Thank You for Your Attention: Of the Unending Struggle with Digital Distractions

By Nina Preußler

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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Nina Preußler is a stu­dent of Glob­al Envi­ron­men­tal and Sus­tain­abil­i­ty Stud­ies at Leuphana Uni­ver­si­ty Lüneb­urg, a pas­sion­ate bad­minton play­er and a qui­et lan­guage enthu­si­ast. Their lat­est inter­ests include learn­ing Man­darin and becom­ing bet­ter at doing nothing.