How addictive digital behaviors prevent deep work and what to do about it
Our tech-fueled world begs for your attention. This is, perhaps, the most significant personal challenge we face on a day-to-day basis.
The world’s smartest, most highly-motivated professionals in advertising, marketing, politics, news media, and technology are on a perpetual mission to gain your attention and then resell it for profit.
If you can imagine yourself looking at your phone and picturing thousands of these professionals on the other side of the screen – with powerful servers and software algorithms – vying for your attention, you get the idea.
Yet, as you know, how you spend your time, the most scarce resource you have, is critical. Our shiny technology objects, however, compete for our attention and pull us away from deep work.
IM interruptions on apps like Snapchat, WhatsApp, Facetime, Facebook Messenger, text messaging, DMs, Skype and email take you away from what you want to focus on. Checking these messages is like pulling the lever on a Las Vegas slot machine. This has been well documented1.
When you receive a little red notification bubble or email inbox notification, your brain gets a dopamine hit that’s makes you feel good, regardless of the content of the message.
A recent Business Insider study2, documented in Adam Alter’s excellent new book on digital addiction (Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked)3, shows that people check email within six seconds – 6 seconds! – of its arrival. That in itself is absolutely stunning!
Why? We’ve come to believe that the information within those messages is of critical importance.
An inbox of opportunity and hope
The likes, RTs, email communications, and text messages we receive have the potential to increase our income, expand our personal and business networks, and move our works further down the path toward completion. In that way, they offer us a measure of progress and a bit of hope that we’ll complete projects and uncover new opportunities.
This is why we’ve become behaviorally addicted to the message check.
Can you reverse the behavior?
Many of us realize that checking messages robs us of our creative and productive time, and we attempt to limit our messaging checking to “batch” windows or delete messaging apps altogether. We’re trying to claw back high-value productive time.
This trend points to an interesting irony. Have you ever noticed how difficult it is to reach people these days? Most people are logged into 4-6 social media and communications apps every day! That’s a conservative estimate.
And, if they’re not doing some kind of manual labor in the field, they’re sitting at a desk with a laptop, desktop, tablet and smartphone nearby.
But they’re not returning your texts or answering your call! It’s the ultimate communication conundrum.
As people fight the compulsion to check their messages, it affects your ability to reach them. And vice versa. The communication revolution has produced an interesting lack of communication.
Scarcity and the counter-intuitive solution: “Be so good they can’t ignore you.”
How do you deal with this? What’s the prescription?
Steve Martin, the comedian, famously said, “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” He even wrote an autobiography with that concept as the central theme. (No! Don’t be so good at email or rapid-fire Instagramming.)
The point is to focus on quality. You need to develop talents and skills that emerge from deep work. If you already have them, great. When you demonstrate ability, the right people will find you. That’s an act of faith, but it’s true.
When you put great work out into the world, no amount of spamming or IM’ing can improve the quality of that work. If it’s excellent, it will get shared by people who are good at rapid-fire Instagramming. It’s not your job to be P.T. Barnum and constantly promote yourself. Plenty of people are already in that business. Yes, you can find them and communicate with them, but your attention should always be focused on developing your skills. And, that means limiting your time on less productive tasks like vacuous “communications.”
You can improve the quality of your communications, but you still want to limit them. YouTubers blow up because their content is good. It’s not the other way around. They don’t blow up because they’re noisily promoting their half-assed content. Quality comes first. There’s no other way around it.