please try again

How to learn effectively in the age of digital distraction

Digital classroom tools like computers, tablets and smartphones offer exciting opportunities to deepen learning through creativity, collaboration and connection, but those very devices can also be distracting to students. Similarly, parents complain that when students are required to complete homework assignments online, it’s a challenge for students to remain on task. The ubiquity of digital technology in all realms of life isn’t going away, but if students don’t learn how to concentrate and shut out distractions, research shows they’ll have a much harder time succeeding in almost every area.

“The real message is because attention is under siege more than it has ever been in human history, we have more distractions than ever before, we have to be more focused on cultivating the skills of attention,” said Daniel Goleman, a psychologist and author of Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence and other books about social and emotional learning on KQED’s Forum program.

“Children I’m particularly worried about because the brain is the last organ of the body to become anatomically mature. It keeps growing until the mid-20s,” Goleman said. If young students don’t build up the neural circuitry that focused attention requires, they could have problems controlling their emotions and being empathetic.

“The circuitry for paying attention is identical for the circuits for managing distressing emotion,” Goleman said. The area of the brain that governs focus and executive functioning is known as the pre-frontal cortex. This is also the part of the brain that allows people to control themselves, to keep emotions in check and to feel empathy for other people.

“The attentional circuitry needs to have the experience of sustained episodes of concentration — reading the text, understanding and listening to what the teacher is saying — in order to build the mental models that create someone who is well educated,” Goleman said. “The pulls away from that mean that we have to become more intentional about teaching kids.” He advocates for a “digital sabbath” everyday, some time when kids aren’t being distracted by devices at all. He’d also like to see schools building exercises that strengthen attention, like mindfulness practices, into the curriculum.

The ability to focus is a secret element to success that often gets ignored. “The more you can concentrate the better you’ll do on anything, because whatever talent you have, you can’t apply it if you are distracted,” Goleman said. He pointed to research on athletes showing that when given a concentration test, the results accurately predicted how well each would perform in a game the next day.

Perhaps the most well known study on concentration is a longitudinal study conducted with over 1,000 children in New Zealand by Terrie Moffitt and Avshalom Caspi, psychology and neuroscience professors at Duke University. The study tested children born in 1972 and 1973 regularly for eight years, measuring their ability to pay attention and to ignore distractions. Then, the researchers tracked those same children down at the age of 32 to see how well they fared in life. The ability to concentrate was the strongest predictor of success.

“This ability is more important than IQ or the socio economic status of the family you grew up in for determining career success, financial success and health,” Goleman said. That could be a problem for students in the U.S. who often seem addicted to their devices, unable to put them down for even a few moments. Teachers say students are unable to comprehend the same texts that generations of students that came before them could master without problems, said Goleman. These are signs that educators may need to start paying attention to the act of attention itself. Digital natives may need help cultivating what was once an innate part of growing up.

“It’s very important to amp up the focus side of the equation,” Goleman said. He’s not naive about the role digital devices play in society today, but he does believe that without managing how devices affect kids better they’ll never learn the attention skills they’ll need to succeed in the long term.

“There’s a need now to teach kids concentration abilities as part of the school curriculum,” Goleman said. “The more children and teens are natural focusers, the better able they’ll be to use the digital tool for what they have to get done and then to use it in ways that they enjoy.”

Some argue that the current generation of students grew up with digital devices and are much better at multitasking than their parents. But the idea of multitasking is a myth, Goleman said. When people say they’re “multitasking,” what they are really doing is something called “continuous partial attention,” where the brain switches back and forth quickly between tasks. The problem is that as a student switches back and forth between homework and streaming through text messages, their ability to focus on either task erodes. That trend is less pronounced when the actions are routine, but it could have significant implications for how deeply a student understands a new concept.

“If you have a big project, what you need to do every day is have a protected time so you can get work done,” Goleman said. For his part, when he’s writing a book, Goleman goes to his studio where there is no email, no phone, nothing to distract him. He’ll work for several hours and then spend designated time responding to people afterwards.

“I don’t think the enemy is digital devices,” Goleman said. “What we need to do is be sure that the current generation of children has the attentional capacities that other generations had naturally before the distractions of digital devices. It’s about using the devices smartly but having the capacity to concentrate as you need to, when you want to.”

Want to stay in touch?

Subscribe to receive weekly updates of MindShift stories every Sunday. You’ll also receive a carefully curated list of content from teacher-trusted sources.

Online Campus

Online
Anywhere
Online

Past Locations for this Workshop

Stay up to date

Follow this workshop to get an email the next time it’s scheduled.

Sign-up not required

About this workshop

Do you like receiving marketing emails? Didn’t think so – and we bet your clients aren’t so enthusiastic either. In an age of digital distraction, when your customers are overwhelmed by hundreds of messages, how can we use email marketing successfully.

In this workshop, we will show you just that. By comparing live examples of traditional vs innovative email campaigns, we will introduce ethical ways you can grow your mailing list and revitalise your email marketing strategy without breaking the law or overwhelming people.

Takeaways

  • Understand how your subscribers behave online and how you can capture their attention through neuroscience
  • Understand the difference between traditional and mindful email marketing and how you can use it to your advantage
  • Create some ready email copies that will get customers excited about your product without spending much time or money on it
  • Learn how to build not simply a loyal customer base, but raving fans who are looking forward to every email you’ll be sending, and will be happy to share them
  • Understand, how GDPR 2018 will impact your email marketing strategy and how to start preparing for it now

Prereqs & Preparation

No need to prior knowledge of email marketing, although it’s beneficial if we do that. No laptops please (we’ll do some digital detox at the course!) Bring a pen and paper, so you can take notes and write your own copy of an email.

Coming up near you

Design Your Life®, Design Your Parenting & Partnership

15 Thursday, 15 April

Resume and LinkedIn Fundamentals: Telling Your Professional Story

15 Thursday, 15 April

Free Intro to Social Media Strategy Mapping Class Online

15 Thursday, 15 April

Product Management Bootcamp

16 Friday, 16 April

Let’s Keep You Updated

Enter your email to start following

Thanks

You’re following Effective Email Marketing: Capturing Customers in the Age of Distraction.

Start following any program. No need to enter your email again.

General Assembly is a pioneer in education and career transformation, specializing in today’s most in-demand skills. The leading source for training, staffing, and career transitions, we foster a flourishing community of professionals pursuing careers they love.

General Assembly Space Academy
ACRA UEN NUMBER: 201524437R
ERF Registration Period: 8 September 2015 – 7 September 2016

Digital distraction is emerging as a major problem for learners, whose attention is constantly diverted in a world of screens.

This may sound familiar: you sit down to prepare for an important exam but an hour into your studying you decide to check a video on Youtube. Suddenly you realise that you have spent an hour and a half studying cats reacting to being sprayed with water.

We live in a world where sustained concentration is becoming more difficult and increasingly rare. Gone are the days when you could just sit down and study, with no Skype messages, Facebook notifications, or breaking news alerts contending for your attention. American author Jonathan Franzen famously said that:

It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.

People’s tendency for distraction is higher than ever before because of technology and the unprecedented exposure to information all the time.

Why is multitasking a bad idea?

It is a fact that studying for the GMAT while checking your phone every other minute makes your preparation less efficient. Adam Gazzaley, professor of Neurology, Physiology and Psychiatry, and author of the book ‘The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High Tech World’, claims that when we switch between tasks, we suffer a degradation of performance that then could impact every aspect of our cognition from our emotional regulation to our decision making to our learning process. Clifford Nass, the Stanford professor known for his research on the way people interact with technology, arrived at the conclusion that people are bad at multitasking because they are actually moving in and out of different tasks quickly, not working simultaneously, and nothing gets enough attention.

If you think that your ability to focus compensates for your tendency to multitask, consider this: filtering distractions is more important that focusing. According to Gazzaley, the highest level of performance while learning is dictated by how well you filter all the irrelevant information. He says that if you process information around you that is irrelevant to your goals, it will create interference.

The negative impact of digital distraction is not just on academic performance. Multitasking also has an emotional and psychological impact, including increased anxiety and stress.

How to tackle digital distraction?

Disconnect

Getting off the Internet can be hard, but it could be the most effective way to make studying more efficient. With no Internet, you don’t run the risk of being tempted by Buzfeed’s ‘39 Overly Adorable Kittens To Brighten Your Day’. The Web can be a great assistant in your work, but it is also an inexhaustible source of entertainment that can throttle your productivity.

Block social media

However, if you need the Internet for your studies, try an app that blocks specific websites, such as AntiSocial or a Google Chrome extension called Block Site. Bear in mind that there is a myriad of other websites that might tempt you, such as the BBC, Netflix, Amazon, etc. Analyse which websites interfere with your studying the most and just block them.

Quit social media

If blocking social media does not do the trick, try quitting, at least for the time until the exam. This step can be particularly hard because social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, Snapchat, Google+, Vine, etc. are known to be quite addictive. However, research shows that most people find that living without social media is much easier than they initially expected.

Analog learning

A 2014 Princeton study shows that writing something down by hand is better than typing it on a laptop. People who take notes on computers are transcribing, and people taking notes by hand tend to be choosing more, says Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. He says that:

An important part of learning is ordering things, and you do that more with note taking.

How to learn effectively in the age of digital distraction

Schedule study time

You may improve your concentration by planning in advance exactly when and where you’ll spend time doing studying. This could help you prepare mentally for a prolonged period of studying without any kind of digital distraction. You can schedule your study session before your favourite TV show or a football game that you want to watch. Instead of studying for a whole day with numerous planned and unplanned interruptions, try to allot three or four solid hours to a particular task, dedicating it your sustained attention. You can also consider making a to-do list. Lists help prioritise what must be done and when, enabling learners to stay on task during scheduled study sessions.

Exercise

This may sound like a strange piece of advice, but exercise has been credited with significantly improving brain function. A study carried out by the University of British Columbia found that regular aerobic exercise enlarges the hippocampus, the brain area involved in verbal memory and learning. There is plenty of scientific evidence that the parts of the brain that control thinking and memory are bigger in people who exercise versus people who don’t.

Practice self-restraint

No matter how many sites you block or where you hide your smartphone, all the measures you take will be in vain if you don’t have self-control. You may insulate yourself completely from the digital world, but without self-restraint you are bound to lapse into the harmful, distracting habit of checking your Facebook every 10 minutes. And remember, practising self-control will benefit not only your studying but also your life in general. Research at Duckworth Lab at the University of Pennsylvania’s positive psychology centre concluded that the people relying on consistency and grit came out as more successful than those relying on talent.

How to learn effectively in the age of digital distraction

It is difficult to focus when there is so much technology around us vying for our attention. However, sometimes we have to show character and do what has to be done. Learning to focus and ignore distractions will help us achieve better results in exams, and, ultimately, have better lives in general.

‘Monk mornings’, work sprints and withdrawal from social media helped Benedict Probst become hugely more productive

  • Share on twitter
  • Share on facebook
  • Share on linkedin
  • Share on whatsapp
  • Share on mail

How to learn effectively in the age of digital distraction

Four years ago, I was working on a master’s assignment in the library of the London School of Economics. This is a place that offers almost perfect conditions for studying: no one talks, and nothing happens outside the window, except the occasional bird flying by.

Yet I found it impossible to focus. The distraction was in my pocket. What if one of my WhatsApp messages needed urgent attention while I was wasting my time on a climate change assignment?

Many of my friends reported similar feelings. “Whenever it gets too hard,” one told me, “I just take a quick digital break.” But this constant switching between tasks comes at a cost to concentration, which researchers call “attention residue”. In one study, it took participants around 15 minutes to get back to their original task after a digital interruption.

My response was to develop an approach that I call “deep agility”. This combines two powerful approaches (deep working and agile working) to boost concentration while keeping the process fun and flexible. It helped me to graduate top of my class at the LSE and to produce seven papers during my PhD at the University of Cambridge while not working past 7pm during the week and never at weekends.

It all started during a winter break, when I stumbled upon Deep Work, a book by Cal Newport, professor of computer science at Georgetown University. Newport proposes that the ability to work deeply – on hard problems over extended periods of time – is critical to success in academia and elsewhere, but is eroded by digital technologies. His bold remedy: quit social media.

After reading the book over a week in the mountains, I returned to 500 unread WhatsApp messages. So I deleted WhatsApp. I also scrapped my Facebook account, which had more than 2,000 “friends”. More recently, I left Twitter.

It took my brain some time to readjust from years of constant distraction. Whenever I hit a mental roadblock, I was accustomed to turning to my phone, or checking my emails. Yet these moments are critical for learning hard skills, such as advanced programming. So I tried to put Newport’s advice into action: “Do not take breaks from distraction. Take breaks from focus.”

I installed Focus, a Mac app that blocks access to email and other time-killers, such as YouTube and news sites. I deleted the email app from my phone and deactivated all notifications from the remaining apps. I also told friends that they shouldn’t expect an immediate response.

That allowed me to immerse myself in what I call “monk mornings”: four hours of uninterrupted focus between 8am and 12pm that set the tone for the rest of the day. A 10-minute meditation session before starting helped to further sharpen my mind.

Yet embracing deep work risks isolation. And labouring in solitude might not be compatible with a normal office environment, even for PhD students. This is where agile working comes in.

This emphasises flexible project management, work sprints and quick feedback cycles. Instead of trying to specifically plan when to finish research tasks, I continuously pool all of them in Trello, a free piece of organisational software. I put them into categories depending on urgency. I also keep a “done” list; also known as burn charts, these give you a good feeling as you survey everything you’ve already done.

As it is difficult to exactly plan how long it will take to complete a specific sub-task, I use work sprints to make as much progress as possible on them in a set period of uninterrupted time. I aim to have 10 30-minute sprints per day, which I track with the Be Focused timer. After each sprint, the timer automatically gives you five minutes to rest, and the sprints’ relatively short duration reduces the willpower needed to get started.

Time limits force you to work with utmost concentration and to focus on the things that really matter. For instance, at the LSE I went to the university library without a laptop charger, which gave me only around four hours before my battery died. Stopping all screen activity at 7pm and focusing on friends, sports and other enjoyable things helped me to refuel for the next day.

Quick iteration is another important element of agile work. In his excellent book The Lean PhD, Julian Kirchherr – an academic at Utrecht University – recommends focusing on “minimum viable products”, which in the context of academia are papers that contain the main analysis but are rough in all other aspects, such as literature review and conclusion. For instance, for one paper that is currently under review at Nature Energy, I wrote a, frankly, quite messy first draft in less than two weeks and got quick feedback on it from my supervisors. This not only sped up the process of finalising it for submission, but also allowed me to focus on the most important elements. Not all supervisors are happy to provide feedback so early in the process, but other colleagues or collaborators may be.

Deep agility might not be for everyone, but it has not only transformed my own practice: friends have also reported huge improvements in their productivity by employing these same ideas in their PhDs.

In her book Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, the journalist Winifred Gallagher says: “I’ll live the focused life, because it’s the best kind there is.” My own experience couldn’t bear that out more emphatically.

Benedict Probst is a PhD student at the Cambridge Centre for Environment, Energy and Natural Resource Governance at the University of Cambridge.

Home » Homework Solutions in the Age of Distraction

Your child steps through the front door and drops his backpack by the door and heads straight to the kitchen. After a quick hello, you hear, “I’m hungry,” as he walks into the kitchen.

How to learn effectively in the age of digital distraction“Do you have any homework?” You ask as he grabs a piece of fruit from the counter.

Now, you’re fast forwarding to the scene from last night. At curriculum night, the teacher told you to expect 45 minutes of homework each day, but your kid has been sitting at his Chromebook for over an hour.

Homework that needs to happen on the computer or tablet seems to take longer. And it can be hard to know if your child is actually doing homework, or if she is playing games or chatting with friends.

Homework Help: Simple Strategies

Here are some strategies to help you figure out what’s happening and to foster your child’s homework independence:

  • Let them unwind. How would you feel if the second you walked through the door and hung up your keys, your boss was telling you to get back to work? It doesn’t really inspire you to fire up your laptop and give it your all, right? Besides, you’ve already been working on your computer for several hours today. The same goes for your kids. Give them a chance to unwind, spark a conversation about their day, or encourage them to get outside and move their bodies. They’ve just been sitting in a classroom, learning and working away on their computer or at a desk for a good chunk of their day too, so when they get a chance to move their bodies, they’ll return to school work with a fresh mind.
  • Understand that collaboration is challenging. Think back to the group projects you used to work on in school. Maybe you despised them; you’d rather just do it yourself. Or, maybe you loved group work and the fresh ideas that came to light with every new project. Digital tools make the logistics of collaborating easier, but they don’t make negotiating ideas and group work any easier. Sometimes teachers assign team projects assuming that kids already have the social skills to develop ideas together. Just like your kid needed to learn how to use the computer effectively, she also needs to learn how to collaborate. Guide your child to help set her up for success in her first team project. It may help to check in with a teacher to find out if there has been some guidance on the roles and expectations for each group member.
  • Are they really doing homework? Every time you look over, your child is engrossed in the computer and doesn’t seem to be working. Is he obsessively checking fantasy football stats or thinking through a homework assignment? The textbook is open, but his smartphone is also buzzing. Is that a group text? If you think your child might be distracted, brainstorm with him on ways minimize any distractions. If your child has been using his tablet or Chromebook for some time, check in to see how it’s going.
  • Set up tech-healthy habits. Creating daily habits requires us to do less thinking about what we need to do next. When your kids were young, you set up lots of routines, such as taking a bath, brushing teeth, reading a book, and getting to bed. Homework time is an excellent opportunity to set up new habits with school-aged children. If your children know that after they grab a snack and play basketball for a half hour or so, it’s homework time. The more a daily homework habit takes hold, the less you’ll fight with your children about homework. A tech habit to help your child get into is using only one screen at a time. If she’s actively using her tablet or computer, there’s usually no good reason to be using her smartphone too.
  • Set up a distraction-free zone. Creating a designated homework area that’s free from tempting distractions like a television or buzzing smartphone will help your child complete her homework more efficiently. If you have space, set up a desk with plenty of pens and pencils, as well as scissors and glue for younger kids. Make sure your space is well lit, and if possible, away from high-traffic areas like your kitchen or family room. One boarding school I worked with offered pockets for students to put their phones into during study hall. They’re optional, but encouraged, and it helps many students focus on school work.
  • Set a good example. Your child’s homework time is also a great opportunity to work on your own “homework.” Maybe you have a report to finish for work, some emails to finish replying to, or some bills to pay. Let your child see you focusing on your task at hand without pausing to check your smartphone, multitasking, or double screening.
  • Let them stop. If there’s too much homework, let your children stop before the homework is complete. For younger kids, you can let the teacher know, older kids can let the teacher know on their own that this is what’s possible for your child to do in the time allotted. If teachers don’t get that feedback, they won’t know. Many families struggle with this as kids feel like they need to do everything assigned. Even if your child prefers not to stop, if homework is interfering with sleep or eating or other things your child needs to do (including downtime) then it is up to you to pull the plug. Here’s some great advice about how to advocate if your child is getting too much homework.
  • Mentoring over monitoring. You’ve probably heard me say this before, but this is another great opportunity to mentor them instead of merely monitoring them. Make yourself available for questions, but stay out of their homework business. If your child seems frustrated or disengaged, feel free to ask her how it’s going and offer to help, but don’t push. Your kids should be doing their homework mostly independently. So, as much as you can, be available to assist, but encourage them to solve problems on their own. You shouldn’t be crossing their Ts or editing their work in most cases. Brainstorming with them to plan how to achieve the needed focus is more productive than hovering.

‘Monk mornings’, work sprints and withdrawal from social media helped Benedict Probst become hugely more productive

  • Share on twitter
  • Share on facebook
  • Share on linkedin
  • Share on whatsapp
  • Share on mail

How to learn effectively in the age of digital distraction

Four years ago, I was working on a master’s assignment in the library of the London School of Economics. This is a place that offers almost perfect conditions for studying: no one talks, and nothing happens outside the window, except the occasional bird flying by.

Yet I found it impossible to focus. The distraction was in my pocket. What if one of my WhatsApp messages needed urgent attention while I was wasting my time on a climate change assignment?

Many of my friends reported similar feelings. “Whenever it gets too hard,” one told me, “I just take a quick digital break.” But this constant switching between tasks comes at a cost to concentration, which researchers call “attention residue”. In one study, it took participants around 15 minutes to get back to their original task after a digital interruption.

My response was to develop an approach that I call “deep agility”. This combines two powerful approaches (deep working and agile working) to boost concentration while keeping the process fun and flexible. It helped me to graduate top of my class at the LSE and to produce seven papers during my PhD at the University of Cambridge while not working past 7pm during the week and never at weekends.

It all started during a winter break, when I stumbled upon Deep Work, a book by Cal Newport, professor of computer science at Georgetown University. Newport proposes that the ability to work deeply – on hard problems over extended periods of time – is critical to success in academia and elsewhere, but is eroded by digital technologies. His bold remedy: quit social media.

After reading the book over a week in the mountains, I returned to 500 unread WhatsApp messages. So I deleted WhatsApp. I also scrapped my Facebook account, which had more than 2,000 “friends”. More recently, I left Twitter.

It took my brain some time to readjust from years of constant distraction. Whenever I hit a mental roadblock, I was accustomed to turning to my phone, or checking my emails. Yet these moments are critical for learning hard skills, such as advanced programming. So I tried to put Newport’s advice into action: “Do not take breaks from distraction. Take breaks from focus.”

I installed Focus, a Mac app that blocks access to email and other time-killers, such as YouTube and news sites. I deleted the email app from my phone and deactivated all notifications from the remaining apps. I also told friends that they shouldn’t expect an immediate response.

That allowed me to immerse myself in what I call “monk mornings”: four hours of uninterrupted focus between 8am and 12pm that set the tone for the rest of the day. A 10-minute meditation session before starting helped to further sharpen my mind.

Yet embracing deep work risks isolation. And labouring in solitude might not be compatible with a normal office environment, even for PhD students. This is where agile working comes in.

This emphasises flexible project management, work sprints and quick feedback cycles. Instead of trying to specifically plan when to finish research tasks, I continuously pool all of them in Trello, a free piece of organisational software. I put them into categories depending on urgency. I also keep a “done” list; also known as burn charts, these give you a good feeling as you survey everything you’ve already done.

As it is difficult to exactly plan how long it will take to complete a specific sub-task, I use work sprints to make as much progress as possible on them in a set period of uninterrupted time. I aim to have 10 30-minute sprints per day, which I track with the Be Focused timer. After each sprint, the timer automatically gives you five minutes to rest, and the sprints’ relatively short duration reduces the willpower needed to get started.

Time limits force you to work with utmost concentration and to focus on the things that really matter. For instance, at the LSE I went to the university library without a laptop charger, which gave me only around four hours before my battery died. Stopping all screen activity at 7pm and focusing on friends, sports and other enjoyable things helped me to refuel for the next day.

Quick iteration is another important element of agile work. In his excellent book The Lean PhD, Julian Kirchherr – an academic at Utrecht University – recommends focusing on “minimum viable products”, which in the context of academia are papers that contain the main analysis but are rough in all other aspects, such as literature review and conclusion. For instance, for one paper that is currently under review at Nature Energy, I wrote a, frankly, quite messy first draft in less than two weeks and got quick feedback on it from my supervisors. This not only sped up the process of finalising it for submission, but also allowed me to focus on the most important elements. Not all supervisors are happy to provide feedback so early in the process, but other colleagues or collaborators may be.

Deep agility might not be for everyone, but it has not only transformed my own practice: friends have also reported huge improvements in their productivity by employing these same ideas in their PhDs.

In her book Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, the journalist Winifred Gallagher says: “I’ll live the focused life, because it’s the best kind there is.” My own experience couldn’t bear that out more emphatically.

Benedict Probst is a PhD student at the Cambridge Centre for Environment, Energy and Natural Resource Governance at the University of Cambridge.

How to learn effectively in the age of digital distraction

Share

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn

Copy the link

Abbie Hoffmann, the 1960’s counter-culture activist, once boasted that he could make unsympathetic news about his ‘Chicago Eight’ trial disappear from the front pages. The next day, he arrived at court doing handstands. The media loved it, he stole the headlines, the distraction worked.

Like Hoffmann, political and corporate leaders have always understood the power – and danger – of distraction. Industrial scale fake news from Russia and China is less about getting readers to believe the falsehoods than to divert attention from the real story.

The tobacco industry, in funding Nobel-prize winning scientific research on genetics, viruses, immunology and air pollution, was not making their case for cigarettes, but diverting attention from the debate altogether.

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World suggested that we will be controlled through our distractions. As Claire Masson, FT|IE Corporate Learning Alliance’s head of learning impact observes: ‘We were warned that Orwell’s Big Brother would be watching us; but we’ve ended up watching Big Brother. The result may be the same.’

Today, it is easier than ever to be distracted—companies encourage it, and we are willing participants. The ubiquity of social media and the ease of an internet search allows advertisers to intrude on our online conversations and digital relationships. Recognising the diversionary overload (including the hyperlinks in this article), start-ups have now produced ‘read-it-later’ apps that help us organise our future distractions (assuming that we ever get round to them).

‘We were warned that Orwell’s big brother would be watching us; we ended up watching Big Brother. The result may be the same.’

The exponential increase in distractions may even be changing how our brains function. In a 2008 article, ‘Is Google Making Us Stupid? Nicholas Carr asks whether the Internet is ‘chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation.’ It’s becoming harder just to read a book, he notes. And it is surely no co-incidence that the US President rose through reality TV, crushing or circumventing the political establishment with a few 140-character tweets.

A time and a place to think

Senior decision makers are no less susceptible to distraction than are the customers they sell to. One recently promoted board member, when asked to explain what his new role involved, responded: ‘to work less and think more.’ This was no idle comment. He recalls an offsite training day designed to provide corporate leaders with the time and space to think deeply. It ended in chaos after a smartphone ban prompted a walkout, with one participant harrumphing: ‘I don’t have time for this.’

We don’t just need the time to think, we need a place too. Richard Branson reportedly walks around his private lake when he needs to reflect deeply. For those unlucky enough not to own one, it’s hard to find sanctuary. Open plan offices are full of annoying telephone chatter. Homes have noisy children. Cafés suffer the hell of other people’s conversation, not to mention roadside drilling and passing police sirens. Large parks are no good if it rains.

Could the solution lie in yet more technology? For example, virtual reality (VR) is often touted as an effective learning tool. But its value lies not in creating a believable practice world, but rather in eliminating real-world distractions. John Fecci, commercial director at elearning studios, reckons that users can learn a speech three times faster with VR because it commands their undivided attention. Will we come to rely on VR and other such technologies when we can no longer muster the power to think for ourselves?

We live in the “Information Age;” yet, despite the incredible number of communication platforms available to us, including worldwide interaction on the internet, email, texting, private messaging, social media, and (heaven forbid) using our smartphones to speak to each other, we are as isolated and stressed as ever.

If you research how to improve communication, whether for personal or business reasons, you will learn that listening is the most important tool for effective communication. “The ability to truly pay attention to what someone else is saying improves not only the quality of what we hear and understand, but also the enthusiasm and engagement of the other person involved in the communication.” (LaunchBox365.com)

Even as we incorporate more technology for sharing information into our lives, the ability to be present goes down as our level of digital distraction goes up.

Here are two core reasons the quality of our communication is declining:

  • Shortened attention spans – Digital communication takes place in less than the blink of an eye. Scanning information has become far more popular than reading it. This leads us to expect speed and convenience over clarity and depth, stifling the quality of our communication. How many times have you seen someone become upset over a very short text or email message, only to discover they interpreted the message in a way that was never intended?
  • Loss of non-verbal cues – If you can’t see the person you’re interacting with, you lose the ability take in and evaluate body language, eye contact, and other non-verbal cues that the experts say accounts for 85% of interpersonal communication. How can you tell what they’re feeling about what you have to say? Emojis don’t really cut it, do they?

A great listener is a present listener. They set aside distractions (digital and otherwise) and pay attention, by being present and responding to verbal and non-verbal cues. They ask open-ended questions that relate to the subject at hand, and show empathy and understanding. Most important, a great listener is so committed to communicating, they let their conversation partner know that they want to hear more.

The internet has changed the world as we know it, don’t lose track of the real price we are paying for it.