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“Nearly everyone I know is addicted in some measure to the Internet,” wrote Tony Schwartz in a recent essay in The New York Times. It’s a common complaint these days. A steady stream of similar headlines accuse the Net and its offspring apps, social media sites and online games of addicting us to distraction.

There’s little doubt that nearly everyone who comes in contact with the Net has difficulty disconnecting. Just look around. People everywhere are glued to their devices. Many of us, like Schwartz, struggle to stay focused on tasks that require more concentration than it takes to post a status update. As one person ironically put it in the comments section of Schwartz’s online article, “As I was reading this very excellent article, I stopped at least half a dozen times to check my email.”

Who’s really addicting us to technology? Click To Tweet

There’s something different about this technology: it is both pervasive and persuasive. But who’s at fault for its overuse? To find solutions, it’s important to understand what we’re dealing with. There are four parties conspiring to keep you connected and they may not be whom you’d expect.

The Tech

The technologies themselves, and their makers, are the easiest suspects to blame for our dwindling attention spans. Nicholas Carr, author of “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains,” wrote, “The net is designed to be an interruption system, a machine geared to dividing attention.”

Online services like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Buzzfeed and the like, are called out as masters of manipulation — making products so good, people can’t stop using them. After studying these products for several years, I wrote a book about how they do it. I learned it all starts with the business model.

Since these services rely on advertising revenue, the more frequently you use them, the more money they make. It’s no wonder these companies employ teams of people focused on engineering their services to be as engaging as possible. These products aren’t habit-forming by chance; it’s by design. They have an incentive to keep us hooked.

However, as good as these services are, there are simple steps we can take to keep them at bay. After all, we’re not injecting Instagram intravenously or freebasing Facebook. For example, we can change how often we receive the distracting notifications that trigger our compulsion to check.

According to Adam Marchick, CEO of mobile marketing company Kahuna, less than 15 percent of smartphone users ever bother to adjust their notification settings — meaning the remaining 85 percent of us default to the app makers’ every whim and ping. Google and Apple, who make the two dominant mobile operating systems, have made it far too difficult to adjust these settings so it’s up to us to take steps to ensure we set these triggers to suit our own needs, not the needs of the app makers’.

Your Boss

While companies like Facebook harvest attention to generate revenue from advertisers, other more generic technologies have no such agenda. Take email, for example. No one company “owns” email and the faceless protocol couldn’t care less how often you use it. Yet to many, email is the most habit-forming medium of all. We check email at all hours of the day, whenever we can — before meetings begin, waiting in line for lunch, at red lights, on the toilet — we’re obsessed. But why? Because that’s what the boss wants.

Near the top of the list of individuals responsible for your seeming addiction to technology is the person who pays you. For almost all white-collar jobs, email is the primary tool of corporate communication. A slow response to a message could hurt not only your reputation but also your livelihood.

Unfortunately, being chained to technology can leave little time for higher order thinking. Real work — requiring the kind of creativity and problem solving that only comes from uninterrupted focus — no longer happens in the office, it starts at home after the kids are put to bed.

Cal Newport, Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University, calls this sort of work “deep work.” In his book by the same name, Newport writes, “Deep work is to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task, and shallow work describes activities that are more logistical in nature, that don’t require intense concentration.” Playing email Ping-Pong with colleagues is shallow work.

Newport recommends people discuss the appropriate ratio of deep and shallow work with their employers. “Get your boss to actually try to commit to a vision like, ‘About 50% of your time should be unbroken and 50% should be doing these shallow tasks.’” Newport continues, “When they’re actually confronted with how much time you’re spending trying to produce real results with your skills, they have to start thinking, ‘Okay, we need to change some things.’”

Your Friends

Think about this familiar scene. People gathered around a table, enjoying food and each other’s company. There’s laughter and a bit of light banter. Then, during a lull in the conversation, someone takes out their phone to check who knows what. Barely anyone notices and no one says a thing.  

Now, imagine the same dinner, but instead of checking their phone, the person belches — loudly. Everyone notices. Unless the meal takes place in a fraternity house, the flagrant burp is considered bad manners. The impolite act violates the basic rules of etiquette.

One has to wonder: why don’t we apply the same social norms to checking phones during meals, meetings and conversations as we do to other antisocial behaviors? Somehow, we accept it and say nothing when someone offends.

The reality is, taking one’s phone out at the wrong time is worse than belching because, unlike other peccadillos, checking tech is contagious. Once one person looks at their phone, other people feel compelled to do the same, starting a churlish chain reaction. The more people are on their phones, the less people are talking until finally you’re the only one left not reading email or checking Twitter.

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From a societal perspective, phone checking is less like burping in public and more like another bad habit. Our phones are like cigarettes — something to do when we’re anxious, bored or when fidgety fingers need something to fiddle with. Seeing others enjoy a puff, or sneak a peek, is too tempting to resist and soon everyone is doing it.

The technology, your boss, and your friends, all influence how often you find yourself using (or overusing) these gadgets. But there’s still someone who deserves scrutiny – the person holding the phone.

You

I have a confession. Even though I study habit-forming technology for a living, disconnecting is not easy for me. I’m online far more than I’d like. Like Schwartz and so many others, I often find myself distracted and off task. I wanted to know why so I began self-monitoring to try to understand my behavior. That’s when I discovered an uncomfortable truth.

pic2I use technology as an escape. When I’m doing something I’d rather not do, or when I am someplace I’d rather not be, I use my phone to port myself elsewhere. I found that this ability to instantly shift my attention was often a good thing, like when passing time on public transportation. But frequently my tech use was not so benign.

When I faced difficult work, like thinking through an article idea or editing the same draft for the hundredth time, for example, a more sinister screen would draw me in. I could easily escape discomfort, temporarily, by answering emails or browsing the web under the guise of so-called “research.” Though I desperately wanted to lay blame elsewhere, I finally had to admit that my bad habits had less to do with new-age technology and more to do with old-fashioned procrastination.

It’s easy to blame technology for being so distracting, but distraction is nothing new. Aristotle and Socrates debated the nature of “akrasia” — our tendency to do things against our interests. If we’re honest with ourselves, tech is just another way to occupy our time and minds. If we weren’t on our devices, we’d likely do something similarly unproductive.

Personal technology is indeed more engaging than ever, and there’s no doubt companies are engineering their products and services to be more compelling and attractive. But would we want it any other way? The intended result of making something better is that people use it more. That’s not necessarily a problem, that’s progress.

These improvements don’t mean we shouldn’t attempt to control our use of technology. In order to make sure it doesn’t control us, we should come to terms with the fact that it’s more than the technology itself that’s responsible for our habits. Our workplace culture, social norms and individual behaviors all play a part. To put technology in its place, we must be conscious not only of how technology is changing, but also of how it is changing us.

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Share this essay:

  • Jason Grace

    I always appreciate reading your perspectives.

  • Dennis Meng

    Hi Nir,

    Since I started reading your blog, I’ve spent a lot more time reflecting on building good habits & getting into good routines. I turned off all non-essential app notifications a few months ago, and I barely even noticed that they were gone. But I did notice that I became a TON more productive during the day.

    So thanks! Really enjoy reading your stuff.

    • Made my day! Thank you for sharing that!

  • Maciej Bołtromiuk

    Hi Nir,
    great post, yet I find it a little bit ironic that all the time I am reading your post, on the left side I see Sumo bar to share the content (I know it can be hidden but it is not obvious unless you hover on it). My point is that even here, reading about distractions and what we can do to avoid them, there is constant remainder to share the article that can eventually distract me from finishing reading in the first place.

    • That’s a good point. Debating whether to remove them. What do readers think? Are the buttons helpful or annoying?

      • Maciej Bołtromiuk

        There is also a middle ground. You can place “the share bar” at the bottom of the post (similar effect to reading your site on mobile). This way an external trigger to easily share the article and spread good ideas is still present and there is no distraction during reading.

      • Well I shared it because of the share bar, so I would say helpful.

        The question for your analytics I suppose is how many people share it without reading the post and how much additional traffic you get from having the content shared. I suspect that the advantages of the share bar significantly outweigh the disadvantages. Now if you had a Twitter or Facebook feed in the sidebar then I think you would have a bigger problem.

        Either way thanks for the great article. I am working hard on this distraction issue and generally avoid having my mobile phone on my desk at all. Although I still check my email too often and get sidetracked from what I was doing to come and read articles like this one referenced from your email. I suspect what I should do is allocate an hour at the end of every day to check through a feed aggregator of my favourite sites.

        Something I have started doing a bit more of is adding articles to Pocket and then have them read back to me on my run, although I tend to prefer listening to podcasts or books then.

      • Gray Miller

        Ironically, I ignored the side bar and instead clicked my own “hootsuite” plugin…which then asked me to authorize another account, then asked if I wanted to upgrade, and finally made me give up and use IM instead to share it with the person I thought would benefit. I also got hit with the popup to sign up for the workbook…which I’d already signed up for. But I have the same plugin on my site, so I really can’t throw stones. Oh, and while writing *this* reply I was interrupted by my calendar telling me it’s time to get back to my own work, so I guess this comment is done.

  • Jeff Poulton

    Great read as usual. Thanks for the reference to Deep Work. It’s on my short-list, but I just bumped it to the top. I recently finished two books: Elon Musk and Becoming Superman, both of which hit hard on the concept of deep work / flow / zone. As a result of the latter book, our office just instituted “Flow Time” at our office to ensure we’re remembering to respect others’ ability to get into and stay in flow. It’s tough with a group of 14 software engineers coming and going throughout the day and coming up for air at totally different intervals, but just having some basic ground rules that aren’t overly restrictive has been beneficial. We use Slack’s recurring reminder to remind us throughout the day when flow timing is starting. Can’t wait to try out the suggestion to openly discuss shallow v. deep work.

    • Keep us updated on how this works at your company Jeff. I want to write future posts about regaining focus in the workplace!

    • Gray Miller

      Yeah, both Becoming Superman and Cal’s “Deep Work” have changed my focus as well – trying for at least two hours of “deep” work in some way, shape or form during the day. I have some disagreements with Cal’s philosophy of work, but the book was great.

  • Love your thinking Nir.
    I would be interested in your take on the apparent (to me) attention management ‘software’ in our brains that plays a role in the depth of the attention we deliver to a task.
    For example, my youngest just finished a masters degree after two undergraduate degrees (maybe now he will leave home?) but when he studied, which has been a fair part of his life, there was always some music going, plus another screen playing a movie or something, yet his ability to absorb and process information seems unimpaired.
    I find this incomprehensible, as I can be distracted by anything, even from a flow of deep work. (love that phrase, it does describe it beautifully). Perhaps a some level I am looking for distraction whereas he is not?
    Thanks and regards

  • Simão Pires

    Great Post Nir! Thanks to your talk at TNW Conference I manage to find you and search more about your work. The idea of being hooked and addicted to technology made me stop for a while and try to understand the importance it has on our lives, mine specially. All comes down to your last question “But would we want it any other way?” and in my humble opinion and experience, we don’t even though this is one of our worst addictions as human beings that live in a Society. We develop everything to connect us and keep us up-to-date on the second but in the end it’s taking us apart. BTW check my medium post on the topic and I would love your feedback on it, since you were the motto for it! (Medium Post – Why I Quit All Social Networks for 30 Days and Will Not Do It Again Soon)

  • Rakhilya Lála Ibildayeva

    The addictive tech has become the digital fast food in that it is as momentarily satisfying yet non-nutritious, causes addictions and the sense of guilt for hurting yourself. Find your digital equivalent of broccoli and stay healthy. I’ve cut out the maximum possible fast-foodish tech from my life because I know that my will is weak (no facebook, no instragram, no tumblr, no buzzfeed, and hopefully no twitter soon). Takes a huge sense of guilt in front of oneself to do it.

  • Evan

    Nir, I have to challenge you on this in good faith: how can you exempt yourself from this list?

    It was stunningly hurtful to me that you make your living instructing others literally “How to Build Habit-Forming Products” — books, blogs, speaking engagements, conferences — and that you now write to blame us for those habits.

    • That’s my point Evan. I don’t think it’s the technology alone that’s doing this to us. There are other factors and people involved. We as users need to learn how to utilize these technologies the right way.
      As I say in the essay, “The intended result of making something better is that people use it more. That’s not necessarily a problem, that’s progress. These improvements don’t mean we shouldn’t attempt to control our use of technology. In order to make sure it doesn’t control us, we should come to terms with the fact that it’s more than the technology itself that’s responsible for our habits.”

      • Mason

        Exactly. Phillip Morris isn’t the problem. Cigarette smokers just need to learn how to limit themselves to two cigarettes a day. Sounds simple to me, too!.

        • Email is not nicotine. This is not a good comparison.

          • Mason

            I’m not comparing email to cigarettes. I’m comparing Candy Crush and similar apps to cigarettes. It’s not the same, no. But the tech-addiction that I see every day is alarming to me.

          • I agree that part of the cause is the products themselves (I say so in the essay). However, while it’s good we’re alarmed, we should not be alarmist. It’s a stretch to put the harm done by cigarettes on the same plane as the harm of playing Candy Crush.

          • Mason

            Sure. An alarmist response might suggest that as a society, we should limit technological innovation in order to protect us from our future selves. This is too far. I don’t want to ban smartphones. I also think the printing press and the sewing machine are good things.

            What worries me is two-fold: 1) Some people don’t recognize the negative effects that these new media come with (although many do, and increasingly so); 2) And even if they did, they are ill-equipped to use technology responsibly. It’s not that people are weak – it’s that Candy Crush is too tempting. I haven’t read your book (I found out about you today for the first time), but your book must be devoted to this.

            Speaking of responsible media use, I’m returning to my book now – but thanks for this back-and-forth, I appreciate it. You’ll be happy to know that this is the first comment exchange I’ve engaged in in years! (As it happens, I’m an academic who spends time studying online news and its effects, so this stuff is up my alley.)

            Mason

          • Thank you. I think you might enjoy this post: “Is Some Tech Too Addictive?” http://www.nirandfar.com/2014/06/tooaddictive.html

      • Oh snap. Go Nir, go Nir

  • Interesting that this kind of act is almost subconscious- how many times did you find yourself checking emails at the wrong time while doing “deep” work just to be pissed at yourself a second later? That is not an easy one to overcome.

  • PersonaBLAH

    Their parents & grandparents, who are the ones that created it.