Who’s Your Real Boss?

This article is part of our special issue “Connected State of Mind,” which explores the impact of tech use on our behavior and relationships. View the complete issue here.

If you work in a typical office, there’s an overwhelming chance that your answer to the question, “Who’s Your Real Boss?” is your smartphone. You probably won’t even finish this article without checking your phone at least once.

Yet, most people agree that being distracted while focusing on a task is annoying. We are living and working in a state of continuous partial attention and we are slowly beginning to see the effects. As Andrew Sullivan writes, “We all understand the joys of our always-wired world—the connections, the validations, the laughs…the info…but we are only beginning to get our minds around the costs, if we are even prepared to accept that there are costs.”

What are those costs? Below, we explore the science of digital distraction and its consequences, examining five costs and providing ideas on how to minimize them. But before we dive in, take a moment to answer the following questions. We’ll return to them at the end.

  1. How many times do you think you click, tap, and swipe the screen of your phone each day?
  2. How long does it take to refocus on a task after being interrupted?
  3. How happy are you when using the apps you use the most?

Costs of Digital Distraction

“Please take that call somewhere else!”

Since the phone lost its cord, office workers are all too familiar with how distracting it can be to overhear someone else’s phone conversation. An explanation for this annoyance can be found in a theory of how the human brain works.

Predictive coding, simply put, states that the human brain is a “prediction machine.” Your brain is constantly trying to figure out what’s going to happen next. When exposed to one half of a dialogue, the brain spontaneously attempts to predict the other half. Researchers have found that listening to a “halfalogue” is much more distracting than listening to two people having a full conversation. In this case, the somewhat counterintuitive conclusion is that less noise is more distracting.

Since the adoption of smartphones, avoiding “halfalogues” has become increasingly difficult. But this is only the tip of the iceberg. The phone’s liberation from its cord—and its replacement with a powerful processor—has birthed an entire industry aiming to hijack as much of your attention as possible.

Thousands of experts vs. you

In The Attention Economy, Thomas Davenport and John Beck claim that “In today’s information flooded world the scarcest resource is people’s attention… [U]nless companies learn to capture, manage and keep it, they’ll fall behind.”

Look at your smartphone. If you’re reading this article on a desktop or laptop, it’s probably placed somewhere right in front of you or nestled away in your pocket. Don’t unlock it. Just look at it. What do you see?

You should see a small, rectangular piece of metal with a glass screen containing components like a battery, a camera lens, and some advanced, electrical circuitry. But this, most likely, isn’t what you really see when you look at your phone on a daily basis.

The concept of affordances from the psychology of visual perception states that when processing visual information, we perceive the object itself—its shape, size, color—and the ways in which the object can be used. What you see when you look at your phone, then, are things like the news you don’t want to miss, messages or posts from friends and family, and e-mails from your boss.

In short, what you perceive are possibilities. The more your smartphone can do, the more affordances you perceive. This means that just the mere presence of your smartphone in your visual field can interfere with your attention.

Keep your phone in your pocket

Adrian Ward and colleagues at the University of Chicago randomly assigned 520 smartphone users into three groups. The first group was instructed to leave most of their belongings in the lobby but to bring their phone with them into the lab, placing it screen down “for use in a later study.” The second group brought all their belongings into the lab and were asked to keep their phone wherever they “naturally” would (52.3 percent kept it in their pockets and 47.7 percent kept it in their bags). The third group left all their belongings in the lobby outside the testing room.

The participants were then asked to complete a series of tests of their working memory capacity and fluid intelligence (i.e., IQ). The results showed that the first group, who placed their phones on the desk in front of them, performed significantly worse in both types of tests.

The researchers also asked the participants about their own experience via a questionnaire. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, across all conditions most participants (75.9 percent) denied that the location of their phone had an impact on their performance.

This study shows that placing your smartphone in your field of vision potentially reduces your IQ (yes, really) without you even being aware of it. But what are the costs once you pick that phone in front of you to check something?

The costs of being interrupted

According to Gloria Mark, a digital distraction researcher at the University of California, it takes about 23 minutes and 15 seconds to fully refocus on a task after being distracted, depending on the complexity of the task.

So, those 30 seconds you afford yourself to check a Facebook notification or a new email don’t amount to a mere 30 seconds of distraction. The reality is they add up to over 20 minutes of distracted thinking.

But, of course, no one checks their phone once for 30 seconds. Actually, an average smartphone user clicks, taps and swipes 2,617 times (145 minutes) per day!  With heavy users that number jumps to 5,427 times (225 minutes) per day. As James Williams, a former Google employee notes, “If you get distracted by the same thing in the same way every day, it adds up to a distracted week, distracted months.”

Moreover, research has shown that younger adults switch tasks 27 times per hour, or once every two minutes, while older adults switch 17 times per hour, or once every three to four minutes.

“Fine,” you might think, “but what if I enjoy the time spent on my phone”? Some research suggests that you don’t.

James Williams, together with Tristan Harris, another former Google employee, asked 200,000 iPhone users about the apps on their phones. For the purpose of this discussion, the most important finding was that the more time an app demands, the less happy we are using it.

Establishing “attentional hygiene”

Managing distractions and attention is not just a question of productivity. By reducing the number of distractions in your daily work routine you’ll experience less stress and greater focus on demanding tasks.

Luckily, knowledge about human behavior that designers are using to capture attention can also help both employers and employees design a workspace that minimizes constant interruptions.

How can you establish good “attention hygiene?” As behavioral designers at /KL.7—designing with the intention of helping people make better decisions for themselves—we recommend these strategies:

  • Dedicate space in the office where talking on the phone is/isn’t allowed.
  • Don’t place your phone on the desk in front of you.
  • Confront your own optimism and perform an audit of your smartphone use (e.g., Quality Time for Android and Moment for IOS). If it’s too much, reduce the number of affordances by deleting apps and thereby making your smartphone “dumber.”
  • Install an app or a program that actively blocks specific apps or websites at specific time periods (e.g., Freedom).

These are just a few of numerous ways in which you can take control of your attention and minimize distraction.

Continuous distraction makes perfect sense

Consider the three questions we asked at the beginning of the article. Was it difficult to come up with answers to them? And how many times have your checked your phone while reading?

From a behavioral science perspective, it makes perfect sense that we don’t know exactly how often and for how long we get distracted. We are not in complete control of our own attention and most of the time we are not even aware that we are not in control.

In the battle for attention, we are fighting an army of experts—and they’re winning. Our best chance to fight back is by making changes to the battlefield itself (i.e., our workspace) that minimizes potential distractions, increases focus, and allows us (or our human boss) to take control of the office once again.

Further Reading & Resources

  • Ward, A. F., Duke, K., Gneezy, A., & Bos, M. W. (2017). Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity. Journal of the Association for Consumer Research2(2), 140-154. (Link)
  • Gazzaley, A., & Rosen, L. D. (2016). The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World. MIT Press. (Link)
  • Emberson, L. L., Lupyan, G., Goldstein, M. H., & Spivey, M. J. (2010). Overheard cell-phone conversations: When less speech is more distracting. Psychological science21(10), 1383-1388. (Link)
  • Gallagher, B. (2017, September 21). Modern Media Is a DoS Attack on Your Free Will - Nautilus. (Link)
  • Davies, J. (2017, October 02). Why Facebook Is the Junk Food of Socializing - Nautilus. (Link)
  • Crockett, M. (2017, October 30). How Social Media Makes Us Angry All the Time - BigThink. (Link)