Focus in an Age of Distraction

Time in nature is a good antidote to digital multitasking.

Time in nature is a good antidote to digital multitasking.

There’s no small irony that I lost track of the trail hiking down Mount Watatic as I was pondering the Innovation HUB show “Our Multitasking Romance” on WGBH Radio. I’d been listening to the discussion, hosted by Kara Miller, about how our use of technology seems to be harming our ability to focus and engage in deep thinking. The guests, author Nicholas Carr and Stanford Professor Clifford Nass, argued that this is due to actual changes to our brain, as we develop a greater need for stimulation as a result of constant digital multitasking. In addition, our culture is placing less value on depth, noted the show guests. I encourage you to visit the Innovation HUB site and listen to the show yourself for the full discussion (go ahead, depth is good for you!). Below I share a number of follow-up thoughts that I had after listening to the show. In the spirit of the age, they are string of semi-related thoughts as opposed to one coherent argument!

Hardwired for social stimulation: Miller asked the guests how our brains evolved to be so susceptible to wanting the constant connectedness and stimulation we get from social media and other technology. I don’t believe this was fully answered. I’d say that it likely has to do with the way our brains evolved to process social information. Much of our competitive advantage during our early days on the savannah came from the ability to read social cues and cooperate with others. I suspect brains that were good at efficiently processing a lot of social information would be selected over those that did not. Just as we will now over-indulge eating sugary foods that play to our ancient need to store fat for future needs; social media hits the sweet spot in our brain that craves social information and feedback.

It’s in the way that we use it: No doubt, social media can be a source of distraction preventing us from being focused on complex tasks and the people who are actually in the room with us. But it doesn’t have to be that way. When we use social media in a balanced and disciplined way, it can enhance our ability to learn and even help foster depth. For instance, I have written here about ways social media can deepen community connections.

Social media can help us appreciate special places in our community.

Social media can help us appreciate special places in our community.


Discipline and balance: Nicholas Carr mentioned that one choice he made as he learned more about the downsides of multitasking was to stop using Facebook and Twitter. This may be the right choice for some, but I hope more people will respond to the downsides of social media by using it in a more deliberate and balanced fashion. As Carr mentioned, opting out entirely causes one to miss potentially valuable information and conversations (along with cat videos and such that are probably better missed!). Professor Nass pointed out that all successful people have the ability to focus, and I’d say we need to bring that to social media. For me, that means having substantial blocks of time when I’m not checking social media or email. For most of my morning at the office I’ll tune out incoming messages in order to focus on priority tasks. Sometimes I need to open my email to send messages during this period; I try to discipline myself to not read the incoming emails at that time (not easy!). We also generally have a “no screens Sunday” in our home. (yes, I know this post was published on a Sunday. I’m solo here today, so finding depth for me today meant further developing my ideas on this subject.)

Reading on the way out of the library--that's got to be good, right?

Reading on the way out of the library–that’s got to be good, right?

What about digital natives? I feel those of us who grew up without Facebook have an advantage when it comes to focus and depth. I spent my summers as a kid reading books, playing baseball, walking in the woods and playing at the beach. Grounded in this upbringing, I become aware of an over-stimulated feeling when I spend too much time on social media, and I know I need to sign off and read a book or engage in some other activity that provides for more focus. I’m a bit concerned that digital natives who grow up with social media won’t have the same sense that something is off kilter when they are totally immersed in social media multitasking mode. As parents and educators, we need to intentionally build in plenty of non-screen time for children to read books and play with physical objects (Legos!), get outdoors and enjoy physical activity, and have conversations with people in the room. Miller mentioned a private school in Silicon Valley, populated by children of tech moguls, that uses very little technology. It’s telling that even those building technology businesses understand that children’s use of technology needs to have limits for their successful development.

Books! Yes, reading entire books cover to cover is a good way to maintain the ability to focus! In addition to those books authored by guests on Miller’s show, I’d suggest Hamlet’s BlackBerry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age by William Power is a good read to get one thinking about balance and also to put the current technological change in a broader context. I also think the concept of flow, which entails getting immersed in an interesting task that has clear goals and requires us to really summon our skills, is useful in this conversation. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is the book that introduced this concept.

Oh yes, back to getting lost on my hike. Though I did do a Foursquare checkin on top of the mountain and send a text about dinner plans, it wasn’t technology that distracted me from following the path; rather, the problem was getting too caught up in my thoughts (OK I guess that is still multitasking!). At first I was simply trusting my sense of where I needed to go to get back to the trail and my car. Then I started looking at Google maps to to determine where I was related to the parking lot. Alas, this tool did not show me the trails nor the swamp between me and my car. I made my way through the mucky terrain, reminded of the limits of technology and the need to focus more on the trail markers next time!

About David

I'm a proud Dad and husband living in Woburn, MA, just north of Boston. I've created my Wordpress site as a place to put together and share my many diverse interests. These include my work at Social Capital Inc. (, my passion for good food & wine that I share at Cooking Chat (, poetry and photos (often inspired by the beautiful pond we live near), and my exploration of new places and ideas. In addition to those two websites above, here are other places you can find me online: Twitter: @socialcap (related to my work, most active handle), @davidbcrowley (general), @cookingchat @DC_Woburn (of local interest in & around my community, also what I use for FourSquare) Google+: David B. Crowley LindedIn: My profile Facebook: Email: davidbcrowley AT OK, I think that about covers it for now!
This entry was posted in Books & Ideas, Social Media and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Focus in an Age of Distraction

  1. Liz says:

    Hi David, I saw your comment on the IHub site and checked out your blog. Interesting counterpoint about technology and internet connectivity feeding our embedded need for stimulation. I find that more credible than the evolution theory. As a young graduate student, I find myself constantly sacrificing ‘depth for breadth’ (as Nicholas Carr) in an effort to meet deadlines and impress my mentors and colleagues. I feel sad to think that I diminish my own learning experience (the purpose of graduate school!) to appease my need for social connection and acceptance within the academic sphere. Have you heard of ? An interesting glimpse into the anxiety driven minds of todays young science intellectuals (and yet another internet snare). Cheers, Liz

    • Liz says:

      Apologies! My html coding is novice at best.

    • David says:

      Hi Liz–thanks for stopping by. Sorry I was a bit slow to approve your comment & reply. Appropriate for the subject, I was mostly offline for a week or so at the Cape. I understand why a grad program (and other formal education) requires some familiarity with a broad range of authors and so forth, but it’s too bad if it comes at the expense of delving deeply into something that is particularly interesting. Hopefully as your studies progress you’ll have the opportunity to go deeper!

Comments are closed.