Turn on tune out

Web-bourne distractions doing more to your head than just wasting your day.

For months, the public instant messaging service Twitter has been up and down like a yo-yo. And every time the service falters, the blogs and bulletin boards of the Internet lambast the company for its shoddy, but entirely free-of-charge, service.

The howls of outrage that echo round the technology blogs imply that Twitter is an essential tool. Yet, the core question that the service asks when you log in is: "What are you doing?" You could be eating, on a bus, possibly working. But it's unlikely that the message will have much to do with what you are supposed to be doing.

Then you have Facebook. From its roots as a networking tool for students and recent graduates, the site has become one of the top destinations for adults to stay in touch, displacing tools such as email and instant messaging. Some estimates have put the amount of time spent by adults on Facebook as high as 90 minutes per day. The Web application topped a list that IT managers said they wanted banned, according to Internet-filter provider Blue Coat Systems.

For its part, Email Systems identified the video-sharing YouTube as one of the most popular targets for at-work bans. More than half of its customers said they blocked YouTube during work hours in a survey carried out last year.

Despite the draw of distractions such as Facebook and YouTube, people complain of email overload. A heavily cc:ed email on some obscure policy is nowhere near as much fun as watching someone build fountains from Mentos and coke.

Keep in touch

What makes distractions so mind-numbing? Consultant Linda Stone dubs the condition "continuous partial attention", a consequence of the human desire to stay in touch. And the Internet has delivered the ability to keep contact in spades.

Speaking at the recent DLD conference in Germany, she said: "Our world is noisy and we use everything to keep on top. Every blog post, every person passing by may just give us the next opportunity. We multitask to create more opportunities for ourselves. We use continuous partial attention to scan for opportunities. We want to be a live node on the network."

There is a cost to all this partial attention. The stress that results from trying to do many things at once makes us anxious.

"We have more attention and stress-related diseases than ever before because we cannot switch these devices off," says Stone. "Over-stimulation and a lack of fulfilment are the shadow side of continuous partial attention."

Research by scientists such as Professor Amy Arnsten shows that exposure to even quite mild uncontrollable stress impairs thought processes in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that deals with complex thought. "This may have survival value when we are in danger, but is often detrimental in the information age when we depend on prefrontal cortex functions to steer us through massive interference."

The answer to the problem is get rid of the interference. It should come as no surprise that methods for improving productivity, such as the Getting Things Done techniques promoted by self-styled self-help guru David Allen, concern themselves with getting rid of stress-inducing distractions. At the core of it all is the idea of writing things down so that you can clear them from your head. If you don't write them down in some sort of list, they will clutter up your mind while you try to achieve something important.

Partial attention

Stone is an optimist when it comes to dealing with the world of continuous partial attention that has created a market in tools to help us focus. She believes that most of us will learn to focus as we get used to the many communication tools now at our disposal.

"We have been in the age of continuous partial attention for the last 20 years. We are now moving into the age of uni-focus. The first signs are starting to show up but, by 2014, we will be in the prime of this transition," Stone claims.

For Stone, 'uni-focus' is the ability to concentrate and bring attention onto one thing at a time, blocking out the potential distractions. "The world may continue to be noisy but our fulfilment will come from getting to the bottom of things."

What is unclear is whether this will all happen naturally - that office workers will find the off button on the BlackBerry and set aside time for Facebook - or whether people will have to start getting training on how to pay attention.

One thing is for sure, there will be plenty of people selling services to help make it happen.

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