Do you feel like you are drowning in a sea of distractions and you can’t get your head above water? You are not alone.
Ads, fake news, manipulation, stress. Our lives can often feel chaotic. The constant information bombardment makes us lose focus of what truly matters in our lives.
Without being aware of it we are selling out our attention to the information traffickers who trade it to the highest bidders.
You are using technologies that you’ve not been instructed on how to use, and you don’t even have a manual for the computer (your brain) in your head. The two together create a mix that can take you in a completely different direction from where you want to go.
Just think through the byproducts of information overload and see how many apply to your life:
- We get less productive
Multitasking decreases our ability to ignore incoming distractions. The average email stays unread for 6 secs. Checking a distraction causes us to drop out of flow state for 25 mins when we operate at our best, so people are hardly reaching it at all.
This leads to:
- Diminishing ability to read
- Loss of analytical thinking
- Slower information processing
- Weakened long term memory
We rely on the internet as a bookmark, but because of doing so our brain becomes less able to synthesize new information with the old as very little is stored in our memory. Because of all this, our reliance on the internet grows as our confidence in providing the right answers without it drops.
- Our personal connections get weaker
- More people want to get our attention
- The communication doesn’t happen when every party wants to engage
- Loss of detail (non-verbal, etc.)
- Standards get lowered which is a vicious cycle
- Shallow online interaction replaces deep offline interactions
- We are never present
We remain online even when we are off-line, due to the craving for dopamine and open loops. When we don’t live in the present moment, we are opening ourselves up to a world of things we have no control over. We can’t change the past and we can’t control the future so we are left feeling frustrated and disappointed when we try. It’s like fighting a losing battle.
All worry exists in the future. You cannot worry about something that’s happening right now, you’d be too busy dealing with it to worry about doing it.
- A life lived below potential
As our lives are consumed by constant distractions through technology we slowly lose our ability to focus on what’s important. And if we don’t know what’s important for us we can’t make wise decisions.
- We get less productive
Not all is lost though. I believe there are 5 key behaviors which when practiced well will show you a way out and help you get back on track. By the end of this post, you will get to know all 5.
If there is a mismatch between actions and desires that is what causes the frustration in your life.
The last year and a half gave us a glimpse into the future, where we will be more disconnected and have to rely on online technologies to function. I believe not many of us think that it was a pleasant experience. Yet we still propel ourselves toward this unwanted future by giving in to the distracting systems we use on a daily basis, that make us more and more distant from each other.
Just think about how far the days have already gone from, when the motivation to see a friend was so high that traveling long distances to see them wasn’t a problem or “You are important to me” meant writing and sending them a postcard. These days we are getting less and less bothered to even drop a message to others.
Our self-orientation and looking for easy rewards with little effort, semi-satisfied by technology causes a problem on a global scale, which would need us to work together to find a proper solution. Unluckily, we are less and less capable of doing so.
What’s similar about climate change and the ever-proliferating distractful technologies?
Just like the problem of climate change is yet to be fully realized, – even though if we stop and think deeply we can tell that it is already with us -, not much is happening to stop the growing distance and disorientation caused by technology from our government’s side. If we don’t collaborate and do our part on a personal level to solve this issue, chances are that we are just going to deepen the situation.
The information online gets more and more addictive as information that is able to get attention will grow in visibility thanks to sharing and search engines. At the same time knowledge on how to grab people’s attention online becomes more accessible.
The truth is that an army of scientists aided by artificial intelligence works on derailing our attention 24/7.
Without knowing it we became dopamine addicts and we can only get a slight relief by reaching out for our devices. But that relief doesn’t last long. The average American checks his phone 262 times a day. 48% of them consider themselves addicted to their phone. We are constantly looking for our next reward behind the notification which has just popped up on our phone screen. Our brain is in constant itches and we need our “shot” to ease it.
People are online every day for prolonged hours, 25% are online all the time and Covid protocols just increased the strain of online stress.
With the rise of the internet, we have gained free access to information that was previously confined to just a few people. But has it made us smarter? What was the bargain?
While information is widely available, it is unstructured and we have to rely on search engines to direct us to somewhat relevant data. We slowly got so used to this availability that we are just not making the effort to store anything in our long-term memory. This gives a false sense of informedness, but at a high price.
The moment we leave the trenches and go online we don’t just see the information we are looking for but a constant stream of distractions trying to grab our attention and we normally end up somewhere else than where we originally intended.
How affected we are, depends on how strong our filter is, meaning how aware we are about what’s relevant for us and what’s not. The bad news is that our defenses are down, and chances are high that the influence machine will easily derail us from our original intention.
How can the lagging evolution of our brain catch up with the IT revolution?
If I would ask you, you would probably say that you are in control and you know exactly how to filter information online, but the truth is while 95% of people think they are self-aware only 15% of them actually are.
To make things worse we have to differentiate general awareness from present moment awareness. Your awareness level is highly different when you just woke up after a good night’s sleep, your head is clear, compared to the end of a long workday.
Knowing and doing are not the same. The fact that you are sometimes aware of some of the things you should pay attention to or avoid, doesn’t mean that you are living by this code and act accordingly. When you are stressed out or your mind is overloaded with a constant stream of information dropped at you, you are much easier to be influenced. This problem of general unawareness is not entirely newfound, but it just got worse thanks to the rapid advancement of smart technology used against our free will.
So what is the solution? Would leaving all technology behind us solve all our problems?
The bad news is there is no way back if you want to stay competitive in today’s IT-driven world. Governments don’t have a solution, they are slow to react, and even use IT for propaganda. The problem is seen but yet to be publicly admitted. Numerous studies from as high places as the EU itself are already pointing toward the serious detrimental effects of uncontrolled IT overdose.
We can’t rely on the sheer force of our willpower to defend us. Our brain is good at making heuristic decisions with many errors as a byproduct, but the algorithms working against us evolve at a rapid pace and only keep getting more accurate. It’s like swimming upriver, you can muscle through for a while but after a time, when you feel like you are running out of energy you either have to hit the land or risk drowning.
So if willpower alone can’t help us and we can’t handle the situation ourselves, how much risk does the situation mean for our children who are looking up to us to navigate the right way in this ever more digital world?
It seems like my argument is that all technology is evil, but as a web developer even though I am coming from the dark side I know it can be used for good, but it needs the right intentions.
The technology we use shapes our minds through the process of neuroplasticity. Used skills get strengthened; unused skills weakened. Behavior that gets rewarded (reinforced) gets repeated. The internet provides rewards left and right. It’s to the brain what a candy shop is to a kid. The Net seizes our attention only to scatter it. We focus intensively on the medium itself, on the flickering screen, but we’re distracted by the medium’s rapid-fire delivery of competing messages and stimuli. When the brain’s reward system is stimulated, it craves more of that stimulus, regardless of the consequences.
Consider some of the skills we use as we surf the Web: Cursory reading, hurried, distracted, shallow thinking, superficial learning, impulsive decision-making, multitasking. These are the skills the Internet will strengthen.
Psychological research long ago proved what most of us know from experience: frequent interruptions scatter our thoughts, weaken our memory, and make us tense and anxious. Every time we shift our attention, our brain has to reorient itself, further taxing our mental resources. As we multitask online, he says, we are ‘training our brains to pay attention to the crap.’ The consequences for our intellectual lives may prove ‘deadly.’” Our brains become adept at forgetting, inept at remembering.” When you switch from Task A to Task B, your attention doesn’t immediately follow. You lose a little bit of productivity every time you switch tasks.
What is the cost of erroneous thinking in productivity?
This scattered way of thinking makes us unable to slow down and shift into strategic mode. We jump from task to task in real life just like we are surfing on the internet without thinking much about the importance and impact of our tasks. We seem like getting more and more productive, but the true cost of this always operative mode is hidden from us.
Just think about what’s the point of visiting 100 links without retaining any information? What’s the point of finishing 10-20 tasks a day without them having any impact at all on our life’s progress?
Deep down we feel the guilt of wasting our time, not making progress and locked ourselves into the way things are. And if we ever attempt to break the patterns of how we operate, the distractful forces are pulling us back like gravity is sticking us to the surface of the earth. Stress and the gut feeling that we are paying attention to the wrong things which don’t enrich our lives are good signs that there is a time to make a change.
Without taking the time to define what’s important to us, and prioritizing our possible actions accordingly we are like the driver driving in the fog. We are short-sighted and risk bad decisions as we just see the obstacles in front of us but don’t see the big picture. Our progress will be slow and we won’t fully complete the journey of life we dream about. The fog, the environment we live in will limit what we can do, and we have to find a way to get out of it.
Just how bad can it get?
A wide-ranging study has shown just how important making the right calls in our life are. Even in simple, linear jobs, the effect of a good decision over a bad one could mean a three-fold difference. If we look at complex, scientific, or leadership positions this difference could be as high as 12 times while at the entrepreneurial level it is nearly infinite. So when you see someone who is really successful, you will see a person who took the time to use strategic thinking on a regular basis, invested their time right, and made the right shots.
Now consider some of the skills that go unused as we surf the Web: deep reading and learning, calm, clear, concentrated, and deliberate thinking, deliberate decision-making, single-tasking. These are the skills that will weaken.
The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.
Digital, behavioral additions require new treatment. Turn the tables – using tools and techniques for good purposes.
We have to upgrade our own software and raise our walls of defense to achieve clarity and filter the noise. It all starts with becoming truly self-aware about what is important to us and how we want our life to look like.
Saying no to distractions just for the sake of saying no to distractions isn’t very motivating. Saying no to distractions for the sake of achieving an ambitious goal, on the other hand, is highly motivating.
When you do that, suddenly noise seemingly gets turned down and you will mostly only see the information pieces of the choice of your focus. Things that don’t add to your life will get slowly filtered out and your motivation starts to grow toward the actions you need to take to steer your life in the direction of how you truly want to live.
So here they are, the 5 superpowers of the 21st century revealed:
- The ability to focus
- Strategic thinking
- Disciplined execution
- Empathic listening
The first superpower will be yours if you create the map of your life then stay true to it when the time of decision comes. Without your own map of your core values, roles and aspirations you won’t have the context to decide what should be prioritized. It is very important to shorten the context-decision gap as much as possible to keep out attention derailing elements. If any of you have written new year’s resolutions which then became buried in the drawer you know what I am talking about. You have to be 100% aware of where you want to steer your life to make choices accordingly.
To gain the rewards of the second superpower requires you to focus your resources on a single goal at a time ideally, so you will save yourself from taxing attention switching. Obviously, you still need to take care of other tasks as well, but the more time you can dedicate to your main focus, the faster you will see some results.
The third superpower is attainable by shifting from operative mode into strategic mode before jumping into immediate execution and planning the solution properly. 1 hour invested into planning can save up to 10 hours of execution so it is worth the effort. We need to evaluate potential actions against the context, so we have a better perspective on what action would be the most beneficial for us.
The fourth superpower is disciplined execution. Even the best target with the ultimate plan can’t guarantee the results we want if we fail to execute the plan well. We should have our systems in place to prioritize the tasks in a timely order and make sure they are executed according to the plan and the progress is evaluated often to stay on track and make changes if needed.
The fifth superpower, empathic listening enhances all the others.
It consists of inward and outward listening.
You have to be able to calm the storm of your thoughts to dig deep enough in order to find your core values and goals.
Listening to your inner voice helps you to crystallize what action would make you more fulfilled so you can choose the focus of your attention better.
- Strategic thinking
While you are strategizing it is best to listen to the opinion of well-informed people, your plan might be good but you can still fail because of your blindspots which you can fix with the advice of others who have been to situations similar to yours earlier.
Finally, actively seeking to get feedback and asking the right questions will help you get better over time.
Empathic listening is not just important when you want to make your own aspirations a reality, but when you want to help others, so you won’t be racing to shoot with good advice from the hip but will try to truly understand the situation and give your best to help the other party to progress.
These superpowers can be all immediately yours, if you want them, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to think this way. You just have to slow down, figure out what’s important to you, narrow your focus, go into strategic mode, make the right calls where you spend your available time and stay disciplined during execution.
Just imagine what would happen if we all would pause, take back the control of our lives and once we solved our own problems and got back on track we would unite to solve the bigger problems in our community, society, and on the global scale.
I believe the road ahead is clear. We just have to take the first step… and we can change our world one good decision at a time.
It all starts with you…