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    Digital distraction and rest

    Who I am
    Robert Maurer

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    Leisure and sleep need as much protection from digital devices as our ability to concentrate. But increasingly digital distraction and rest do not go hand in hand.

    We usually think of our digital devices and our lives distracting us from work, or grabbing our attention when we should be focusing on other things. For critics of digital culture, constantly checking social media in the workplace, or texting while driving (!), Are examples of how technology takes over our lives. 

    I call it: digital distraction.

    Of course, it is true that this type of digital distraction is problematic and when you are behind the wheel of a car, it is absolutely dangerous. The guy who delivered the wrong bag to the Oscars appears to have been distracted by a tweet. Some aircraft and helicopter crashes have also been attributed to distraction from devices. But as has been amply demonstrated, these accidents can happen even without vehicles. 

    Digital distraction is not only a problem when people are working or trying to focus, but it can also be an obstacle to rest.

    We don't pay much attention to rest and consider it as one of the many things we can actually improve at. We live in a culture that treats overwork as a badge of honor. Rest seems to be seen as a kind of weakness and assumes that long hours spent in the office and burnout are the price of success.

    A century of research has shown that chronic overexertion is terrible for both people and organizations. Science also makes it clear that breaks, holidays, and the strong boundaries between work and private life make people better workers. Finally, recent work in neuroscience and psychology shows that seemingly unproductive recreational activities (such as long walks after hard work) play a secret role in the lives of some of the most creative and prolific people in history. 

    Very creative people often spend a lot of time on what psychologists call "mind wandering," a state where you don't focus on anything in particular, but give your mind the freedom to explore on its own.

    What many future Nobel laureates, bestselling authors and prominent painters discover is that during those periods of mental wandering, their creative subconscious often generates insights and solutions to problems that have escaped their conscious efforts to solve. In other words, what at first appears to be a waste of time is actually very valuable - indeed, valuable enough to make the practices that support mental wandering an integral part of their daily routine. And devices hinder rest and ultimately mental wandering and creativity.

    We systematically underestimate the interaction time with our devices. In late 2015, Lancaster University research psychologists installed a smartphone app that accurately measured how much time they spent interacting with their phones, then comparing this to the amount of time users have. estimated to have spent.

    They found that users greatly underestimated the number of times they checked their phones and the total amount of time they spent interacting with their devices. Most interactions consisted of short on and off interruptions lasting a few seconds or a minute, which made them easy to underestimate. Users also tended to assume that they would quickly check only one thing, but then were diverted or dragged into a conversation or video.

    As lead author Sally Andrews said

    "The fact that we use our phones twice as often as we think we do indicates that smartphone use appears to be habitual, an automatic behavior of which we are unaware."

    The habit of searching for devices whenever things get a little boring, or reacting to boredom by checking our mail, makes it harder for us to learn to practice intentional rest. When the mind is accustomed to perpetual stimuli, a constant flow of browsing, scrolling and jumping between tabs and windows and apps (or acquires "the bad habit of lightly enjoying and completely forgetting an endless series of disconnected ideas" , as psychologist Graham Wallas said), it's harder for the mind to stay still and not focus. These dopamine shots are hard to quit.

    Finally, of course, there are only 24 hours in a day. The more time we spend online, the less time we have for ourselves. The more time we spend seeing what others are doing, the less time we have for our thoughts.

    So how do we deal with this situation? We cannot abandon digital devices, we can learn to be thoughtful about how we use them, more aware of how they try to use us and develop habits and practices that put us back in control.

    This will not only improve our working life, or our productivity. It will also improve our ability to rest well. And resting well improves our work-life balance, our ability to disconnect from work and also our creativity. Recovering our free time from digital distraction, it seems, is as important as restoring our ability to focus on work.

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