The Problem

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Modern day society is a constant battle for attention. Everything from the ads we watch, to the emails we receive, are constantly fighting for your limited time and attention every day.

Some would argue that no one struggles with this issue and this subject is a waste of time debating. However, I would disagree, for example, if you read any online blogs or articles you might have noticed some of them have a read time field that indicates the length of time it will take you to read it. How many times have you seen a read time in the double figures, widened your eyes and skipped on to find a shorter article?

Or if you’re not a reader, how often do you click on a video on YouTube and end up several layers deep of suggested videos, watching something completely unrelated to what you went onto YouTube for in the first place.

I feel these shifts in attention have increased greatly with the rise of on-demand information that your mobile phone, laptop or now even smartwatch offers you. Everywhere you look there is something there waiting to grab your attention. All of this isn’t necessarily bad for you, but it distracts your brain and makes it extremely hard to focus on the task at hand.

Digital Products? Or Digital Addictions?

Digital products have been around for decades although have become prominent in the last 10 years with mobile apps. There are more and more digital products being created that are specifically designed to capture your attention and try to keep it. Human attention is by far one of the most valuable and sought-after commodities in the modern day. This is why the majority of digital products are highly addictive and easily become part of your day to day life.

Nir Eyal’s book, Hooked highlights this issue perfectly, by essentially writing the how-to-guide of capturing and retaining attention. Eyal explains further in his book that to create an addictive product, you must first try and capture the attention of the user, then form a habit with that user. This process will create a “hook” that will keep them returning to your product or service because the habit has been formed. I’ll take a moment to just explain how effective this is at stealing your attention.

Instagram is the perfect example of the “hooked” model. They do this by getting users to constantly open the app to check for any notifications or updates to their feeds. Many of us I’m sure can relate to this feeling of opening the app and endlessly scrolling down that feed of photos and video before realising what we’re doing.

Instagram and other companies have also changed how videos are shown on your feeds now too. Instead of coming across a video you want to watch and clicking on it to play the video, Instagram now automatically plays the video without you clicking into anything. Even if you’ve never looked at these apps from this perspective, you can already get a clear idea of the time and thought put into the app to make it as addictive and attention-grabbing as possible.

Some companies including Instagram use an “infinity loop” to keep the users engaged within their platform. According to the website

“An infinite loop (sometimes called an endless loop) is a piece of coding that lacks a functional exit so that it repeats indefinitely”.

They also go onto say that it usually results from a programming error, but companies have taken this process and made it into something intentional to keep the user engaged with their product for as long as possible. An example of this would be the endless scrolling feature on many apps such as Instagram, Facebook and Twitter that seem to have no end for the amount of content you can consume.

You may be wondering why you keep coming back to use these apps to distract you from the important tasks you need to complete. That’s because companies also use a method called a “feedback loop”. A feedback loop is an action that will result in positive or negative feedback, so for example if you open a Snapchat that has been sent to you, you are rewarded with information of what that Snapchat contains. This small moment of delight then releases dopamine in our brains and keeps us coming back for more.

Dopamine is a neurochemical that is created in the brain and is essential for different types of brain functions such as thinking, moving, attention, rewarding and many others. In an article published in 2017 by Reece Robertson on Why You’re Addicted to Social Media, he says this about dopamine:

“Dopamine causes you to want, desire, seek out, and search. It increases your general level of arousal and your goal-directed behaviour”.
Reece Robertson

In my opinion, a feedback loop, especially a positive one, is very dangerous as it not only encourages us to be distracted by these systems in return for rewards, although can also have long-term psychological effects on our wellbeing and mind. Turning to these distractions instead of the work at hand can build an addiction that forms into a habit, which can affect not only how you work but your day to day life.

Eyal has written a very accurate account in his book of how people think and what gets their attention. As well as creating a step by step guide for products designers to capture people’s attention, whether that be for good or bad reasons. While I understand the view that Eyal takes when writing this book, it really challenges the ethical side to addictions and is it ever good to intentionally encourage an addiction to their product or service. I don’t think this way of thinking is correct or ethical, especially in today's society. If we have people that are constantly trying to find ways to trick us by forming addictions or habits to distract us, it makes our battle to resist distractions even harder.

Blame Yourself

It wouldn’t be fair to blame internet technology as being the only source of the problem. Oliver Burkeman, the author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, summarises this problem perfectly in a recent article he wrote for 99u.

“The real culprit isn’t external irritations, but rather an internal urge to be distracted”
Oliver Burkeman

Burkeman goes on to explain that we purposely distract ourselves to avoid completing the task at hand. We do this because our brain feels like it is rebelling against a task we have been given or forced to do, and would rather try and distract you by any means necessary.

Another reason for this which Burkeman touches on, is a far deeper and psychological reason and that is we are afraid of answering some big fundamental questions about ourselves and our work. This is why our brain feels the need to be distracted and divert its attention. This is a very interesting and deep concept, one which would merit it’s own essay to explore more of the psychology behind it.

I think blaming yourself is a good way to go about it, however, this doesn’t mean that we are the only cause of diverting our own attention. We shouldn’t be so quick to use technology as a scapegoat, without first seeing why we are so easily distracted.

In my opinion, in everyday life we are quick to fill our schedule wall to wall, with things to do, places to go, people to see and the list goes on and on. By the time the day has ended, you look back on it and realise that most of those activities where just a sea of noise, drowning out the important tasks. Until we address the issues head-on we can’t work on improving our attention span, because in the back of our mind we don’t want it to be improved. We want to carry on drowning out the work we are supposed to be doing, or the tasks we are supposed to be concentrating on.

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