Addicted to Distraction

Article Review: Addicted to Distraction {NY Times}

Hoboken411 is no stranger to talking about our modern times – and the woes that come along with them.

From the ills of so-called “social networking” (euphemism for “your personal data about your habits is worth lots to us insiders!”), or sophisticated communication devices (i.e., “smart phones,” a euphemism for “digital crack cocaine”), constant entertainment (dumbing people down), and many, many others.

It’s strange to see an “editorial” in the New York Times about the plague that has overcome society – so out of curiosity, we decided to look into what this opinion piece from author Tony Schwartz was all about. And if there was any real “meat” on the bones of the 1600 word piece.

(Article in italics, my comments in blue BOLD…)

addicted to distraction NY times tony schwartz article review - Addicted to Distraction

Addicted to Distraction by Tony Schwartz {review}

“One evening early this summer, I opened a book and found myself reading the same paragraph over and over, a half dozen times before concluding that it was hopeless to continue. I simply couldn’t marshal the necessary focus.

I was horrified. All my life, reading books has been a deep and consistent source of pleasure, learning and solace. Now the books I regularly purchased were piling up ever higher on my bedside table, staring at me in silent rebuke.

Instead of reading them, I was spending too many hours online, checking the traffic numbers for my company’s website, shopping for more colorful socks on Gilt and Rue La La, even though I had more than I needed, and even guiltily clicking through pictures with irresistible headlines such as “Awkward Child Stars Who Grew Up to Be Attractive.”

(What sounds like an admission of fault – might possibly be subtle “product placements” for the sites and products he was commissioned to tout.)

“During the workday, I checked my email more times than I cared to acknowledge, and spent far too much time hungrily searching for tidbits of new information about the presidential campaign, with the election then still more than a year away.

(Email dings = “Pavlov’s Dog” perhaps? Still to this day, the U.S. mail only comes once a day… something to think about before telegrams and computers…)

“The net is designed to be an interruption system, a machine geared to dividing attention,” Nicholas Carr explains in his book “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.” “We willingly accept the loss of concentration and focus, the division of our attention and the fragmentation of our thoughts, in return for the wealth of compelling or at least diverting information we receive.”

(Excellent book, highly recommended.)

Addiction is the relentless pull to a substance or an activity that becomes so compulsive it ultimately interferes with everyday life. By that definition, nearly everyone I know is addicted in some measure to the Internet. It has arguably replaced work itself as our most socially sanctioned addiction.

According to one recent survey, the average white-collar worker spends about six hours a day on email. That doesn’t count time online spent shopping, searching or keeping up with social media.

The brain’s craving for novelty, constant stimulation and immediate gratification creates something called a “compulsion loop.” Like lab rats and drug addicts, we need more and more to get the same effect.

Endless access to new information also easily overloads our working memory. When we reach cognitive overload, our ability to transfer learning to long-term memory significantly deteriorates. It’s as if our brain has become a full cup of water and anything more poured into it starts to spill out.

(On one hand, that is what the “Hyper Text Markup Language” – HTML – intended. Links to everything without having to resort to going back to the dreaded “card catalog” in the library to find your reference… Perhaps people use it too much? Sort of the same with internet porn? Maybe “easy” and “humanity” are not meant to be bedfellows? Hmmm. Something to ponder for sure!)

I’ve known all of this for a long time. I started writing about it 20 years ago. I teach it to clients every day. I just never really believed it could become so true of me.

Denial is any addict’s first defense. No obstacle to recovery is greater than the infinite capacity to rationalize our compulsive behaviors. After years of feeling I was managing myself reasonably well, I fell last winter into an intense period of travel while also trying to manage a growing consulting business. In early summer, it suddenly dawned on me that I wasn’t managing myself well at all, and I didn’t feel good about it.

Beyond spending too much time on the Internet and a diminishing attention span, I wasn’t eating the right foods. I drank way too much diet soda. I was having a second cocktail at night too frequently. I was no longer exercising every day, as I had nearly all my life.

(Okay, sounds like we’re on the path of discovery… let’s see what happens next.)

In response, I created an irrationally ambitious plan. For the next 30 days, I would attempt to right these behaviors, and several others, all at once. It was a fit of grandiosity. I recommend precisely the opposite approach every day to clients. But I rationalized that no one is more committed to self-improvement than I am. These behaviors are all related. I can do it.

The problem is that we humans have a very limited reservoir of will and discipline. We’re far more likely to succeed by trying to change one behavior at a time, ideally at the same time each day, so that it becomes a habit, requiring less and less energy to sustain.

(He’s partially true about the “bite off more than you can chew” part – but each person varies.)

I did have some success over those 30 days. Despite great temptation, I stopped drinking diet soda and alcohol altogether. (Three months later I’m still off diet soda.) I also gave up sugar and carbohydrates like chips and pasta. I went back to exercising regularly.

(Those habits are fairly easy to kick once you feel the benefits.)

I failed completely in just one behavior: cutting back my time on the Internet.

My initial commitment was to limit my online life to checking email just three times a day: When I woke up, at lunchtime and before I went home at the end of the day. On the first day, I succeeded until midmorning, and then completely broke down. I was like a sugar addict trying to resist a cupcake while working in a bakery.

What broke my resolve that first morning was the feeling that I absolutely had to send someone an email about an urgent issue. If I just wrote it and pushed “Send,” I told myself, then I wasn’t really going online.

What I failed to take into account was that new emails would download into my inbox while I wrote my own. None of them required an immediate reply, and yet I found it impossible to resist peeking at the first new message that carried an enticing subject line. And the second. And the third.

In a matter of moments, I was back in a self-reinforcing cycle. By the next day, I had given up trying to cut back my digital life. I turned instead to the simpler task of resisting diet soda, alcohol and sugar.

(Not sure why he had such a problem with email. He had designated times – what prevented him from just shutting it off until the next time? And why the carb mention about cupcakes?)

Even so, I was determined to revisit my Internet challenge. Several weeks after my 30-day experiment ended, I left town for a monthlong vacation. Here was an opportunity to focus my limited willpower on a single goal: liberating myself from the Internet in an attempt to regain control of my attention.

I had already taken the first step in my recovery: admitting my powerlessness to disconnect. Now it was time to detox. I interpreted the traditional second step — belief that a higher power could help restore my sanity — in a more secular way. The higher power became my 30-year-old daughter, who disconnected my phone and laptop from both my email and the Web. Unburdened by much technological knowledge, I had no idea how to reconnect either one.

(While humble to admit ignorance and the help of his younger daughter – I have doubts this author has such limited knowledge.. seems far-fetched.)

I did leave myself reachable by text. In retrospect, I was holding on to a digital life raft. Only a handful of people in my life communicate with me by text. Because I was on vacation, they were largely members of my family, and the texts were mostly about where to meet up at various points during the day.

(Honestly – a real detox involves complete disconnect – but I suppose this was acceptable.)

During those first few days, I did suffer withdrawal pangs, most of all the hunger to call up Google and search for an answer to some question that arose. But with each passing day offline, I felt more relaxed, less anxious, more able to focus and less hungry for the next shot of instant but short-lived stimulation. What happened to my brain is exactly what I hoped would happen: It began to quiet down.

(It’s hard to disagree with the “search for an answer” online. Our human curiosity and the previous experience of having the craving for an answer satiated instantly is unforgettable, and can easily become habit for almost all of us. Sad thing is that the “quality” of answers to serious questions beyond trivia leave much to be desired.)

I had brought more than a dozen books of varying difficulty and length on my vacation. I started with short nonfiction, and then moved to longer nonfiction as I began to feel calmer and my focus got stronger. I eventually worked my way up to “The Emperor of All Maladies,” Siddhartha Mukherjee’s brilliant but sometimes complex biography of cancer, which had sat on my bookshelf for nearly five years.

As the weeks passed, I was able to let go of my need for more facts as a source of gratification. I shifted instead to novels, ending my vacation by binge-reading Jonathan Franzen’s 500-some-page novel, “Purity,” sometimes for hours at a time.

(Not sure I find replacing the internet with the books he chose was ideal. Seems like a product placement again…)

I am back at work now, and of course I am back online. The Internet isn’t going away, and it will continue to consume a lot of my attention. My aim now is to find the best possible balance between time online and time off.

I do feel more in control. I’m less reactive and more intentional about where I put my attention. When I’m online, I try to resist surfing myself into a stupor. As often as possible, I try to ask myself, “Is this really what I want to be doing?” If the answer is no, the next question is, “What could I be doing that would feel more productive, or satisfying, or relaxing?”

(I have to say – that he has a point. It’s called being “aware” of your actions and use of time. The simple fact that he could “question himself,” offer a so-called self-challenge – is something many folks out there today cannot do. Because they cannot or refuse to recognize what is happening to them.)

I also make it my business now to take on more fully absorbing activities as part of my days. Above all, I’ve kept up reading books, not just because I love them, but also as a continuing attention-building practice.

(Yep, reading analog books fires up different brain cells, especially without the alluring hyperlinks (and pics of bikini girls)…)

I’ve retained my longtime ritual of deciding the night before on the most important thing I can accomplish the next morning. That’s my first work activity most days, for 60 to 90 minutes without interruption. Afterward, I take a 10- to 15-minute break to quiet my mind and renew my energy.

If I have other work during the day that requires sustained focus, I go completely offline for designated periods, repeating my morning ritual. In the evening, when I go up to my bedroom, I nearly always leave my digital devices downstairs.

(All excellent tips – your mileage may vary of course…)

Finally, I feel committed now to taking at least one digital-free vacation a year. I have the rare freedom to take several weeks off at a time, but I have learned that even one week offline can be deeply restorative.

(We know several people that do this – and appear to be the most “sane” of all the folks we know…)

Occasionally, I find myself returning to a haunting image from the last day of my vacation. I was sitting in a restaurant with my family when a man in his early 40s came in and sat down with his daughter, perhaps 4 or 5 years old and adorable.

Almost immediately, the man turned his attention to his phone. Meanwhile, his daughter was a whirlwind of energy and restlessness, standing up on her seat, walking around the table, waving and making faces to get her father’s attention.

Except for brief moments, she didn’t succeed and after a while, she glumly gave up. The silence felt deafening.

(If you have kids – or are planning to – don’t ever do that to them unless they are sleeping. You are the child’s most mighty connection to the “real world.” This is why I feel sad whenever I see stroller-mommies completely ignoring their children while they snap pics at Starbucks. Those kids should be given up for adoption. NEVER let your child see you focused on other things!

In the end – this article boiled down to “oh my god, I gave up on a little technology addiction for a while!” Without really offering serious substance to the change in humanity. The way we talk. The degradation of simple human contact in person, how our brains (used to work) and more.

While Mr. Schwartz’ article was more forthcoming than most – the best he could do was suggest “a break.” There are better ways than he experienced. Perhaps he was edited down. Who knows. Those mainstream publications always offer you something – but never quite enough of the truth to steer you in the right direction. Because that would upset their advertisers!)

About Tony Schwartz

Tony Schwartz is the chief executive of The Energy Project, a consulting firm, and an author, most recently, of “The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working.”

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