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The Attraction of Distraction: How to Be More Mindful When You Use Technology

Have you seen the YouTube video of the woman falling in the fountain? As she strides purposefully through the indoor mall, texting all the while, she trips over the edge of the fountain, does a graceful somersault, and, without missing a beat, emerges from the fountain and walks away. (YouTube is filled with such accidents; just try searching for “texting while walking.”)

Whether you’ve seen one of these videos, or experienced something like this yourself, you know that while our phones, tablets, and laptops are great at connecting us to one another and to vast troves of information, the distracted way we use them can sometimes have negative — even dangerous — consequences.

Distraction can lead to lower productivity when we get lost on YouTube, Facebook, or Instagram rather than finishing that homework assignment or that report for work. And it can be deadly when we can’t resist the lure of our phones while we’re driving.

In the course of my research and teaching at the University of Washington Information School, I’ve explored the problem of distraction and what we can do about it, and I’ve discovered some concrete techniques that can help you stay focused and on task when you’re online, reducing the chance of distraction.

What is attention?

Talking about distraction means talking about focus and attention. Neuroscience has shown that your brain has two attentional systems. The top-down system, largely under your conscious control, allows you to maintain focused attention. And the bottom-up system, which is largely automated, alerts you to things taking place on the periphery of your awareness.

You need both of these systems. You couldn’t safely cross a busy city street if you couldn’t concentrate on getting to the other side; that’s focused attention. But as parents know when they teach their kids to walk to school, you couldn’t cross safely without staying peripherally aware of unexpected events, such as a car running the light.

Both these systems are operating when we’re online too. Even as you’re trying to focus on an email message or a Facebook post, your brain is watching out for other events happening on the periphery. Some of these — the phone ringing, the ping of a text coming in, the sounds of traffic on the street outside — are external. Others — a random thought (“I forgot to pay the gas bill”), a moment of anxiety, a pain in the shoulder — are internal.

The challenge when you’re online is to deploy these two kinds of attention to your advantage. Which means deciding when to pay attention to new events and when to stay focused on your current task.

For 10 years, I’ve been teaching a course at the University of Washington Information School called Information and Contemplation, in which I ask students to explore the challenge of figuring out what to pay attention to in the face of repeated interruptions. And I’ve found that there are some effective techniques for accomplishing this objective.

Pay attention to your experience online

The starting point is to pay attention to your experience while you’re online. Strangely, this isn’t something we’re used to doing. We’re generally focused on getting something done — finding the cheapest flight for that trip to Denver, responding to that text. But if there’s a delay because, say, a website doesn’t load immediately, we often switch to something else.

What I ask students to do in moments like that is to notice what’s happening in their minds and bodies. They often realize that they’re holding their breath or experiencing anxiety. It helps people discover just how much strong emotions such as anxiety and boredom can drive their online behavior in ineffective and sometimes unhealthy ways.

Just by paying attention to your immediate experience as registered in your mind and body, you can begin to notice your online behavior patterns and strategies (which are often unconscious), and to see when they’re effective and when they’re not.

Notice the choice points

Once you begin to become aware of what happens to you when interruptions arise, you have an opportunity to pause and reflect and then to choose a response. “Oh, I see, this email message makes me anxious, so I want to distract myself by going to Instagram.”

In other words, you can begin to see interruptions, whether internal or external, as choice points: as opportunities to make a conscious choice. “OK, I see that I’m anxious. So what should I do about it?” Sometimes the right choice for you at that moment is still to go to Instagram. But other times the right response is to resist the temptation.

Be clear about your intention

But how to decide? My students discover that intention is the key. If you’re clear about what you’re trying to accomplish, then when choices arise — and you notice them — you can decide which choice is the healthiest and most effective. Of course, to do this, you need to be clear about your intention: What am I trying to do now, and how can I accomplish it in a skillful and effective way?

Attention is the key

All this work, of course, requires us to be attentive: to pay attention to our immediate experience, to notice the claims to our attention from internal and external interruptions, to remember to set our intention, and to come back to it at strategic moments.

This may sound like circular logic: To be more attentive online, you just need to pay more attention. But I prefer to think of it as an incremental strategy: Little by little, as you observe your online behavior — with interest, perhaps even curiosity — you begin to notice things about your online behavior that you might like to change.

The good news is that attention is like a muscle: The more you use it, the stronger it becomes. Which suggests that your time online can actually train you to be more attentive (and therefore more effective) offline as well as online. Distraction, in other words, isn’t an inevitable consequence of your time online. And you don’t have to fall in the fountain, unless you really want to.

David M. Levy is the author of Mindful Tech: How to Bring Balance to Our Digital Lives (Yale University Press, 2016) and a professor at the Information School of the University of Washington.