How many hours have you already spent looking at a screen today? Nowadays, the universal answer to this question seems to be “too much.” As the internet becomes more deeply ingrained in every aspect of our lives, it gets trickier and trickier to find responsible ways of engaging with the online world without getting lost in it. This issue became even more challenging for many people during the pandemic. Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, for example, found that young people now spend an average of 7.7 hours of their daily free time in front of screens – twice as much as they did pre-COVID. Why is the internet so wickedly tempting, and how can we establish healthier digital habits?
In my experience, there are three aspects that make cyberspace a particularly perilous place for sustained attention to my work: First, distractions are always right around the corner. There’s just one click between fruitful work and an afternoon spent mindlessly absorbing a video I have already watched so many times I could probably recite it. Second, there’s no one watching. When I’m with people, I hardly touch my phone, but I have no issue spending a weekend by myself glued in front of a screen (and sometimes even two). While I do not want to base my actions primarily on what other people think of me, I do like to make use of (perceived) social pressure to avoid behaviors that I guiltily indulge in when I’m alone.
Lastly, and most importantly, our devices want to keep us hooked. As keenly described by Johann Hari in his book, Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention – and How to Think Deeply Again, the current business model of social media rests on enticing people to spend as much time as possible on the platform in order to see the greatest number of ads. That’s why the algorithms have learned what captures our attention and why Autoplay and Infinite Scroll keep us obediently consuming content.
So what can we do to resist the siren call of digital distraction? Here are some strategies I have employed over time: Going back to analog options whenever it’s sensible. A physical alarm clock, for example, means the first thing I come into contact with in the morning is not my phone – the portal to a world of wasted time. Furthermore, I like to journal regularly to be clear about my goals and reflect on my use of time. For some more inspiration, take a look at this insightful video:
I have to be honest, though. While all of those techniques have certainly been of some benefit to my life, sooner or later, each of them failed. In my weakest moments – when I just want to forget about my own worries for a while by immersing myself in the life of fictional characters – only one thing helps then: blocking websites. By programming the software to either completely disable access to my greatest enemies – Netflix and YouTube – or give me a daily allowance, I take the choice away from myself beforehand. Paradoxically, it’s those self-imposed restrictions that give me the freedom to live more intentionally in the digital world.
Clearly, willpower is not enough to resist the temptations of the web – not when it’s designed to distract. And while personal responsibility is important to tackle this problem, it’s not sufficient. It merely targets the symptoms, not the twisted system underneath. Now more than ever, we need to work together to transform the system into one that enriches our lives, not one that depletes them. Now more than ever, cultivating attention – as individuals and as a society – is critical to be equipped for the complex issues of our time.
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