Riegel: Living in an era of digital distractions


My Twitter feed recently sent me a “rare family photograph of Kim Kardashian West and clan.” I didn’t want to click on it but it was late at night, I still had the MacBook open for work, and I couldn’t resist. I wish I had.

I’ll spare you the details. Suffice it to say those were 20 seconds of my life that could have been better spent.

I’d like to think I’m too old, too wise or too disciplined to succumb to click bait and the other distractions—some legitimate, some not—that both social media and the traditional media present to us all day, every day through its use of  “sponsored content.”

Apparently, I’m not. As a child of the 1970s it’s just too tempting to pass up a chance to see what Charlie’s Angels or the Walton family kids look like now. I indulge.

I rationalize it on the grounds that I must have writer’s block and need to take a break from a story on the intricacies of industrial tax exemptions or heated race relations in divided Baton Rouge. Maybe checking my text messages or my kids on Snapchat or the headlines on newspaper websites—increasingly polluted with low-brow click bait such as “Brady Bunch star gave the crew a little extra” and “13 actors who are surprisingly gay”—will help the thoughts to flow more freely.

Twenty minutes later I’m more lost than I was before I started.

Over the recent spring break, I encouraged my son to put his phone away and spend a little time with a good a book outside on the hammock enjoying the nice weather. Like working out and eating vegetables, it’s good for the body and soul, I told him. But it was a hard sell. How can we condition our kids to come up from their screens for air when we’re increasingly buried in ours?

I think a lot about the impact of digital distractions at work. Most days, I’m too busy to fritter away much time on the mindless distraction the digital world has created for us. On those occasions when I stray and find myself scrolling through the Facebook feed to see who’s racking up happy emojis for running a half marathon or baking a whole wheat ciabatta loaf, or having great looking kids and the wherewithal to rent a fancy condo at an expensive beach resort, I hate myself.

The whole thing is depressing and kind of sick, and it’s not getting any better.

What is this doing to our ability to process information? To focus on something that really matters? Something that requires deep thought and analysis?

To be sure, our attention spans are shorter. Even the most learned among us find themselves frustrated that they no longer have the patience to wade through a 10,000-word story or a 700-page book, however well written. Our minds start to wander. Our digital lifestyle has rewired the circuity in our brains.

Science supports this observation, which has been made often in recent years. A 2015 study by Microsoft Corp. found that the average human attention span has decreased since the year 2000 from 12 seconds to eight, shorter than that, sadly, of the average goldfish.

On the positive side, the same study found our ability to multitask has increased.

Encouraging to know we can now flip from email to social media platforms to spreadsheets and Word documents without missing a beat. But, of course, we are missing something. We just don’t realize what is being lost.

Studies also show this negatively impacts productivity in the workplace, where Millennials in particular—not to pick on them, just saying—sit happily at their work spaces with their earbuds in all day listening, presumably, to music.

A 2016 study by the Entertainment Retail Association found that one third of all Millennials spend as much as six hours a day on average listening to music, while 5% spend more than seven hours a day plugged into their favorite tunes.

I don’t know how they can think enough to compose an email correspondence much less a budget or spreadsheet or sales presentation while jamming to Vampire Weekend or Kendrick Lamar.

Of course, they will tell you it actually helps them think, which reminds me of my teenage guy friends back in the pre-MADD 1980s, who used to tell me a couple of beers actually helped them drive better because, you know, they had to be more careful.

Right.

There’s a growing body of science around what we need to do to disconnect from the digital distractions of our smartphones, tablets and PCs. There’s a lot of buzz about being “mindful” and “intentional” so that we can be more productive at work and more present for family and friends in our daily lives at home.

It’s all sounds very good. But in reality, it’s difficult to achieve.

One of my daughters’ extraordinary friends last year challenged herself to pick up a book every time she has the urge to check her phone. I am inspired by that young woman’s self discipline and, more importantly, her intuitive grasp of what’s at stake and why such an exercise is so important. For months I’ve been meaning to follow her example. I swear I will. I just, well, keep getting distracted.

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