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How to hack back against digital distraction

Oct 6, 2023

Hand holding a lens to focus

Navigating digital distraction: Strategies for reclaiming focus

I had a great conversation with Jan Fran on The Briefing podcast this week about ways to manage digital distraction and regain our pre-internet focus (without running away and joining a commune). Mary McKillop and Whipper Snipper guys were mentioned.

Here’s a deeper dive into the ideas we chatted about that didn’t make the poddy (we could talk for hours, TBH). Watch a snippet of our convo and listen to the whole episode – which is part three of a series. Part 1 was about where our attention has gone, part 2 explores why we should care and how tech is impacting it.

Firstly, let’s be clear, humans are designed to be distracted.  Without delving into what level of attention/focus is ‘normal’ and the deficit models used in medical models of attention – let’s just say, we probably have socio-cultural expectations of ourselves around our ability to get shit done that are unrealistic.

We’re wired to be on the move, to attend to a few sources of information, to keep an eye out on our environment for threat. Sitting on our bums, with a narrow gaze and sensory data confetti being thrown into our ancient brains for 16 hours a day is the MO for many modern humans and its messing with our cognitive processing and as a result attention.

Distraction is the opposite of focus, and managing our attention is a key skill of modern life, where there are huge sources of distraction and huuuuge volumes of information.  ‘Attention management’ is understanding the collection of behaviours and cognitive practices that allow you to intentionally complete required tasks. It’s wrapped up in concepts around executive functioning skills, neuro-productivity and overcoming procrastination (which is literally a measure of how well you can manage your attitude to a task in order to get it done with the least resistance as possible).

So beyond jumping in a time machine and going back to a world before smartphones, here are some strategies you can use to rebuild your focus.

// INTERNAL STRATEGIES

These are cognitive strategies to notice and redirect your thoughts and intentions, using the high-powered technology under your skull!

+ Get better sleep and rest

This is my absolute starting point for basically all wellbeing. This isn’t just about getting ‘enough’ sleep but good quality sleep that is aligned to your chronotype, and creating space for non-sleep deep-rest (NSDR)  and cognitive breaks throughout the day.

+ Ask yourself: what deserves my time and attention?

This is a handy and quite powerful clarifying question that can help you reprioritise where you put your energy. Time is a non-renewable resource – how will you spend it? I love Nir Eyal’s Indistractable model for getting clear on the stuff that matters.

+ Connect with your future self and build sticky goals

Visualise yourself having completed the task in front of you or that big project you are working on, how does that FEEL. Imagine the feeling of having completed the task, overcome the challenges in front of you and having done the thing.  Really feel the feels of completion.  Now break the goal down into the next right step to work towards it. Read more on future self thinking.

+ Apply the 3M’s of Digital Nutrition before scrolling

Mindful, meaningful and moderate are the keys to bringing your digital snacking habits back in line with your values. Pause and apply them prior to engaging with devices. This will also help improve your interoception, which is being able to notice, listen in to and respond to the cues our body is giving us and building this self-awareness can help us redirect our behaviour towards what feels better at the end of the day.

// EXTERNAL STRATEGIES

These have to do with shaping your environment, devices and access to information and other humans.  Basically, reduce the sources of things your brain can try and use escuses to escape to!

+ Dumb down your phone

Remove the apps and sources of distraction so that only the only with the most utility are on your phone.

+ Out of sight out of mind

Leave your phone out of your eyeline. Research shows even being able to see the presence of your device means your mind will wander to thinking about it and the activities and distractions on it.

+ Create channels for content

Pinterest does this well with its boards structure, and Hashtags create buckets for content, but you need to be able to put a gate on your access.  I have different Instagram accounts for different themes and different email addresses for my not that important emails (brands and shopping, one for digital wellbeing resources.  Think of 3 key themes or topics you are interested in and shape a channel for each – then you can choose what you dip into.  More on using channels from metaversal wellbeing.

+ Choose quality over quantity

You would need dozens of lifetimes to consume all the information on the internet, so accepting that unless your job is literally to ‘read the internet’ then choosing quality sources of trusted news and information is the way to go.  Applying media literacy skills to appraise online information and spotting misinformation is a huge area of need for most adults (let alone teens and tweens!).

+ Accept FOMO and find JOMO

You will miss out on stuff unless you have a clone who can be in two places at once. Practice being where you are and lean into what Christina Crook calls the Joy Of Missing Out.

+ Log out to connect friction between you and your feed

Logging out of accounts will put that little bit of friction between you and your automatic zombie scrolling.  Anything that can put a space between you and impulsive, almost involuntary checking habits will help interrupt the pattern.

+ Use software to support your goal

There are dozens of apps (oh the irony) that can support you reshape your phone use habits. Interrupting automatic habits is that start of behaviour change – but we need to strategically consider what we replace the old habits with!  Try: ten seconds, freedom.

_____

Your attention can be regained with a combination of removing sources of distraction, simplifying the information you are attempting to consume and training your cognitions and executive functions with practical thought strategies to bring you back into line with the things that really matter.

Need more tailored help with this? Talk to Jocelyn about coaching/counselling, join her monthly AMA coaching call or book a training presentation for your team or workplace.

[Image via Unsplash by Stephen Kraakamo]

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