4 Ways Being Constantly Distracted Costs You (Besides Productivity)
Eight seconds: that’s the global average attention span for most of us today, according to an article published in TIME magazine in 2015. Comparatively, back in 2000, it was 12 seconds. As it turns out, if these reports are to be believed, we now have a shorter attention span than goldfish.
Despite the fact that those numbers have been disputed since then, it’s worth considering the larger problem it alludes to: the digital age has left us more easily distractible than ever before. We’ve become expert multitaskers, and are accustomed to receiving a daily deluge of information whether we like it or not. 24/7 news cycles, hyper-connectivity, the relative accessibility of personal devices—all of these have also compounded the problem.
Of course, it’s not all bad news: those same societal and technological developments mentioned above are also what’s given us unprecedented access to information. We can now access entire world libraries and encyclopaedic collections are available at the click of a button, which certainly simplifies things.
Considering the rapid pace at which technology continues to advance, though, it’s critical to understand exactly how our increasing distractibility is costing us at work and in life. Most people immediately associate higher distractibility with lower productivity; the more fragmented your attention, the less efficient and focused you are at you work, so that it ultimately hinders optimal productivity.
As it turns out, though, being as distracted as we are today costs us so much more than that. Here’s why.
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1. It’s worsening your memory
Necessity is the mother of all invention, but removing a need can also sometimes breed complacency. In the past, getting access to information and knowledge involved much more effort: you needed to go down to a particular section in the library, choose a few books, lug them over to a table, and pore over them until you find the answer you need. Today, it takes two seconds.
Yet that tedium itself is what rendered memorisation and knowledge gathering a much more serious endeavour back then. Since it’s so hard to get so little information, people naturally had to memorise more things so they could access it from their own minds. Conversely, today, since we that need for memorisation is drastically reduced, we get lax about what we choose to remember.
Gathering information alone isn’t an indication of knowledge. Psychological models of memory hold that when we accumulate information, it stays in the “working memory”—a temporary mental warehouse of information at the forefront of our minds. To convert it into knowledge we can actually remember and use in the long run, though, we need to give ourselves time to mentally transfer information from the working memory into the long-term memory.
The problem is, the more easily distracted we are, the less time we spend on transferring information into long-term memory. Every time we put a piece of information into our working memory, it gets replaced with some new bit of information in the next few minutes because we’ve gotten distracted. Subsequently, we ultimately acquire less knowledge in our lifetime.
2. It’s withering your capacity for deep reflection
Distractibility doesn’t just shorten the length of our attention spans; it also penalises the depth of our attention spans. With so many things jostling for our attention almost every minute on a daily basis, our minds become accustomed to shallow information processing, simply because we get distracted too quickly to engage at any deeper level with a new idea or possibility.
Consequently, cognitive pursuits that necessitate deeper thinking patterns like critical thinking, honest self-evaluation, and creative problem-solving come much harder to us than before. It’s certainly part of the reason behind the popularity of how-to books on digital minimalism and focusing in an age of perpetual distraction.
Therein lies the problem: these are exactly the kind of thinking skills that will set you apart at work, especially if you’re aiming for or already in a leadership position. The weaker your concentration abilities, then, the less favourable your chances are at outperforming your co-workers and demonstrating good leadership.
3. It’s compromising your creativity
At first glance, it might sound counter-intuitive to suggest that being easily distracted makes you less creative. Indeed, science suggests that it’s when you’re distracted that you tend to come up with your best ideas.
Bear in mind, though, that creativity isn’t just about coming up with good ideas all the time. Idea generation is only the first stage of the creative process; for an idea to become a reality, it needs to make it past that initial gestation stage.
There are lots of models of the creative process out there, but they generally indicate that once an idea is generated, it should be allowed to take root in your mind. This is what allows you to take into account crucial elements to the creative process like viability, evaluation, and execution.
If, on the other hand, you’re constantly distracted, no matter how many ideas you might be able to come up with, you can’t turn them into something concrete and real. They stay as abstract bits of information and faint possibilities in your head because you keep moving on to new projects and new ideas prematurely.