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1.1 My awakening moment about how smartphones fragment our attention span

Last updated: Apr 10, 2022
The constant inflow of information from my smartphone, always readily available in my pocket to capture any free moment of attention, had fragmented my attention span.

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Recognizing a problem

At work, near the beginning of the year, a colleague asked if anyone might be interested in participating in a corporate-wide “Read a book a week” challenge. 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 upcoming 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 also timed out quickly there.

Previously, I had listened to every other book in the Jack Reacher, Orphan X, and Gray Man series—this was my favorite relaxation genre (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 summaries before encountering one that caught 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 explained 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. Hari also watched his godson become utterly addicted to his smartphone. To overcome distraction and fragmented focus (for both himself and his godson), Hari decided 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 had happened to my 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, reading quietly on a sofa while everyone else had gone home for the week.

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.

I wondered, 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 lost forever?

Awareness of how I’d changed

The more I read Stolen Focus, the more aware I became of how I’d changed. I realized that I was looking at my phone 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 a line somewhere? Time for my phone. Waiting in an elevator? The phone. Riding the train? The phone. Going to the bathroom? Don’t forget your phone! Eating breakfast? The phone. Any spare or idle moments? 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 which app to open. When I caught myself doing this, I was kind of shocked, but also too desensitized to act. In every spare moment of inattention, I occupied my focus with my phone’s information. 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 was occupied by the smartphone’s content feeds, social media tidbits, and other news pulling us in, what time did we have for personal thought? For reflection and analysis? For our own directed attention? Very little.

Distraction versus clarity -- the effect of smartphones on information overload and attention fragmentation
Distraction versus clarity -- the effect of smartphones on information overload and attention fragmentation

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 to 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. Many readers said that social media was making it difficult for them to concentrate. “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,” Newport explains, summarizing their feedback.

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,” which he defines as follows:

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. Newport is a computer scientist, not a Luddite who dismisses technology (he has an old iPhone he carries around in his bag). Rather than encouraging people to abandon smartphones, Newport encourages people to develop their own philosophy about how they’ll intentionally use technology to support their goals.

I started to think about my use of Reddit. I’d developed a habit during my evening moments of decompression. 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 opening my laptop, setting it on my chest as I was lying horizontally in bed, and often scanning through feeds on Reddit and other sites.

Because I’m a technical writer, I’d first start glancing through the /r/technicalwriting subreddit, which seemed to cycle through the same tech-writer 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’d wasted many hours of my life watching videos of people freaking out in public. I wasn’t sure why I watched the videos. They pulled me in through their shock value and absurdity. Public freakouts highlight negativity in entertaining, novel ways. But it was also the opposite of “intentional” technology use—rather than defining my own path through the internet, during times of decompression, 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. The pattern was 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. 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 started work, my brain would say, Let’s check email. Find a good Spotify album. Let’s see 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.

In the process of responding to chats, emails, news, and attending meetings, I filled time without making much progress on the documentation. They would trick me into thinking I was completing something without actually 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 scan quickly. The problem is that news itself focuses on content that taps into our negativity bias. This 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 more likely to focus 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, to maximize revenue, you need more user 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, he says.

This is the crux of the whole problem of driving revenue through advertising. To maximize profits, you need to maximize content engagement. And what kind of content engages users the 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 the 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. (93)

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” (93).

I wasn’t sure if I had 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 realized that the focus frequently highlighted the negative. The Ben Simmons saga. Lebron’s decline and disappointment about the Lakers playoff hopes. The struggling Brooklyn Nets and Kyrie’s stubbornness about not getting vaxed. The absurdity of COVID policies and who can play. Donciv’s 16+ tech fouls. Ejections—did this foul merit a level 2 flagrant assessment? Watch here.

ESPN’s most popular analyst was Steven A. Smith. Smith’s entire TV persona was all about getting riled up because that gets the audience riled up. And what got the audience riled up generated views, which not only drove more returns to ESPN but also pulled people into watching the games as well. (For a funny video parodying Steven A., see the SNL skit “ESPN’s First Take.” 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 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.” 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 (for example, making us angry, upset, polarized, filled with learned helplessness, or reduced will), that’s when social media transitions from being a trivial time-waster to being an amoral tool for manipulation. When the attention economy reprograms our sense of self, it’s 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 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 worked in tech, this question haunted me 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 thought back to a time before the internet, before smartphones saturated all aspects of life. I looked 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 originated from each other, not from apps. Those were the days! Life seemed so much calmer, breathable, and enjoyable.

Hari cites one study finding that we now touch our smartphones 2,000 times throughout the day. 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? The cyber-skeptic answer seemed clear: 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 a change

After reading these books, I sensed alarm and decided to at least re-establish my attention span and go back to longer-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 of 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).

I took out my credit cards and 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 on my laptop, and would only occasionally check sports news and scores on ESPN. I installed 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 small 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. However, doing this all day long, at every spare moment, built up the level of cognitive demand and expended more processing bandwidth. For example, reading through work emails in the evening, even if I didn’t respond, would 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. And whereas previously I’d wake up sometimes at 4am for seemingly no reason at all, now I started sleeping more through the night. Most interestingly, I just seemed to have more time to read.

The constant information intake from incessantly glancing at our smartphones forces us to multitask while also demanding more context-switching, more decision-making, more figuring out what to do with the information. Like constantly sorting and filing a huge mountain of random papers each day, it’s exhausting. Our brains probably aren’t wired to take in this much information each day. 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,” the researchers write:

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, responding to the buzz (and seeing what the incoming message is) is nearly impossible.

At the very least, I found that by putting my phone into “Do not disturb” mode and leaving it in my bag (out of sight), I greatly increased my chances of being able to focus.

I was still early on my journey away from smartphones, news, and the firehose of information. I still had a smartphone, but I longed to ditch it. (I kept it in a bag, like a ghost locked in a trap.) The more I read about the attention economy, the more I saw my smartphone as a cancer, something just waiting to metastasize. I longed to get rid of it. One day, I finally decided to order a basic phone on eBay.

As I waited for it to arrive, I started preparing. How would I navigate a city without Google Maps? I bought a handful of paper maps and tried to grok the logic of the streets, absorbing the layout of the area seemingly for the first time. All those micro-navigation directions from Google Maps had allowed me to avoid understanding the logic of streets (which run east-west) versus avenues (which run north-south), and other landmarks. As I studied the map, I tried to reclaim my sense of spatial awareness, my sense of location about where I was without my smartphone.

I anticipated navigating other challenges, like how to deal with the cognitive dissonance of working for big tech. Could someone who worked for big tech use a flip phone? Yet I liked 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. I didn’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to technical innovations, but I grew increasingly skeptical that my smartphone was working for me.

Though still in the awakening phase, and still waiting for my basic phone to arrive, I was excited about the initial results. Specifically, I was most excited about 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 significant element in your life. It’s about what you’re getting. I started to see glimpses of my old self return. I started to think at stoplights again! In the elevator, I stopped reaching for something to distract me. I began to think again for myself. I started finishing books.

6/25/2022 note: This post was discussed on Hackernews. See the conversation thread there for lively comments.

About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.

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