Turning down the distraction on our devices

Apps. When did they get so needy?

Like newly hatched chicks they chirrup and gawp, those little red dots having a similar cognitive effect on us to a chick’s open beak does for its parents – except we cough up some some attention instead of food.

When we get a new phone (or a new OS upgrade on one) there’s usually some mucking around to get the settings how you like them. Most people turn off the sound alerts for most things – few of us need a whooshing sound to let us know that set an email has indeed left the device, nor do we feel the need to annoy anyone in our vicinity with micro-clicky noises indicating we have successfully hit a key on an on-screen keyboard.

When it comes to turning down the volume of distractions coming out of mobile devices, we are left with some fairly basic, binary functions: you can turn on flight mode or some variation of “do not disturb”. As soon as you decide to be fully online though, it is apparently open season for any of the tens of apps you have installed to interrupt you with such vital news as they have a new feature, update or just – for goodness’ sake – that you haven’t used them in a while.

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The author of Your Brain at Work, Dr David Rock, says that the habit of checking mail – and we can infer any other social app or icon on our devices which sees fit to display a red dotted plea for attention – can be so strong that we literally see the signal, open the app, scan the mail and begin responding before we have had a chance to think about it.

The science: experiments have shown that the brain prepares us  to act *before* we make a conscious decision, especially when we have a strong habit or instinct. Unless we can find a way to short-circuit a habit, we have almost no choice about what we do next.

One other thing we learned about habits when creating Design Your Day and Mobile Mastery books for the Nokia Smarter Everyday programme was that because of this incredible resilience in the neural pathways you have built around a habit, trying to break them is a fool’s errand. Instead you need to introduce new behaviours and repeat them in place of the old – *growing* a new habit is a useful way of thinking about this process.

So how to avoid the red dots and attention traps of mobile devices? I use three devices on two ecosystems – each loaded with admittedly too many apps, so I’m an extreme case. My first move was to remove apps with red dots and alerts from my home screens altogether – leaving just things for reading or listening to music and podcasts there.

Recently I have gone further – removing the red dots and number of new messages from everything except texts messages and phone calls (the channels of urgency and last resort – either closer friends and colleagues or people who need to get in touch quickly will try these). Nothing gets to call for my attention until I am ready to see what’s going on in the world of that app, network or channel.

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Perhaps we need to be more considerate about interrupting ourselves, allowing ourselves to be distracted…

Phone calls in the middle of movies or dinners or meetings are disruptive and – unless there’s some real urgency to them – extremely antisocial. When mobile phones came along it took us a little while to work this out, but soon turning them to silent and generally resisting the temptation to answer them became norms. When it comes to email and social media of various kinds, we may still be working out those social norms and the parameters of acceptability and usefulness.

It’s not just about social situations, though, it’s about the effect of these devices and apps on our ability to think clearly, focus on important things and manage our emotional well-being (constant connectivity can burn you out, raising your allostatic load – the stress hormones in your body).

There’s a useful question we’ve started asking since we started looking at all of this: who responds fastest when the other shouts for attention – you or your phone? Who in that relationship is the servant and who is the master?

I hope we’ll see device manufacturers offering an addition to airplane mode and do not disturb: low distraction mode – a selection of levels to tune in to how open to being interrupted we are. I’ll tell my phone when I want to look at email, Twitter and Facebook updates, thanks.

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Meanwhile, although it is a little bit fiddly – you need to delve into too many apps’ settings – I highly recommend modifying your device to be low-distraction – red dot-free, as it were. Give yourself a little more peace, allow yourself to develop the habits that work for you around how you use these amazing connected tools we have suddenly found ourself using.

There’s a metaphor lurking about how a healthy diet of information and communication requires discipline and new habits. Like the past few generations of people in the West who have suddenly had access to literally all-you-can-eat sugar, saturated fat etc., we are having to come to terms with information-rich, distraction saturated, dopamine-firing, fascination on demand.

The result of all this de-distraction-ing of my devices was apparent immediately. They feel calmer, there are fewer triggers for bad habits or giving too much attention to Twitter etc (gorgeous as it is). It helps me to be more purposeful in my use of apps and my mobile device (“purposeful” being one of the three themes of Mobile Mastery we’ve been exploring at Brilliant Noise).

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The most important part of this equation for me is mindfulness, combined with a sense of personal responsibility. If things aren’t feeling right, if you’re feeling stressed or anxious when you’re using social media or any technology, you need to acknowledge that and do something about it – take a break, declare email bankruptcy, try growing some new habits and ways of working. The responsibility is with  each of us as the user to make sense of the amazing opportunities to learn more, think faster, connect more ideas that the web and mobile devices offer.

2 comments

  1. amayfield

    Absolutely. It feels like it takes about 10% of the time to clear my inboxes that it used to…

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