My awakening moment about how smartphones fragment our attention span
Recognizing a problem
Last week at work, a colleague asked if anyone might be interested in participating in the corporate-wide “Read a book a week” challenge, which is an effort to encourage employees to read more. I thought, I should do this. And it got me thinking about something that’s been troubling me for some time now — my attention span seems to be fragmented.
I first started noticing my attention issue when I could no longer make it through fiction books by authors I previously loved. For example, I’ve listened to every book in Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series, and I eagerly await new ones. But when the latest book came out, Better Off Dead, I couldn’t make it past the first few chapters. I thought, oh, it might just be a dud. So I tried listening to the latest book in the Orphan X series, Into the Fire, but couldn’t get into that one either. What about the latest in Mark Greaney’s Gray Man series, One Man Out? Nope, I seemed to time out quickly there too.
Mind you, I had listened to every other book in the Jack Reacher, Orphan X, and Gray Man series — this was my favorite relaxation genre (the action-hero/vigilante fiction). I thought to myself, maybe I’ve outgrown this genre. Maybe I’ve matured a bit. But sadly, I couldn’t get into nonfiction either. Born to Run, Why we sleep, How autonomous vehicles will change the world, A brief history of motion — all started, all unfinished. I eventually canceled my Audible account. I thought, maybe I’m just more into podcasts. But podcasts didn’t provide substantial nourishment in the long-term.
As an alternative to full-length books, I learned about Blinkist, which provides summaries of books instead (typically 15-20 minutes long). I thought, why not, and so started a subscription to Blinkist as a way to get the high-level overviews of books in a quick way. Compressing a book into a chapter is an adept skill. I probably listened to 15 Blinkist books (summaries) before encountering one that got my attention in a serious way: Stolen Focus, by Johann Hari. I decided to get the full audiobook, as well as the Kindle book, and this time I finished the book (sometimes reading, sometimes listening). Hari’s book was the first full-length book I’d completed in a while, and it felt good.
The domain of attention focus
Hari’s book connected with me in a deep way, which is why I was drawn to it, page after page. Hari explains that “wherever my generation gathered, we would lament our lost capacity for concentration. I still read a lot of books, but with each year that passed, it felt more and more like running up a down escalator.” Running up the down escalator describes his waning attention span for long-form content. To overcome distraction and fragmented focus, Hari decides to unplug completely (no smartphone, no internet) and go to Provincetown, a small town on Cape Cod in Massachusetts, for three months to learn how to regain his focus.
Listening to Hari and the descriptions of those in his book, I felt like I’d finally found someone like me, struggling to understand what happened to my ability to focus. Was I permanently rewired by tech and social media? What happened to the college me? I remember one particular week in my college undergraduate days, during a lonely spring break when the other students had gone home. I sat on our dorm couch and read through a whole stack of books (Faulkner, Aristotle, Kafka, Whitman, and more) and savored every minute of it.
Another similar experience — in graduate school, I once had a work-study job as a useless security monitor that allowed me to sit at a desk near a door, reading countless books from the library while “working.” Professors passing by would look at me with jealousy, and one strangely cautioned that I should enjoy this time now because if I ever became an academic, I wouldn’t have as much free time to just read like this.
Could I reclaim that aspect of myself, back when I could be immersed in an author’s train of thought for an extended period of time? Could I reclaim those times when I could enter more of a state of uninterrupted flow? Or was that gone forever?
Awareness about how I’d changed
The more I read Stolen Focus, the more aware I became about how I’d changed. I realized that I was looking at my phone during every spare moment of the day. When I pulled up at a stoplight waiting for the light to change, I would instinctively reach for my phone (mounted on my dash) to check my email (personal + work), check ESPN, look up something on Amazon, etc. While pumping gas in the car, I’d whip out my phone while waiting. Stuck in line somewhere? Time for my phone. Waiting in an elevator? The phone. Riding the train? The phone. Going to the bathroom? Make sure to bring the phone! Eating breakfast? The phone. Any spare or idle moment? The phone.
I didn’t have any unique apps — some news apps, email, feeds, podcasts, music, messages, and more.
Sometimes, I’d occasionally pull out my phone without any particular reason, unlock the screen, and just stare at it dumbly, not sure about which app to open. When I caught myself doing this, I was kind of shocked, but also too desensitized to act. At every spare moment of inattention, I occupied my focus with some info from my phone. Something was wrong.
Hari’s book opened my eyes to the way smartphones are wrecking our ability to focus. If every idle moment of our day gets occupied by the smartphone’s content feeds, social media tidbits, and other news pulling us in, what time do we have for personal thought? For reflection and analysis? For our own directed attention? Very little. The scenario is kind of like this graphic:
Perhaps most frighteningly, if I left my phone somewhere, it would be uncomfortable to be alone with my own thoughts. It was hard to have nothing to look at, to be left alone in my head. What would I think about?
After Stolen Focus (thank goodness I made it through!), I decided to read other books on similar themes. I picked up Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism, which takes a similar focus as Hari’s book but with a different approach. Whereas Hari approaches the distraction issue within the context of personal struggle, Newport (a computer scientist academic) explains that he’s never used Facebook (nor been sucked into other social media), so his approach is that of an outside expert looking in. He grew interested in the topic of distraction after writing his book Deep Work. Apparently, many readers said that social media was making it difficult for them to achieve deep focus. Newport explains, “The urge to check Twitter or refresh Reddit becomes a nervous twitch that shatters uninterrupted time into shards too small to support the presence necessary for an intentional life.”
One of Newport’s key strategies is a thirty day period of declutter, in which you detach from all but absolutely critical apps. Newport says, “The declutter acts as a jarring reset: you come into the process a frazzled maximalist and leave an intentional minimalist.”
By “intentional,” Newport refers to a more guided use of technology that supports your own values and goals. This is the basic philosophy of “Digital Minimalism”:
A philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.
When you use technology intentionally, you draw your own path through sites rather than being pulled by the whims and algorithms of feeds that are designed to suck you in for many more hours than you had planned.
Newport’s book hits on the distraction topic from many interesting angles, exploring the value of solitude, analyzing Henry David Thoreau, offering more concrete tips (like a self-help book), emphasizing virtuous hobbies and human-to-human conversation (over texting), and so on. Because Newport is a computer scientist, he’s not a Luddite who dismisses technology (he has an old iPhone he carries around in his bag) but instead encourages people to develop their own philosophy about how they’ll use technology.
I started to think about my use of Reddit. I’d developed a habit during my evening moments of decompression, where at about 8 or 9pm, when I was mentally exhausted for the day, I’d lay down on my bed and decide to “retire.” This meant cracking open my laptop, setting it on my chest as I was laying horizontally in bed, and often scanning through feeds on Reddit and other sites.
Of course, I’d first start glancing through the /r/technicalwriting subreddit, which seems to cycle through the same newbie questions every few months (but were sometimes entertaining to see). Inevitably, I’d gravitate to the /r/popular subreddit, and then to my favorite subreddit: /r/publicfreakout. I’ve wasted many hours of my life watching videos of people freaking out in public. I’m not sure why; they pull me in through their shock value and absurdity. Public freakouts highlight negativity in entertaining, novel ways, so it’s the perfect recipe for engagement (as I’ll explain later). But it was also the opposite of “intentional” technology use — rather than defining my own path through the internet, in my decompression times I let myself be pulled this way and that.
I knew these were time-wasting sites, but I didn’t realize that scrolling through short-form content like this could actually disrupt my attention span so deeply that I wouldn’t be able to sustain my concentration on books anymore. I didn’t realize that I was training my brain to glance and skim, reading only a few sentences or watching a short clip before shifting focus to the next snippet. I thought, I’m just spending some time in the “escape quadrant,” it’s fine.
But this type of information consumption (scanning feeds, jumping from link to link) became a pattern on other sites as well — news sites such as nytimes.com, or Google News, Feedly, Slack, ESPN, and more. The pattern is the same: scan down the page until a headline jumps at you, read a bit to get the gist of the article, then return to the feed and keep skimming and scanning.
The fragmentation of my focus affected my work productivity as well. A recent project at work (documenting a new API) seemed to take me several weeks longer than I anticipated. Each day I felt like I was doing a lot, but I just wasn’t making progress. I didn’t seem to have the ability to shut off the noise of the world and focus on the task at hand. Whenever I’d start work, my brain would say, let’s check our email. I need to find a better Spotify album. Which teams are playing tonight on TV? Are there any discounted computers on Craigslist? Let me do something else. Anything but focus deeply and immersively in this project. I’d developed a rabbit brain.
When I would respond to chats, emails, news, and interact in meetings throughout the day, these little activities filled the time while not allowing me to make much actual progress in the documentation. They would trick me into thinking I was accomplishing something without truly accomplishing anything.
Stop reading the news
In my reading about the attention economy, I also started reading Stop Reading the News, by Rolf Dobelli, and realized that news itself (the staple of social media feeds anyway) might not be worth reading much. Whereas Hari and Newport focus more on trivial, short-form content that users skim as they scroll infinitely along social media sites (from Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, etc.), Dobelli gets more into the substance of news itself (or lack of substance). News focuses on everything that’s terrible or attention-getting in the world and lays it on you, story after story.
Dobelli explains that his constant reading of news feeds, headlines, and other snippets wrecked his long-form focus. He said that even though the news wasn’t helping him understand the world better, he couldn’t break himself from news streams. He writes:
Yet I still felt inexorably drawn to the overwhelming, garish parade of news, even though it was clearly making me anxious. Fragments of news reports were constantly intruding into my reality, and I was suddenly finding it difficult to read longer texts in one go. It was as though somebody had carved up my attention into tiny pieces. I started to panic that I’d never be able to recover my attention span, that I’d never again be able to assemble these fragments into a whole. (p 10)
It’s not just that news feeds are full of short content, training us to skim quickly through it. The problem is that news itself focuses on content that taps into our negativity bias. The news’ focus exploits our psychological vulnerability to pay extra attention to bad things happening around us. (News is actually a double whammy that combines our negativity bias, a preference for the negative, with our novelty bias, an inclination to seek out what’s new.)
Presenting us with negativity achieves what news organizations so desperately need to stay afloat: our attention. Just as we slow down to see a car crash on the freeway, our built-in negativity bias makes us focus much more on alarming events. Feed algorithms optimize around the most read content, so if we’re drawn to the negative, it’s a downward spiral. The negativity bias is a topic Hari also touches on in his book, explaining:
The algorithm [that determines what you see in your news/Facebook/Instagram/YouTube feeds] is neutral about the question of whether it wants you to be calm or angry. That’s not its concern. It only cares about one thing: Will you keep scrolling? Unfortunately, there’s a quirk of human behavior. On average, we will stare at something negative and outrageous for a lot longer than we will stare at something positive and calm. You will stare at a car crash longer than you will stare at a person handing out flowers by the side of the road, even though the flowers will give you a lot more pleasure than the mangled bodies in a crash. Scientists have been proving this effect in different contexts for a long time—if they showed you a photo of a crowd, and some of the people in it were happy, and some angry, you would instinctively pick out the angry faces first. Even ten-week-old babies respond differently to angry faces. This has been known about in psychology for years and is based on a broad body of evidence. It’s called “negativity bias.”
A study by the Pew Research Center found that if you fill your Facebook posts with “indignant disagreement,” you’ll double your likes and shares. So an algorithm that prioritizes keeping you glued to the screen will—unintentionally but inevitably—prioritize outraging and angering you. If it’s more enraging, it’s more engaging.
If enough people are spending enough of their time being angered, that starts to change the culture. As Tristan [Harris] told me, it “turns hate into a habit.” You can see this seeping into the bones of our society.
If the majority of your company’s revenue comes through advertising (as is the case with news organizations and big tech), to maximize the revenue, you’ll need to get more of the user’s viewing time and more clicks on those ads. That increased engagement/stickiness/addiction will most easily be achieved through negative and outrageous content, as Hari describes. The car crash alongside the freeway attracts attention, not the wildflowers.
This is the crux of the whole problem of driving your revenue through advertising. To maximize profits, you need to maximize content engagement. And what kind of content engages users most? Content that enrages you, content that shocks you, content that’s absurd, content that’s grotesque, content that’s weird, or funny, content that exposes the horrible, content focusing on terrible events, threatening policies, etc. This content is shared 6x more widely than stories that don’t enrage/outrage/upset you. Think back to Trump’s campaign. His tweeting of the most outrageous statements ensured his visibility. People couldn’t stop talking about him. It’s almost as if the attention economy is destined to make the worst, most outrageous candidates/events/news surface to the top.
What is the mental consequence of all this focus on the negative, streaming from news? Dobelli says that the negativity of news depresses us, but more alarmingly, teaches us learned helplessness. Quoting a British media researcher, Dobelli writes, “When we tune into the news, we are constantly confronted with unresolved problems and the narrative does not inspire much hope that they will ever be solved.” Dobelli then adds, “It’s no surprise, then, that we feel depressed when we consume the news, which confronts us with the problems that are mostly impossible to solve.”
As we’re confronted with impossible-to-solve problems, Dobelli says we come to accept an attitude that we can’t do anything to change them. Dobelli explains, “Learned helplessness spills over into every area of our lives. Once the news has made us passive, we tend to behave passively towards our family and our jobs as well — precisely where we do have room for manoeuvre” (p.93).
I wasn’t sure if I’d adopted an attitude of learned helplessness, but consuming news all day was not uplifting. When I looked at sites like ESPN, which I thought were mostly keeping me up to date with sports, I saw that the focus frequently highlighted the negative. The Ben Simmons saga. Lebron’s decline and disappointments about the Lakers playoff hopes. The struggling Brooklyn Nets and Kyrie’s stubbornness about not getting vaxed. The inanity of Covid policies and who can play. Donciv’s 16+ tech fouls. Ejections and fouls — did this foul merit a level 2 flagrant assessment? Watch here.
ESPN’s most popular analyst is Steven A. Smith. Smith’s entire TV persona is all about getting riled up because that gets the audience riled up. And what gets the audienced riled up gets views, and those views not only drive more returns to ESPN but also pull people into watching the games as well. (For a funny video parodying how worked up Steven A. Smith and other commentators get, making even the trivial into high-stakes arguments, see the SNL skit ESPN’s First Take, in which the news host tells Steven A. that despite the early morning, “you already sound like you’ve been hit by a bulldozer of cocaine.” )
Unsurprisingly, when I stopped checking ESPN, I also stopped watching a lot of NBA games.
Distraction from ourselves
From Hari I learned about James Williams, an ex-Googler who wrote a book on the attention: Stand Out of Our Light: Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy. Hari says Williams “has become the most important philosopher of attention in the western world.” This praise, combined with Williams once being a Googler, motivated me to read his book. Williams gets more into the theoretical foundations of distraction, noting that through deep distraction, social media starts to change who we fundamentally are.
Williams describes three types of lights: spotlight (our focus on current tasks), starlight (our focus on goals), and daylight (our sense of values, aspirations, and being). When social media starts changing our daylight, our sense of who we are and how we perceive the world (e.g., making us angry, upset, polarized, filled with learned helplessness, or reduced will), that’s when social media transitions from a trivial time-waster to an amoral tool for manipulation. When the attention economy reprograms our sense of self, that’s when things become really disturbing.
I started wondering if social media had changed me. Did I crave comments, likes, and other social validation for every blog post, every tweet, every online interaction through Slack or Linkedin or Reddit? Were these triggers moving me to care about things that I wouldn’t normally care about?
One question, perhaps the most damning question of all, described by Hari, is one Williams asks to a room full of designers: “How many of you want to live in the world you are designing?” No one raised their hand. As someone who works in tech, this question hurts more than others. Had I spent my entire career working for tech companies whose end result was to create a less desirable world?
I often think back to a time before the internet, before smartphones saturated all aspects of life, and think back on those times nostalgically. Wouldn’t it be great to live without carrying a smartphone around everywhere, I thought? Wouldn’t it be cool to go back to the early 2000s when my wife and I first got matching flip phones (so that we could communicate with each other while apartment hunting in New York City)? Practically every notification on those flip phones was from each other, not from apps. Those were the days! Life seemed so much calmer, breathable, enjoyable.
Hari cites one study finding that, apparently, we now touch our smartphones 2,000 times throughout the day. Holy smokes! I thought of my smartphone’s pop-socket (a must for wielding phones with massive screens), its finger sensor on the back, and how I would casually play with the pop socket or finger sensor almost unconsciously. It wasn’t enough for the smartphone to offer camera + GPS + phone + alarm + email, it had now also become a fidget toy to satisfy my heightened tension.
Was this the strategy of smartphone makers all along, to give the smartphone enough killer features and apps to make it indispensable, so that we would carry it around wherever we went? So that we would feel incomplete, offline, and out-of-touch without it? Only by making it indispensable could they ensure that we always carried this object around in our pockets, and that we pulled it out (at the prompt of notifications) to stare at whatever ads or messaging they wanted to promote.
Time for change
As I read through these books, it didn’t take long before I sensed alarm and decided to put in a plan of action to at least recapture my attention span and return to more long-form reading. I decided that I needed to make a change. My first thought was, let me ditch my smartphone! But then I toned that back a bit, not sure how I would get by without some things (Audible? Google Maps? A camera? My work calendar? Hotspots?). Instead, I figured I’d try dumbing down my smartphone first.
I uninstalled my news apps (NYTimes, Seattle Times, ESPN). I turned off all notifications (except for texts and calls from my family). I removed the Gmail notifier extension from my browser (so I wouldn’t be notified with each new email). I turned off all notifications from Google Chat. I removed my work email. I unsubscribed from virtually every newsletter. I installed the Minimalist Phone app, which converts your phone’s UI into a list of text labels instead of attractive buttons.
I took out my credit cards and driver’s license from my phone’s built-in case so they wouldn’t seem inseparable from my phone. I tried leaving my phone in my bag more (rather than always carrying it in my pocket). I also didn’t spend much time reading news from my laptop, and would only occasionally check sports news and scores on ESPN. I installed Freedom.to and blocked Reddit permanently. When I wanted to listen to audio books, I used my Kindle to play them on my bluetooth airpods.
Finding peace of mind
Within the next few days of simplifying my phone, I started to feel more peace of mind. I realized that, among all the baby steps I’d taken, turning off the notifications (hitting that “Do Not Disturb” button) and keeping my phone in my bag were the biggest game changers. Being notified throughout the day of every little incoming tidbit of news, email, chat, or other information was exhausting.
I realized that, even without notifications, simply reaching for my phone, opening it, and receiving some incoming information (news, social feeds, email, alerts, etc) had been presenting me with information that I needed to process. Most of the time, the information was trivial, but doing this all day long, at every spare moment, builds up the level of cognitive demand and expends more processing bandwidth. For example, reading through work emails in the evening, even if I didn’t respond, would often require some mental energy and processing power. Multiply those moments of information processing throughout the day, and it’s no wonder smartphones overwhelm us with information. We become the “frazzled maximalist,” as Newport says, with uninterrupted time shattered “into shards too small to support the presence necessary for an intentional life.”
By shutting off notifications and feeds, I found that I had more mental energy in the evenings. Instead of feeling exhausted at 8 or 9pm, I had more gas in the tank now, it seemed. And whereas previously I’d wake up sometimes at 4am for seemingly no reason at all, now I started sleeping more through the night. (I’ve never suffered from anxiety, but perhaps this firehose of incoming information, especially the news, might have been smoldering on the backburner of my mind.) Most interestingly, I seemed to simply have more time — time to read.
Most of these authors say that our brains aren’t wired to take in this much information each day. The constant information intake from incessantly glancing at our smartphones forces us to constantly multitask while also demanding more context-switching, more decision-making, more figuring out what to do with the information. Like constantly filing a huge mountain of random papers each day. It’s exhausting.
In Why the modern world is bad for your brain, Daniel Levitin explains:
… lots of multitasking requires decision-making: Do I answer this text message or ignore it? How do I respond to this? How do I file this email? Do I continue what I’m working on now or take a break? It turns out that decision-making is also very hard on your neural resources and that little decisions appear to take up as much energy as big ones. One of the first things we lose is impulse control. This rapidly spirals into a depleted state in which, after making lots of insignificant decisions, we can end up making truly bad decisions about something important.
Every incoming bit of information requires you to make a decision about it, removing you from your present focus. This is why carrying a smartphone around in your pocket all day, which ensures you’ll interact regularly with it, might be the dumbest decision we’ve ever made. This constant information consumption and processing taxes our bandwidth, so that we’re spent by early evening.
Even just looking at your phone apparently distracts you. In Having Your Smartphone Nearby Takes a Toll on Your Thinking, several researchers write:
Our research suggests that, in a way, the mere presence of our smartphones is like the sound of our names — they are constantly calling to us, exerting a gravitational pull on our attention. If you have ever felt a “phantom buzz” you inherently know this. Attempts to block or resist this pull takes a toll by impairing our cognitive abilities. In a poignant twist, then, this means that when we are successful at resisting the urge to attend to our smartphones, we may actually be undermining our own cognitive performance.
In other words, even if you resolve to leave your smartphone in your pocket and not check it, the willpower needed to resist the urge to check your phone also begins to drain you. And if you’ve left notifications on, the pull to respond to the notification buzz (and see what the incoming message is) is nearly impossible.
At the very least, by putting your phone into “Do not disturb” mode and leaving it in your bag (out of sight), you greatly increase your chances of being able to focus.
I’m early in my journey away from smartphones, news, and the firehose of information. I still have a smartphone, though I’m planning to ditch it soon. (I keep it in a bag, like a ghost locked in a trap.) The more I read about the attention economy, the more I see my smartphone as a cancer, something just waiting to metastasize. I long to get rid of it. I actually ordered a basic phone and am just waiting for it to arrive.
Some other challenges I’m still figuring out, like how to navigate a city without Google Maps. I bought a handful of paper maps and found myself looking at the area, trying to grok the logic of the streets and analyzing the area’s layout seemingly for the first time. All those little micro-navigation directions from Google Maps allowed me to avoid understanding the logic of streets (which run east-west) versus avenues (which run north-south), and other landmarks. I’m trying to reclaim my sense of spatial awareness, my sense of location about where I am without my smartphone.
I’m also now navigating other challenges, like how to deal with the cognitive dissonance of working for big tech. I like the idea, argued by Hari, Williams, and Newport, that we need to be aware of technology’s designs and ensure that tech is working for us rather than against us. Surely, I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to technical innovations.
And given that I read or listened to four books in the span of about two weeks, I believe there’s hope for me. Perhaps the attention fragmentation issue isn’t a one-way road we’ve traveled down, unable to turn around.
I’m still in the awakening phase, but I’m excited about the initial results. Honestly, I’m most excited by the possibility of reclaiming myself. As Newport and others have said, it’s not about sacrificing your smartphone, as if you’re giving up some big element in your life. It’s about what you’re getting. I’m starting to see glimpses of my old self return. I’m starting to think at stop lights again! In the elevator, I’m not reaching for something to distract me. I am beginning to recapture my focus and self, and it’s invigorating.
Continue on to my next post in this series: My initial rules and reasons for intentional smart phone use.
6/25/2022 note: This post was discussed on Hackernews. See the conversation thread there for lively comments.
Dobelli, Rolf. Stop Reading the News: A Manifesto for a Happier, Calmer and Wiser Life. Hachette UK, 2020.
Duke, Kristen, et al. “Having Your Smartphone Nearby Takes a Toll on Your Thinking.” Harvard Business Review (2018).
Hari, Johann. Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention–and How to Think Deeply Again. Crown, 2022.
Levitin, Daniel J. Why the modern world is bad for your brain. The Guardian 18 (2015).
Newport, Cal. Digital Minimalism: Choosing a focused life in a noisy world. Penguin, 2019.
Williams, James. Stand Out of Our Light: Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy. Cambridge University Press, 2018.
Continue to the next post in this series: My initial rules and reasons for intentional smart phone use.
About Tom Johnson
I'm a technical writer / API doc specialist based in the Seattle area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture, writing techniques, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out simplifying complexity and API documentation for some deep dives into these topics. If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the field, be sure to subscribe to email updates. You can also learn more about me or contact me.