My history of distraction



Do you remember when your computer “evolved” from being a tool of production, to becoming a distraction?

I’ve been reading an interesting book, DEEP WORK by Cal Newport, and it has made me think back to how distraction slowly became a default setting when using computers.

Working in sound studios should be conducive to deep work free from distraction, since a sound studio by definition tends towards an isolated environment. And in the early days of computers & ProTools, even running an email program in the background was not wise. But I have never really considered email to be a distraction. You choose to boot up an app to check mail, so it is conscious decision and can be easily scheduled. In hindsight I think the first serious distraction for me arrived with the use of OSX iChat.

According to wikipedia, iChat was first released in August 2002 as part of OSX 10.2 but it was really only once my studio was on the same network as everyone else working on whatever film soundtrack at the time, that the idea of being constantly available insidiously arrived. Of course iChat had a do-not-disturb option, but it was rarely used. So no matter what I was working on, any member of the sound post team could message me to ask a question or get information (or invite for a game of ping pong) and this somehow felt virtuous, especially as a head of department. As they say, post production is about having the foresight and experience to prevent problems before they occur. So whether it was a tiny detail, or a major issue it felt helpful to be available immediately.

So the idea of ‘chat’ is not new by any means. And everyone uses such apps differently, I am not trying to speak for anyone but myself. I don’t really consider websites or forums a distraction, as they also require a conscious effort to engage with. But at a certain point in the development of our online world it seems distraction and engagement became synonymous and it was not by accident: it has been a motivated and sustained effort by developers to interupt us, by every means possible.

I joined FaceBook in October 2007 and Twitter in January 2009. Are they distractions? They potentially can be, unless they are contained and scheduled. But just like an open plan office, if they are active on whatever computer you are using (and especially if notifications are enabled) they become the antithesis of deep work that necessarily requires focus and uninterrupted concentration.

As the book clearly explains, a lot of work now is created in the shallows, without really paying full attention to anything. Having achieved saturation with its main platform, Facebook have evolved to assault our attention via Messenger, with aggressive acquisitions and development including WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook Messenger. Remember when every time someone friended you on FB they would try and make you ‘wave’ at them in Messenger? Its like a red flag to a bull: “Hi, I have nothing to say but I’d like to distract you.”

What is the big deal with such a simple gesture? According to a University of California Irvine study, after becoming distracted “it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to the task.”

Read that again:
Someone messaging you to say “Hi!” costs you 23 minutes and 15 seconds. If you only ever exist in the shallows, then maybe it doesn’t matter… But to assume that of the recipient of your message is quite something.

When I first started job hunting while at Film School, I read a book about the process and they had a golden rule for cold calls: your first question should always be “Are you free to talk now or is there a better time for me to call back?” Nowadays my phone is always on silent and if I do see it ringing I never answer it unless caller ID shows it is my Dad. But occasionally someone calls me and if they ask that golden question I thank them and make a mental note I am talking to someone with the awareness to value my attention.

But here is the issue: no one who messages me has ever asked if I am free to chat. Yes I can ignore them but eg if I visit Instagram to look at photos and there is a chat alert it is deliberately hard to ignore. Similarly there seems to be an assumption, again deliberately encouraged by Facebook, that if you are friended by someone then they also have access to message you. This bugged me so much I now have a TextExpander shortcut assigned:

“Please do not use Facebook chat to contact me – Messenger is not secure.
But also be aware FaceBook scrapes Messenger data for targeted advertising.
Please consider deleting FB Messenger – your supposedly private data is being sold.”

And I provide an email address and a link to a contact form, so they can contact me. But guess what? They never do. So it isn’t that they have any reason to message me, they are just being manipulated by FaceBook to distract me. And 23 minutes and 15 seconds later I get back to work. Thanks for less than nothing.

I’ve been invited to a few chat servers, mostly hosted on Discord and Slack, and the first few times I went & checked them out… But just like Reddit, it feels like an echo chamber of randoms who exist solely to distract me, for a minimum of 23 minutes and 15 seconds. I really cannot comprehend how people work and use such services at the same time. But they are clearly not doing deep work of any kind, so that is their perogative, whether they are aware of it or not.

Eliminating distractions from chat apps is only one aspect of this attack on focus and deep work. The first day I update my iPhone requires time spent disabling every app from distracting me with notifications. Same for OSX and their notifications. And how many times do I have say no to notifications from web sites? It should be simple: I never want to receive notifications from any website ever. But does Safari let me set any kind of permanent preference for this? Nope. This simple preference ommission is deliberate – Apple profit from distracting you, and the more often they distract you the more profit they generate.

The first half of the book discusses at length the cost of only ever working in the shallows, and the second half provides tactics and techniques for creating time and space for deep work. Some of the methods described are ‘off-grid cabin-in-the-woods’ extreme, while others involve creating simple rituals for yourself. But the most important takeaway from the book for me is this: achieving deep work does not occur by accident. It takes conscious choices, planning and significant time spent developing new habits.

Another important lesson or observation from the book (and from another I am reading) is that willpower is a finite resource. If you solely rely on willpower to try to achieve something, be aware that as the day continues and you become tired, your reserves of willpower depletes and it becomes more difficult to stay focused. This is where establishing rituals and habits can help, as they reduce the need for willpower and the process slowly becomes a fundamental part of your modus operandi.

Here are Amazon links for the books, but if you are interested in reading them please try to shop locally. Your local bookstore needs your support more than Jeff Bezos.

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport

The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr



Update: Thanks for people mentioning Freedom type apps that can block websites and/or all Internet and network access for set periods of time. These are not new or recent and while they do help to eliminate elements of such distractions, they do nothing to stop OSX or iPhone notifications or people walking into your room etc.. While my post focuses mostly on computer distractions the DEEP WORK book discusses startegies for dealing with all forms of distraction.



2 thoughts on “My history of distraction

  1. Dan

    Here I turn off all notifications, on all devices, all the time. The only notification left is that my phone will ring when someone calls. Keeping notifications off in OSX though seems to be an ongoing battle, new apps ON, Apple determined to try and break down my wall. 😉

  2. Kirke Godfrey

    I find I alternate, if I’m trying to GET SHIT DONE, (score-design-arrange) I switch off all messaging / alerts etc.

    if I’m jamming on Endlesss I’ll happily have discord and signal and iMessage open as a social space.

    As ya point out, it’s about making very conscious decisions.

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