The feed-based design of our tech is changing how we think—and making us miserable. Is reclaiming our focus possible?
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Struggling to focus is one of the defining and yet most mundane challenges of our time. Trying not to check your email while you’re on deadline, or follow the steps of a recipe while you’re keeping up with a family text chain, or finishing the book you’ve been trying to read without reaching for your phone, are as quotidian as eating or breathing.
So it can be hard to appreciate how much the chronic inability to focus is rooted in the design of our communication technology, and how much a constant state of distraction can take us away from living our lives and keep us feeling an ever-present, low-grade anxiety.
Struggling to focus is not a new problem. As far back as the 1200s, Vincent of Beauvais, a Dominican friar, complained that, “The multitude of books, the shortness of time, and the slipperiness of memory do not allow all things which are written to be equally retained in the mind.” Each time a new medium is invented—the radio, the television, video games, cell phones—there’s a fear it will take people away from loftier pursuits.
But the last 15 years have felt particularly intense. That is not a coincidence: In 2006, Facebook introduced the News Feed to the world. And according to an op-ed from the New York Times, “The News Feed’s launch had a seismic impact on the internet both in the short term… and in the long term by fundamentally changing the social media landscape and experience.”
That’s because the News Feed didn’t just change Facebook, it was emulated across the web. Now, it seems like every app we use—not just social apps like TikTok or Instagram, but career apps like LinkedIn, music streaming apps like Spotify, payment apps like Venmo, and team chat tools like Slack—present us with live, updated feeds of what our family, friends, old work colleagues, college roommates, etc. are working on, listening to, reimbursing for, and so on. Referring to how email and team chat tools like Slack have upended workplace communication, computer scientist and writer Cal Newport coined the phrase the “hyperactive hive mind.” He describes how the ability to communicate at work at all times compels people to feel the need to check in constantly, which leads to decisions being made “on the fly” in “ad hoc unstructured back and forth messages.”
Design choices in communication technology have changed how we socialize, how we work, how we stay informed, how we are entertained, and perhaps most disturbingly, how we think. Like runners on a treadmill, we try to keep up with a pace that on some level feels unsustainable, without taking a moment to think whether it’s worth our time. An accelerating pace of life is one of the themes of modernity, but it feels in this era that our day-to-day rhythms have become irrevocably altered. We exist in a “What did I miss?”, anxious frenzy of checking in, and it’s dominating every part of our lives. This includes the hustle economy, where we feel we need to constantly interrupt ourselves while we’re working to seek out more opportunities, promote ourselves, and network, lest we get left behind. It includes the way we stay informed, because even reputable news sources write headlines designed to hook us by provoking fear, anger, or surprise. It even includes our relationships, where many of us feel some obligation to keep tabs on distant friends and family on social media yet wouldn’t text or call them personally.
Ironically, because our minds are so wired to respond and react, we barely have the brain space to envision how we might re-engineer our tech spaces. (Not to mention that when these conversations do happen, they take place in the overstimulating, highly emotional environment of social media.)
The design of social media and other apps is not accidental; it’s what the attention economy incentivizes. As the 2020 documentary The Social Dilemma so powerfully demonstrated, social media was engineered to appeal to human’s more primitive impulses, addicting users by flooding us with information that’s novel, or that angers us, or gives us pleasure, until we’re so outraged or anxious or overstimulated that we ultimately start to feel helpless. And we’re so increasingly inured by this that we’re losing touch with the possibility that it doesn’t have to be this way.
This difficulty has been compounded by the pandemic. When we’re uncertain about the future our primitive stress response is activated, according to Amy Arnsten, a professor of neuroscience and psychology at Yale University. That shuts down our prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for focus, or “motivated, guided behavior.”
We are more compelled to check the news because “the potential value of this information that you’re not paying attention to could be very high,” says Thomas Hill, professor of psychology and co-director of Global Research Priority in Behaviour, Brain & Society at the University of Warwick. For example, if you’re a parent in a school district that’s debating masking, you’re probably jumping at any email alert you get, in the event it’s related.
But even so, the way information is distributed, and the addictive nature of our platforms creates an anxiety that prevents us from relaxing, focusing, and ultimately, from thinking freely. When we’re unable to focus—which is defined as paying full attention to something, or a state of clarity—we feel more burned out, less creative, and we think less independently. Humans are naturally inclined to seek out a sense of belonging, and social media gives us this feeling, at least in the short term. While this can have true benefits for social connectedness, more time spent in these spaces makes us more likely to conform to group norms and adapt our behavior to what garners approval. If during every free moment we’re checking in to see what others are doing, we are never alone with our thoughts. This is a problem, because alone time is when we can truly focus and think deeply, independently, and creatively. “Being alone allows you to drop your ‘social guard,’ thus giving you the freedom to be introspective, to think for yourself,” says psychiatrist Abigail Brenner. In group settings, people tend to suppress their own instincts in order to preserve social belonging, which can lead to holding back beneficial information, insights, and dissent, Cass Sunstein, currently a Harvard Law School professor, writes in Conformity: The Power of Social Influences,
In his first book on the issue of focus and technology, 2016’s best-selling Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Newport argues that the ability to cultivate focus will become an increasingly sought-after skill as it becomes rarer. Although the reality is, in day-to-day life, we’re rewarded for being responsive, even if that’s taking us away from the kind of deep thinking that helps us solve problems. If I respond to an email from a client right away, even though I would be better served working on the draft of an article, the client’s happy, but I just chipped away at my attention.
Because this is a systemic problem, there is no quick fix, but there are steps an individual can take. The first thing is to solidify a reliable system that helps you capture stray thoughts that come to mind, like a to-do list app or a notebook. This is important because our brains can handle only around three to seven pieces of information at a time. If we are thinking about picking up library books, and making a doctor’s appointment, and cleaning our refrigerator, all while trying to write an article, and checking in regularly with our email and the news, our brain will quickly get overwhelmed.
Try also to section your day into times where you focus on a certain type of task, which is known as time blocking, and leave distracting tech like email and Slack closed so not to get distracted. Practicing meditation, among other benefits, helps you become more mindful of what you choose to focus on at a given time. And limit time spent on social media. In his book Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, Newport recommends scheduling social media time in discrete time blocks, rather than letting it become unstructured time.
But you don’t have to do this alone. Groups like Center for Humane Technology convene regular sessions about social media and mental health, and making changes to design and policy to create healthier tech. Group social media detoxes are becoming more common, even (or especially) among Generation Z. Maddie Freeman, a student at University of Colorado, Boulder, started No Social Media November, a challenge to delete social media apps for one month at a high school in her home school district in Littleton, Colorado. Last year—the first for the event—most of the roughly 100 participants opted to do the full challenge of deleting all social media apps in the first year of the challenge.
People emailed telling Freeman the detox had changed their lives. That November was the best month of her own life, she says. With her newfound time, she could focus on physical activities and developed routines like a bedtime meditation ritual. Some participants permanently deleted social media, not wanting to give away their time. “It was a weight lifted off of all of our shoulders. It felt like a task we didn’t need to do anymore,” Freeman says. This year’s challenge will be significantly expanded, with Freeman teaming up to promote it with The Social Dilemma director Jeff Orlowski and funding and support from LookUp, a nonprofit dedicated to changing the digital media landscape, particularly for young people.
The subreddit r/NoSurf is a community for people who support one another’s efforts to disconnect from tech like TikTok, Instagram, and Facebook. (Users are very self-aware. One post recently read: “I know the irony of posting this here but… how do you quit reddit??” called attention to.) And an app maker called My Focus Labs is investigating the emotional underpinnings of focus. Their premise, based on psychological research, is that people turn to or are susceptible to distraction when they encounter emotional barriers, like being anxious or bored. The company’s app intervenes when it detects these emotional responses by monitoring smartphone behavior in its users. The user is then prompted to do an exercise that helps them work through their complicated feelings, which can be behavioral or psychological. A recent study of the app, which its makers hope to release in the next few months, found participants improved their focus by 20.5% compared to a control group that didn’t use the app over two weeks. CEO Yair Nativ emphasizes that it’s a small and preliminary study but believes the results are promising. “We want to help people fulfill their full potential,” says Nativ. “And the focus is really where motivation comes from.”
Many of these strategies have helped me, but the reality is, trying to preserve your focus in our digital environment is like swimming upstream—it takes lots of work. Our dominant communications technology do not support or encourage it. In the long term, if we care about focus, we need to redesign our tech tools and take some control back from Silicon Valley CEOs.
But on a smaller, personal level, focus is fundamental to our well-being. It allows us to attend to the tasks and relationships that most benefit us. It helps us stay grounded. And it feels better: Opposite of the unfocused state is the “flow state,” which describes the experience of being completely involved in an activity, which is often enjoyable and energizing. Even if we can’t yet change our digital environments, we can decide how much we want to engage with them. It may feel like a modest focus, but if enough people push back on the attention economy, it could lead to big change.
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