Nov 26, 2023

On Distraction and Procrastination

When the whole world is fighting for your attention, it’s hard not to get distracted. It’s just so easy to drift off. Maybe the following situation feels familiar: You wanted to read your DMs and sneak a peek of your feed. Suddenly an hour has passed, leaving you disappointed in yourself and miserable. You berate yourself for a lack of discipline and vow to do better next time. Unfortunately, it’s almost certain to happen again.

Distraction is seeping into every part of life. It might have started with emails catching you off guard at work, but it’s slowly creeping into your personal life, affecting relationships with friends, partnerships, and your family. It starts harmless, how bad could it really be to take a second to check your notifications or catch up on a group chat? Fast forward and your family dinner devolves into arguing about everyone using their phones too much.

We’ve started to joke about short attention spans as a society. I think it’s an epidemic. In the long run, attention and focus are requirements for clear thinking. If we don’t think clearly, we’ll make worse decisions. If our minds are shattered into fragments by our supposed digital assistants, everyone loses.

Unfortunately, restoring your attention span isn’t as easy as deleting all social media applications off of your phone. A study I conducted (n=1) showed that you’ll end up mindlessly checking the news or your empty inbox. There’s something else that keeps our brains from fully taking in the task at hand.

We need to unpack what’s happening in our heads when we decide not to focus on what matters and why we choose to make decisions that we know are bad for us.

Technology is really good. Perhaps too good.

Not only can we access the collective knowledge of humankind in milliseconds, connect with our friends wherever they are, and pursue our goals in the most effective way, but technology continuously finds new ways to suck up all our attention.

Sometimes, when it helps us move forward in life, it’s warranted. All too often, technology gets in our way. The interests of platforms and advertisers oppose our own. The watch time content creators are paid for is time you’ve forever lost.

But whenever we turn to our phones, we don’t feel bad upfront. If that were the case, we wouldn’t get distracted in the first place.

We crave quick wins, even the ones we might regret

Procrastination does not imply a lack of motivation. Our brains are hardwired to take the path of least resistance. Writing a blog post like this is hard. And even though I genuinely wanted to write it, in the time I allocated, I managed to watch the latest Top Gun movie, read my emails, read the latest Economist issue, and watch two lectures. Every time I lost focus, I regretted it afterward.

It’s not that the latest Economist issue wasn’t interesting. It always is. But maybe that’s the issue. Most of my procrastination doesn’t feel intrinsically bad. It almost feels productive. It’s just that the side effect of procrastinating isn’t getting the real work done.

With their endless algorithmic feeds curated by neural networks, social media products are better at predicting which short-form videos you might enjoy than your friends are. Let that sink in. But even business newspapers that aren’t explicitly designed for dopamine hits become our targets for procrastinating.

Anything that causes less pain than sitting through the hard task of getting your brain to work becomes a priority if you let your discipline slide. Once your impulse-driven subconscious takes over, the rational side has lost.

You may wonder why it seems that previous generations didn’t fall into this trap. Luckily for them, they lived in a world without endless, always available, hyper-personalized streams of information, news, and entertainment. Newspapers came out daily. Mail was delivered once or twice a day. TVs did change consumption behavior, but broadcasting programs had a clear schedule. The past was not on-demand. The present is. The future will be even more so with AI-powered personal assistants and personalized content generated just for you. It’s already happening.

So what’s next?

I believe we need to do two things. First, we need to build systems that make us more resilient to the constant sensory overload originating from our pockets. We need to get back in control of our day. Mail and Slack may be useful tools for collaboration, but they shouldn’t interrupt our flow. We need to reduce technology to what it was intended for. Not being overbearing but helpful. Solutions include disabling all notifications that aren’t urgent, setting up scheduled reviews for messages and mail, using screen time, removing unwanted apps, blocking unwanted sites, and moving devices out of sight.

Creating an environment forcing you to make better decisions is one thing. But there will always be hard tasks that tempt us to procrastinate. So the second step is to become conscious about drifting off before it’s too late.

Imagine it like a guard. Every time your mind wanders to another place, catch it and ask yourself if that will help the task at hand. If the answer is no, and you’re convinced that it would be better to refocus, it should be easier to do so.

Of course, in some cases, drifting off may help to think creatively. Some actions are more likely to lead to insights and progress than others. You’re unlikely to find the solution to your problems on your Twitter feed or in current news. If you feel like you need additional input, reading specific high-quality sources like books should be far better options.

Finally, the less meaningful a task is for us right now, the less likely we are to stay focused. If it doesn’t feel stimulating or promising in the first place, why should we spend our time on it?

If you’re lucky enough to wield any power over choosing the challenges you want to work on, you should stick to topics that stay interesting and meaningful even if a seemingly unsolvable obstacle comes up.

This trick becomes more difficult when results and gratification are delayed. If your goal is years in the future, you need to find immediate next goals in the coming days, weeks, and months. And it’s still going to be hard to stay disciplined and push through.

Strive to get better every day

Some days are harder than others. You will get distracted, procrastinate, and fall for immediate gratification. After all, we’re not machines that can maintain focus and discipline at all times. It might not feel great, but you can regain your focus. Stay aligned with your real goals, build systems to reduce distractions, be conscious about drifting off.

When the idea for this post crossed my head, I didn’t immediately know the message I wanted to get across. There’s a lot I’m working on right now, and a lot more I’d like to get done. Some days I work for ten people, other days I barely get anything done. I often attribute this to engineering requiring a certain level of creativity, but the truth is that some tasks test my discipline more than I’d like to.

While this post may come across as focusing on productivity, I’m not advocating getting work done for the sake of productivity. Productivity must always serve a goal you’re pursuing. Ideally, this is aligned with your happiness.

One thing I will say is that ever since I’ve started to actively design my life around what I truly wanted to do, I’ve gotten better at brushing off distractions. If you know that progress immediately goes towards your personal goals, it’s easier to start taking responsibility for when you’re getting sidetracked. Either way, it’s a journey. Stay strong!

Here’s an extra idea: Would you rather be the fastest person responding to messages or get work done and have an impact? Prioritize for the latter.