Distraction Audits & Why to Do One
Too much information results in too little attention. One way to fight this is to do a distraction audit and take back control of your environment.
Before we get to today's main topic, some miscellaneous goodies...
I enjoyed this 2021 episode of The Happiness Podcast with Dr. Laurie Santos about the nature of the Growth Mindset. The short version is from Hamlet: “there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”
It’s longer than five minutes, but this tutorial about Renaissance a cappella music from The New York Times is great. Pitch Perfect from 400 years ago!
Maybe it’s because Euphoria was too traumatizing to watch, but I found myself revisiting a few episodes of One Tree Hill on HBO Max last week. Good soapy fun, and Paul Johansson is a great villain.
Moon Knight on Disney+ is interesting, and I don’t know where it’s going.
This week’s Bradism: “Have vague goals. That lets people contribute and make things theirs, too.”
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On to our top story...
Distraction Audits & Why to Do One
It’s never been harder to pay attention to the things we care about. The world is bursting with information. The designers of the devices and applications that we use to get that information work hard to turn us into stimulation addicts, doom scrolling and clicking to get another dopamine hit of input regardless of its importance. “Like a kid in the candy story” doesn’t begin to cut it. Too much candy will quickly make a kid sick. “Like a drunk at an open bar” probably isn’t strong enough either.
When it comes to getting things done, the two interconnected and inversely proportional success metrics are Information and Attention: there’s too much of the first and not enough of the second. As the great 20th Century polymath Herbert Simon put it, “a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” The reverse is also true: to increase your attention you have to throttle back the amount of information that reaches you.
Recently, I did a Distraction Audit, looking at the different distractions that had snuck into my life and established beachheads on the shores of my attention. One notification by a smartphone app one time is a nuisance. Letting an app send notifications constantly is an invasion. A Distraction Audit is one step in a journey towards increased productivity.
Here are some things to think about as you look at how your environment conspires against you ability to achieve your goals.
Where is your smartphone? If it’s anywhere in the room, then it’s distracting you. A 2017 study showed convincingly that even if your smartphone is powered down it is still mobilizing your attention.
When I’m doing work that requires concentration, I have my phone turned off and in another room. If I don’t do that, then it’s a tell… I’m giving myself permission not to get things done.
Focus Mode in smartphones is worthless.
The weekly Screen Time notification your smartphone sends you is at best a half truth because it only describes the time you spend on your smartphone. What about your computer or tablet or the big screen on your wall? What about your chatty smart speaker with an endless supply of fascinating information?
If your smartphone is your only phone, as is increasingly the case, then you are institutionalizing distraction. The good news is the VOIP lines from companies like Vonage are cheap: $9.99/month for six months.
Go buy a landline! More importantly, teach the people you live and work with that if there is something truly urgent then they should not expect a rapid response from email or text: they should call. You’ll be surprised at how many things are not truly urgent.
Doing this will also enable you to stop sleeping with your smartphone, which is bad for your sleep and your ability to focus the following day. If you use the smartphone as your alarm clock, then go buy a cheap alarm clock. This one from Amazon is just $12.99.
Disable 95% of Notifications
What programs or applications on your devices have notifications enabled?
Even if you’re not doing high-concentration work, your attention is still valuable.
Make your default decision about notifications “off” on your smartphone or any other device. This requires work, particularly as so many apps default to “notifications on,” and so many websites now ask you to let them activate notifications when they have new content. Your answer should always be heck no!
Unless you’re a journalist or analyst covering a beat, then the latest article about the latest crisis isn’t that important. Notifications are attention taxes.
This is especially true of social media. The latest Facebook windmill at which I’m tilting is the little red notification button on top of the “News” icon at the top of the screen (on desktop). There is no way to turn off these notifications, and the so-called News that it links to is algorithmically curated to surface things about topics that I’ve previously shown interest me. I am furious that I cannot turn this off because now I have a decision to make if I am stupid enough to turn on Facebook when I should be working: do I look or don’t I look?
As neuroscientists like Daniel Levitin have explained, with the start of each new day we have a limited amount of decision-making energy. Once we’ve used it up, we make crappy decisions. That’s why I resent the Facebook News red notification button: it makes me squander my decision-making energy.
Google gets points on this one: the “Discover” mode on its smartphone app is a black hole of distraction that takes the terrifying amount of information Google has about me and turns it into a smorgasbord of tasty information treats. That’s the bad news. The reason Google gets points is that you can easily turn Discover off in Settings > General, making the app merely a gateway to search, which is dangerous enough by itself but doesn’t surface updates on everything that has ever interested me ever. (Did I say ever?)
All this is why Slack is the most pernicious piece of software I’ve ever encountered. When I’m working with Slack-using organizations, I tell them that I’ll check it twice per day, but it’s not a way to get to me in real-time. Even then, I have to decide to turn it off, which again is a decision-making energy drain… and the later in the day the harder it is to make the right decision because, y’know, Slack is from work, so it must be important… even though usually it’s not.
As design ethicist Tristan Harris has put it, there are “1,000 engineers on the other side of the screen, using notifications, using your friends, using AI to predict what’s gonna perfectly addict you.”
This isn’t a question of willpower. Our attention is outnumbered, and the only way to preserve it is to invest in tall fences that keep low-value information away.
Thanks for reading. See you next Sunday.