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Feeling Distracted? How to Cut Back, Tune Out and Focus In

Is the world getting us more distracted? More often than not, it feels that way. Our digital devices are buzzing at all times, world news demands our attention 24/7, and there are countless entertainment opportunities than ever before. With that, it certainly seems harder to focus on what’s really important. While distracted driving can kill, understanding how to stay focused is exactly what it takes to get things done and get ahead.

The state of being distracted might appear more available than ever, but it is nothing new. Over 2,000 years ago, Socrates and Aristotle debated the nature of “akrasia” (pronounced uh-crazy-uh) our tendency to act against our better judgement. To the ancient Greeks, mere mortals were prone to distraction due to our weakness of will. Easy for them to say — Socrates and Aristotle never had to resist binge-watching “Game of Thrones.”

Can Distraction Be a Good Thing?

Is distraction a curse or a blessing? Not giving full attention to what we should be doing makes us miss deadlines, fail classes, and crash into other drivers. Being easily distracted has a price. Nonetheless, we love our distractions! Social media, spectator sports, movies, books, TV shows, the news, video games – what would we do without them?

Clearly, there are benefits to distractions as evidenced by the fact that nearly everyone on earth seeks them out. But why? Although they seem to pull us away from more important things, what purpose do they serve? And, when at times we seem to give in to distractions, how do we ensure they serve us well?

Distractions can help us deal with pain. But what about the many products and services, like video games and social media sites, designed to be so good we want to use them all the time? Sometimes we have trouble limiting their use and find ourselves sucked into distractions.

Your ability to identify why and how you engage with personal technology can make the difference between healthy and destructive behavior. Take a look at your favorite digital activities. Look at how you use social media, video games, puzzles, television shows, podcasts, news, and spectator sports. Are you using them as tools to build strength, skills, knowledge, and self-efficacy for the future? Are you using them to be temporarily distracted to escape from an uncomfortable reality? If it’s the latter, you may want to reconsider the role these distractions play in your life. If the pain you’re escaping is permanent, no distraction will ever heal it. You must either learn new coping strategies or fundamentally fix what is broken.

How Can We Manage Digital Distraction?

Personal technology is getting more engaging than ever. 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.

Still distracted? Check out our articles on digital distractions to better understand the underlying psychology and how to effectively manage digital distraction by putting it in its place.

Top Articles on Distraction

The Real Reason Apple and Google Want You to Use Your Phone Less

The Real Reason Apple and Google Want You to Use Your Phone Less

This week Apple follows Google by announcing features to help people cut back on their tech use. Why would the companies that make your phone want you to use it less? If tech is “hijacking your brain” with their “irresistible” products, as some tech critics claim, why...

How Bad is Tech Use for Kids, Really?

How Bad is Tech Use for Kids, Really?

It feels impossible to tell if the technology our kids use should be celebrated or feared. A few years ago I wrote a book, Hooked, about how technology can be used to change our habits. I intended the book to teach startups how to build healthy habits, but now I’m not...

How to Be Indistractable: Video by Nir Eyal

In this talk, I describe a new model for managing distraction — how to become "Indistractable." I'll write more on this topic in the coming months and I'm finishing a book with the same title. I'd love to hear your feedback in the comments below. Also, please share...

How to Regain Focus at Work by Slaying the Messaging Monster

How to Regain Focus at Work by Slaying the Messaging Monster

Technology is taking over our lives, especially in the workplace. What can we do to put technology in its place to finally get focused work done? Below are resources, tools, and articles for regaining focus in your digital life. These are tools I use myself but is not...

Technology Is Not Hijacking Your Brain (video)

Some tech critics will have you believe that technology is "hijacking your brain" or that it's "irresistible." Not only is that not true, believing such nonsense is dangerous. In my recent talk at The Next Web conference, I discuss: The difference between...

When Distraction is a Good Thing

When Distraction is a Good Thing

Is distraction a curse or a blessing? Not giving full attention to what we should be doing makes us miss deadlines, fail classes, and crash into other drivers. Distraction certainly has a price.  Nonetheless, we love our distractions! Social media, spectator sports,...

Tech Companies are Addicting People! But Should They Stop?

Tech Companies are Addicting People! But Should They Stop?

To understand technology addiction (or any addiction for that matter) you need to understand the Q-tip. Perhaps you've never noticed there’s a scary warning on every box of cotton swabs that reads, “CAUTION: Do not enter ear canal…Entering the ear canal could cause...

Why Our Tech Obsession Might Be a Work Obsession

Why Our Tech Obsession Might Be a Work Obsession

Nir's Note: Below is the transcript of an interview I did with David Burkus, an award-winning podcaster and author of Under New Management: The Unexpected Truths about Leading Great Organizations. This interview was part of a Heleo Conversation on the topic of...

How to Stay Informed Without Losing Your Mind

How to Stay Informed Without Losing Your Mind

Around the election, in a desperate search for answers about our nation’s future, I found myself scrolling, reading, and watching everything I could. I was trapped in an endless pull-to-refresh cycle of consuming more news, tweets, posts, and videos than was good for...

Conquer Distractions With This Simple Chart

Is the world more distracting? Sometimes it seems that way. With our digital devices buzzing, world events demanding our attention, and more things to entertain us than ever before, it certainly seems harder to focus on what’s really important. And yet, focus is...

The Four People Addicting You to Technology

Recently, the Pokemon Go phenomenon has reigniting the question of technology's role in changing behavior. To put things in perspective, I wanted to share the main points of an article I published on the topic titled, Who’s Really Addicting Us to Technology?, in a...

Who’s Really Addicting You to Technology?

“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...

How to Clear Your Computer of Focus-Draining Distraction

By the looks of his laptop, Robbert Van Els could be mistaken for a secret agent. His screen is an explosion of urgent files — a master control center for managing clandestine operatives. The man of mystery persona is typified by a side-sliding sports car winding...

Un-Hooked: Increasing Focus in the Age of Distraction

I recently presented a new talk about how to manage digital distraction using the Hook Model. I hope you enjoy the brief video below. Also, I've been thinking of writing more on this topic. Let me know what you think. Is this an interesting topic? Do you struggle with...

Email Habits: How to Use Psychology to Regain Control

"You teach best what you most need to learn." - Richard Bach I don't usually write about personal and revealing matters, but recently I've noticed something I don't like about myself--I check email too often. This confession doesn't come easily, because, ironically, I...

The Psychology Behind Why We Can’t Stop Messaging

Today, there’s an app for just about everything. With all the amazing things our smartphones can do, there is one thing that hasn’t changed since the phone was first developed. No matter how advanced phones become, they are still communication devices — they connect...

Is Some Tech Too Addictive?

Addiction can be a difficult thing to see. From outward appearances, Dr. Zoe Chance looked fine. A professor at the Yale School of Management with a doctorate from Harvard, Chance's pedigree made what she revealed in front of a crowded TEDx audience all the more...

How to Break 5 Soul-Sucking Technology Habits

Nir's Note: In this last in a series of guest posts on the topic of technology habits, Jason Shah shares practical tips he used to regain control over his devices and break bad habits. Jason is a Product Manager at Yammer and blogs about user experience and technology...

The Real Reason You’re Addicted to Your Phone

Nir's Note: This guest post by Avi Itzkovitch offers some clues as to why we can't seem to put our cell phones down. Avi (@xgmedia) is an Independent User Experience Consultant. He is currently working from his Tel-Aviv Studio XG Media. Do you constantly check your...

Our More Addictive World

Nir’s Note: A few weeks ago, I wrote a brief post summarizing some thoughts for a potential book chapter. I asked my readers for help and you delivered! The comments were fantastic and I received several insightful emails. Therefore, I've decided to continue with the...

This Will Be the Last Article You Read

If the Internet had a voice, I am fairly certain it would sound like the HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey.  “Hello Nir,” it said to me in its low, monotone voice. “Glad to see you again.” “Internet, I just need a few quick things for an article I'm writing,” I’d...

Time for Digital Hat Racks

The first thing Don Draper does when he gets to his office is give his busty secretary a suggestive wink. The second thing he does is take off his fedora. Finally, depending on the severity of the previous night, he completes his morning routine with a stiff drink....

Escape From Message Hell

We are caught in an endless cycle of messaging hell and the pattern is always the same. First, a new communication system is born -- take email or Facebook, for example. Ease-of-use helps the product gain wide adoption and reach a critical mass of users. And then...

Strange Sex Habits of Silicon Valley

My wife put our daughter to bed, brushed her teeth, and freshened up before bed. Slipping under the covers, we exchanged glances and knew it was time to do what comes naturally for a couple on a warm night in Silicon Valley. We began to lovingly caress--but not each...