Digital Distraction at Work


Digital distraction is a process.

When we are digitally distracted, our focus on physical attention is moved away from where we had originally intended it to stay focused. When we are wilfully involved in that movement, our attention is moved away by us and the distraction is chosen. Where the distraction is not willed by us, we are “taken” or “lured” away by another point of focus.

In physical interaction – a conversation with another person, a meeting, doing some work together – our eyes, even the position of our entire body, wander away from the person or task we are focusing on.  We might focus on someone who has entered the room. We can also be distracted by a sudden triggered memory and our distraction is in the form of a waking dream, a day dream.

Sometimes physical distractions triggers these inner distractions. Sometimes it is an inner process that lends itself to being physically distracted. Here are a few examples.

Examples of Distraction at Work

A colleague is talking to me about an important work issue. An ex-colleague wanders in and I look away and my curiosity for that my colleague is telling me wanders away and rests upon the ex-colleague. Even as my colleague is talking of the critical root causes of a problem, my inner focus is now on “Hasn’t he put on weight? His clothes suggest he has gone down in the world…”

My attention returns back to my colleague who has turned her head and is now also distracted by my own distraction.

One thing has been interrupted: The original flow.

We resume our conversation. I don’t apologise, pretend I had been listening all along. My colleague colludes with that and I spend the rest of the conversation, nodding, a bit confused, lacking the essential puzzle piece of the conversation that I was distracted away from.

That’s an of a physical distraction triggering an inner “conversation” that also distracts us.

Here’s another example. A similar conversation between two work colleagues. One is facing the window, the other a wall. The one facing the window is the listener. A cyclist breezes by. Then another. Soon hundreds of cyclists are riding past the window all going in the same direction. The listeners eye wander, half-consciously to the window, looking past the speaker. There is no overt, inner conversation, nor even curiosity beyond just looking. Perhaps the fleeting word “Unusual” enters their head. But mostly it is just distraction triggered by something physically seen.Because I’m not really daydreaming or in an intense inner conversation with myself, I still half listen to my colleague, my eyes flitting between her and the window, ensuring I catch the last cyclist or confirm a crazy theory forming (the beginning of the inner day dream) that this line of cyclists might jut last forever!). Physical distractions that persist for more than a few seconds nearly always generate inner distractions, deepening it and worsening the quality of attention and focus on the original object or person being focused on.

A further example: Three colleagues are in a meeting. One is speaking to the other two. One of the other two feels a vibration in his pocket and takes out his smart phone, putting it on the table in front of him. A text has come through. Even as the speaker is addressing him and his colleague. He reads the text and hos focus of attention switches to the content of the text. The voice of the speaker becomes a kind of blurring background noise as he cannot listen properly and read intently at the same time. When he looks up, two things have happened. Firstly he has missed an important chunk of the conversation. Secondly, the text (which was from a boss berating him unfairly) has irritated him and he now is listening to the speaker from an increasingly negative viewpoint. This wasn’t the case when he started listening.  Here a distraction comes from the digital realm and influences the physical interaction.

That isn’t always the case. with physical or digital distractions. They more or less play in terms of influence back into or original quality of focus and attention. Some can transform or degrade that focus. Some can have only the effect of us missing out on some more or less important content. Sometimes we are drawn away,sometimes we allow the distraction, making an instinctive judgement that the distraction is probably “worth it” because our current focus of attention is of less or even no value to us. We “zone out” because we want to.

One final example. In the earlier cases, we return from the distraction, more or less changed. In this example we have three colleagues again who are trying to make an important decision together. They have a question that needs a bit of vital information to answer. Laptops are out on the table with lids down. One colleague fires up her laptop and starts to browse her email for the answer. An important email has also come through that she has been waiting for. She pretends to be struggling to find the information but is really reading that new email. The email is urgently asking her to check the working of a contract about to be sent out for signing to a supplier. She finds the information the group is looking for but her eyes are now constantly distracted by the link she has clicked on opening the contract document. The group now have only half of her attention, right until the end of the meeting, and the group fail to make a proper group decision. She also only half reads the document, missing out on an important sentence that needed to be reworded. Problems arise later…

Authenticity, zoning in and out, and faking

In physical distraction our eyes wander away from the person we are listening to, even as we continue to nod and say “Mm…aha…yes.” We moved away from authentic focus and attention to faked focus and attention. Our apparent attention becomes a little while lie. Subconsciously, the other person can start to lose trust in us. Often our compensatory nodding and start to look exaggerated, a slightly caricatured version of our honest selves. Our “ahas and hmms” can start to sound insincere, automatic and so much bad acting. Some people have become very good actors, even convincing themselves they are really still focused,  others start to lower their expectations over time until they forget what their higher standards of listening once were.

In digital distraction we zone out of our physical surroundings almost entirely and our attention wanders into the digital realm, via a gadget of some kind, which can be as small as a phone and as large as flat screen television the size of a dinner table on a wall somewhere.

Our eyes wander to the hone screen to views the text we have just received, even as we pretend to nod! Often, even when we at work, our distractions are not work-based – a photo sent from a friend, an invitation to a party. Many professionals know how to adjust their settings to switch notification and alerts off. Many still don’t. And many have learned, or believe  they have learned to we allow and welcome distraction with no loss of work quality. This is the view of many people I have spoken to in recent years. Digital distraction is viewed as normal, and even a necessary element of the new skill of multi-tasking. This skill is the ability to be distracted in ways which do not interrupt work flow, and may even enhance it.

So, what’s the impact? What’s the big deal?

I believe the impact of distraction on work remains an open question. It is possible to multi-task and to switch attention quickly and regularly between the physical and the digital. However, having worked in the field of applied improvisation for many years, there are useful insights to be learned from the way improvisers often perform at seemingly impossible, lightning quick pace on stage. Improvisers on stage, in an excellent comedy skit, switch focus all the time. But this switch of focus is nearly always given, not taken. Also focus may switch, but attention is never lost. To improvise well in a group, attention has to be a hundred per cent.

So, what happens if some of that attention AND focus switches to a realm that is not shared by the people in the physical room? Can part of our attention be taken by a digital distraction when the physical social situation we are engaged in is trying to “perform” excellently at work? On stage, the performance is compromised if the performers attention wanders away from the shared task.

We need to be mindful  improvisers

But hold on. On stage, in group improvisation, attention DOES wander, for little pockets of time. We might ask the audience for input. We get ideas from them for a comedy sketch. The audience can even shout out in some sketches “No it didn’t!” and the improvisers change the whole scene! But here the distraction form is known in advance and it is agreed and shared by the entire group. Most digital distraction is still secret and furtively pursued.

We also get ideas in improvisation from our imagination – from our store of ideas and our creative invention. Often two performers are performing improvised comedy, and the third quickly zones out and into their imagination for an idea. It isn’t always necessary to do this. Sometimes the ideas come from each other, from giving each other a hundred per cent focus and trying that the ideas are there in the room. But sometimes, our imaginations distract us, even for a two second day dream and an idea turns into a funny action or sentence on stage. Once again, this is known as part of the improvisation process. There is permission for it. There is trust.

Trust is key

Trust is key to distraction at work. Last year I facilitated meetings for large companies whose culture gave permission to phones to be ON during meetings. The companies used a micro-messaging platform, similar to twitter, used internally, called Yammer. People were encouraged to Yammer to colleagues not in the physical room, and could even feed in Yammer content into the meeting from colleagues not there. The message stream was also projected live onto a wall in the room , for all to see.

Here we had shared, trusted and legitimated distraction. Some used it quite a lot. Others clearly. Several told me they couldn’t fully focus on the meeting in the room AND focus on the “Yammersphere”. It depended on the person concerned. Some of us seem to have this ability more than others. And it could also be that some of us think we do and what is actually occurring is that the person is dividing their attention and performing at lower quality in both the physical and digital realms.

You can learn the skills

Improvisers learn this skill. They practice how to stay focused but also work with distraction. They practice developing rapport and trust. They practice focus and attention as well as switching focus whilst maintaining content flow. I’m increasingly working in the field of digital working using these skills. The workshops are not terrifying “improv” workshops that employees would dread. But they do focus practically on the skills needed to maintain excellent work flow in a context where physical and digital distraction and the need to stay consciously on top of these challenges is business critical.

It could well be that the skills of applied improvisation have something to offer here. It is the ability to conscious manager our physical and digital states in realm time, and to be able to switch between them, allowing them to cross-fertilise each other, without loss of work quality in either realm.

Let’s be even more specific about that skill set with a few examples:

– judging when it is and isn’t appropriate and effective to maintain devices in an “on” state during physical world-based work

– the ability to prioritise different kinds of content and digital “demand” during the working day

– placing digital working in the physical work place, both in terms of location and also time

– developing the ability to multi-task and divide attention and also knowing how to regain total focus when needed

– learning how to interact with live digital content during physical and digital team meetings

– learning how to effectively manage the overlaps and borders between different digital devices and platforms

– learning how to provide feedback and coaching as a manager to staff being digitally distracted in ways that undermine their effectiveness

– developing self-discipline in managing the pull of digital distraction

– exploring and exploiting new possibilities for “proactive” distraction in the digital realm

Currently, employees throughout an organisation, from leader to janitor, security guard to sales agent, manage their digital distraction informally and differently. It certainly impacts on work flow, generates confusion and undermines work quality.  In some cases it brings something new, where multi-taskers skilfully fuse the digital into the physical and vice versa. I’d suggest, at the moment, the impact of digital distraction is largely negative, costly, potentially dangerous, and deserves a lot of further attention.

For more information about applied improvisation, visit my Applied Improvisation Zone.

Contact me for information about workshop in this increasingly important area

About Paul Levy

Paul is a writer, thinker, facilitator, theatre-maker, and conversifier. He is the author of the book, Digital Inferno.

Posted on October 3, 2013, in Key themes. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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