We spent December 2019 researching digital habits and atittudes towards technology of 247 knowledge workers in various countries, and will now start sharing our findings.
Unsurprisingly, more than half of those surveyed (57%) felt their relationship with technology could and should be more balanced.
In pursuit of this goal, almost two thirds of us (61%) are yearning to cut down on the time we spend online, having sometimes or often thought about limiting tech time. Four in 10 (40%) reported finding it difficult to stop online activity once they had started. 52% of us find ourselves drawn to our devices and distracted by digital tools when trying to focus on an offline task.
Social media was named as the most popular area people were looking to cut back in the new year, with over half of respondents (56%) aspiring to trim their social media usage.
Unhelpfully, more than 8 out of 10 (83%) of today’s workers sleep in the same room as their phones, and nearly half of us (43%) now often eat in front of a screen, the research reported.
Unhelpfully, more than 8 out of 10 (83%) of today’s workers sleep in the same room as their phones, and nearly half of us (43%) now often eat in front of a screen, the research reported.
A shocking 80% of respondents confessed to using phones, computers and tablets right before going to sleep, with 45% of us having trouble getting a good night sleep.
In contrast, only 4% of us take time to get out in the natural world each day, and just 9% of respondents take time to squeeze in a physical activity each day.
Dr Anastasia Dedyukhina, founder of Consciously Digital, commented: “Our research shows our working generation is becoming increasingly distracted by digital devices, with a worrying number of us suffering sleep problems or finding it hard to focus on the task at hand. While the rising tide of technology in our homes and in our workplaces definitely brings value, it also brings the need for balance – and this research unveils a nation crying out for better online-offline balance.”
The survey revealed an overflow effect of our technological tactics on friends and family. A stomping 67% of us have felt the bite of irritation at loved ones and acquaintances spending too much time with tech. In more extreme cases, one in six (15%) of us are facing regular reminders from friends and family to ditch the digital devices and engage in more face to face time.
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Antonio will spend this St Valentine’s as millions of other UK singles: swiping profiles on a dating app. He has been looking for a serious relationship for over a year now, when he moved to London. Antonio is good looking, hard-working, with pleasant manners and interesting to talk to, and yet got no luck.
Most matches he gets don’t reply to his messages at all, or their conversations die after a few phrase exchanges. Others just keep talking, and ignore his suggestions to meet up in person. To meet just with one girl, Antonio has to send over 100 messages, and do even more swipes. With his busy lifestyle, he finds online dating incredibly time and energy consuming.
Antonio is certainly not the only one feeling disappointed about the amount of time online dating takes from his life. Whether you are looking for love or sex, the return on time invested is quite modest, to say the list. Tinder users swipe through more than 1 billion profiles, but only make 12 million matches per day. I.e. only 1.2% of all swipes end up in matches. You’d have a much bigger chance of success to find a match of you said hi to 100 random people in a pub.
An average Tinder user spends up to 90 minutes a day reviewing their matches. However, only one in 500 swipes leads to a phone number being exchanged, according to Justin McLeod, CEO of dating app Hinge. We have more choice of partners than ever, and yet we end up lonelier than ever before. Instead of humans, it’s our phones we share our most intimate experiences with.
The three whys
One reason is too much choice. In an experiment by Sheen Iyengar, people who were offered too many varieties jams to choose from, preferred not to make any choice and walked away with no purchase. Those who had fewer jams to choose from, were more likely to make a purchase. Similarly, too much online choice leads to the analysis paralysis. Instead of talking to one person, we keeping swiping for more.
Another reason of why we end up spending so much time on dating with limited results is the very design of the dating app. Tinder and co are in the business of keeping you online, and so use various tricks to maximize your time spend on the app. For example, most apps are designed to keep you swiping, not messaging to people (you need to make fewer actions). You have very little reason to talk to one particular person, and not keep swiping. What if the next one is even more amazing than this one?
Most dating apps use the effect of “variable reward”. By endlessly showing you new matches, they make your brain release dopamine, the neurohormone of pleasure and anticipation of the reward.
Apps make it really easy to remove a contact, too. Just click a button, and there’s no person. So we end up objectifying people, and don’t care much about establishing the contact with current matches – they are all equal in our eyes. Researchers found that only 7% of male matches on Tinder would send a message, and only 21% of female ones (the study did not specify sexual orientation).
A vicious circle
Rejection hurts. A few men I interviewed for my book wondered, if there was something wrong with what’s written in the profiles, or with what they look like, that they didn’t get messages. (There was nothing wrong with any of them). Quite a few complained their self-esteem was going down, as a result of using an app, and thinking about removing it.
Another way to cope with this frustration for men is to start swiping even more women right to increase their chances for a response (there is even a program that does it automatically for you). On the contrary, women get even pickier as to whom to swipe or respond. So the vicious circle continues and the real winner in this race for love is the dating app.
What to do
Does this mean you need to give up online dating if you actually want to meet someone? Not necessarily. I’m sure you know as I do quite a few success stories. However, you may want to ask yourself about the return on the time invested in the app, and how many people you could have met in that time if you chose a different way.
If you still have hopes in online dating, being aware of how technology affects your behaviour and setting up yourself rules will help. You may choose to try talking to everyone you match with, get to meet them possibly soon, not spend more than 10 minutes a day or leave the app if you have no result in 1 month.
As to Antonio, he is still online, but now plans to ask his friends to introduce him to a nice girl, in an old-fashioned way. I’ve got his contacts in case you want an intro.
Being “always on” can be overwhelming for your brain and nervous system. These 7 tips will help you “digitally detox” without getting rid of technology altogether.
1.Disable notifications and all sounds on your devices
Why? Notifications remind you to check your device, and the more you receive them, the stronger this habit becomes. Device and app producers know this (there is even a “habit forming” design school!), and so send you as many notifications as they can, no matter how relevant they are, so your behaviour eventually becomes automatic and unconscious.
How it works? By disabling notifications, you start acting consciously, as opposed to allowing your device to decide for you, when to check it.
2.Keep your devices outside of your bedroom and dining table
Why? It will improve your quality of sleep and sexual life, and help you manage your weight.
How it works? Keeping your phone next to your bed puts your brain in the state of alert, as if you left the house door open. Additionally, couples who keep iPads in the bedroom tend to have little to no sex – our brain simply finds the device more pleasurable! So leave your devices to recharge outside of your bedroom.
Similarly, don’t get them out at the dining table: when distracted, you are less likely to pay attention at what you are eating, and remember it. So you end up overeating both at the current and the next meal and gain weight you could’ve easily avoided by not staring at your screen during mealtime.
3.Use blocking apps
Why? If you ever tried to focus on something for 20 minutes while online, you know how hard it is. Simply relying on your willpower to stay focused is not an option, as your brain has already been wired through long-time use of devices to be distracted.
How it works? An app (Moment, Quality Time, Freedom, Antisocial, FocusON) or a browser extension (RescueTime, Stayfocusd, LeechBlock) allows you to block access to all or some websites for a certain time. I personally enjoy Newsfeed Eradicator for Facebook that selectively blocks your newsfeed but leaves access to messenger, so you can still talk to friends.
4.Stop multitasking and put your device out of sight
Why? We can’t multitask well, and by switching between different windows or devices you are teaching your brain to be more distracted. The mere presence of your smartphone, even when it’s off or in your bag, can make you distracted.
How this works? Focus on doing something in one window, and only then switch to the other. Don’t work on several devices unless you must. To concentrate on one thing, best to keep your phone in a separate room or at least not within your reach. Similarly, when done with work, hide your laptop, so you don’t feel tempted to check it.
5.Declutter your smartphone
Why? Every little decision eats our brain energy and will power. This is why Barack Obama or Mark Zuckerberg prefer to wear the same model of clothes every day, eliminating unnecessary decisions. Too many apps mean too much choice, and additional temptation to check something.
How it works? Get rid of all apps you don’t use or that eat your time (Facebook Messenger is on top of my list). Put others in folders, and move them away from the first page, so you need at least 3 clicks or more to reach them. This way, you have more time to think, if you really need to click before you do, and eliminate unnecessary decisions.
Why? We bought into the idea that we need to react fast when online, although often we don’t. 70% of employees respond to emails straight away, whereas only 30% say their boss or colleagues expect them to.
How it works? By delaying your reaction to a stimuli (i.e. incoming email) you are unlearning to be a Pavlov dog. Next time you feel an urge to react, ask yourself, if this is really urgent, and delay checking or replying for 1, 2, 5 minutes etc.
7. Read a book
Why? Deep reading is the best training for staying focused for a long time, which helps to solve problems and take better decisions. It is also the best way to relax that reduces stress levels by 68%.
How it works? If you haven’t read a print book for a while, start with 2-3 pages a day without any interruptions, and gradually increase the number of pages. Get my new book, Homo Distractus: Fight for your choices and identity in the digital age, as a reading manual (it has other useful tips on claiming back your time and attention without giving up your tech).
ESTIMATED READING TIME: 7 MINUTES 45 SECONDS
Think about the last meeting or conference you attended. The speaker was likely talking to herself, while everyone else was busy with their gadgets, and didn’t not even try pretending they were listening. We are so used to this behaviour that started considering it normal. But is it really so innocent?
Founder of Consciously Digital Anastasia Dedyukhina talked about the cost of digital distractions and why an “always on” culture is a problem at the roundtable for senior HR professionals at Rethink! HR Tech summit in London. You can use the discussion summary below to help your employees be more focused and creative.
It turns out, the cost of digital distractions is high. They can result in decreased productivity, poor decision making, lack of creativity, and increased stressed for employees. Some researchers calculated that an average company loses $10,790 per employee every year on digital distractions. Even brief interruptions can eat up to 40% of our productive time, and about 60% of work-related interruptions happen because of technology (incoming emails, notifications etc).
Technology encourages us to multitask, but most humans aren’t good at multitasking, as shown by researchers at Stanford. We don’t actually multitask, but rather switch between different tasks. It takes our brain some time to go back to what we were doing, so every incoming email or notification will decrease your productivity. Researchers say that even the mere presence of a smartphone reduces brain power.
Distractions have also been shown to lead to worse decision-making. When overloaded, our pre-frontal cortex (part of the brain responsible for self-control) stops differentiating relevant information from irrelevant, and we are more prone to make mistakes.
Another side effect of the “always on” culture is the potential lack of creative and innovative ideas. Creativity comes from our brain creating new connections between existing facts. You may have noticed that your best ideas come not in front of the computer, but when you are in the shower or walking, and your brain is “connecting the dots”. However, to do that, it needs time to “digest” information we’ve been feeding into it. By constantly overloading it with new information, we don’t allow this digestion to happen (similarly to what would happen we were constantly eating and not giving the stomach time to digest the food). When we don’t have a “thinking space” where our brain isn’t stimulated, we are less likely to come up with innovative ideas.
Stress and burn-outs is another possible consequence of always being on. Researchers found that a mere expectation of a work-related email outside of working hours can lead to an increase in stress levels. Harvard Business School experiment showed that strategy consultants who could predictably unplug once a week to focus on their project felt better, delivered better product and had better relationships within the team and with the client.
Last but not least, distractions can have a negative effect on the team morale and motivation. When checking our device while another person is speaking, we send them a signal that what they have to say isn’t that important. “I remember one of the young employees being really upset after his presentation. He spent a lot of time preparing it and felt very nervous, but nobody actually listened to him, they were too busy on their smartphones”, shares one HR director.
Given that we have lots of research that shows that digital distractions has a huge cost, why many of us are still behaving the old way? Why is multitasking or replying to emails over the weekends encouraged in many places?
First, it’s tricky to have a one-fit-all solution. All work styles are different. One person wants to work over the weekend or in the evening, because they want to be with kids at daytime, while another asks the HR, what time their work actually finishes. Millennials are connected all the time, while the older generation may choose not to be part of any social network. It’s important to keep the balance and allow people to work the way they’re mostly productive and healthy, rather than establishing rigid regulations for the whole company.
Second, there is just not enough awareness about the real cost of distractions, about how our brain works, and how focus and space are important for good decision making and creativity. Managers often give bad examples by themselves, emailing everyone after working hours. Some of them even think that if an employee responds to an email fast, it means they are productive and loyal, and reward this behaviour. This can set up the culture, where urgent prevails over important, and not all employees, especially young ones, will feel empowered to challenge it. Spreading awareness about the real cost of digital distractions can help with it.
Third, technology can be not only distracting, but also liberating, and many people don’t want to lose the benefits it offers. “I like to be able to take notes on my phone and email them to myself”, says one participant of the round table. How can we know, when instead of helping us, technology becomes a problem? One way to determine this boundary is to ask ourselves: is this particular use of tech making my life easier? Or am I losing time or focus with it?
Fourth, we are not taught to manage people’s expectations and make lots of assumptions about what they want from us. There are way too many channels that we have to manage, and people expect us to be available on all of them, unless we let them clearly know we won’t be available. In the aforementioned Harvard Business School experiment, consultants initially resisted unplugging because they thought the client would be unhappy. It turned out, the client didn’t care as long as he knew when consultants will be contactable again.
How can HR help employees find a balance between being online and offline?
First, leading by example. Start from small things like not cc-ing everyone, to regularly reminding employees that if we as HR are emailing them out of the working hours, they don’t have to. Also, we can try getting senior management on board, so that they can “lead by example”, too. If a CEO can step up and say that the company isn’t expecting employees to be connected 24/7, even if he or she is sending emails on a weekend, this can send a powerful message. Encouraging personal conversations as opposed to emailing is another message a CEO can send to employees. For example, a CEO of one company does every day 8am “porridge” sessions in the buffet, when everyone find him to ask any questions, as opposed to sending emails.
Second, raise awareness about the cost of distractions. You can start by asking employees, how often they think they are disrupted, and whether being able to stay focused would help them do the work better. Helping people understand how brain works and where creativity comes from will help managers accept that a disconnected employee is not a bad employee.
Third, in order to respect everyone’s work style and not to come across as over prescriptive, HR may offer some solutions on how not to distract other people, as opposed to how not to be distracted yourself. For example, one company has set up Thursday as a meeting-free day. Similarly, we can propose specific “disconnected” time periods (i.e. Friday afternoons), or blocking certain hours in their calendar, when employees can choose not to focus just on one thing. During these hours, they can be contacted for truly urgent inquires by phone, or in person, and HR suggests everyone to respect these hours. Merely having this option to disconnect makes an employee more empowered to push back against the boss or colleague when they need space to think.
Encouraging to respect others doesn’t have to be serious. One company, for instance, used a “mobile spa” box with a palm tree near it at meetings, where everyone was asked to put their phones to give the some rest while the owners are working. This helped the meetings be shorter and more productive.
Fourth, HR can organize and facilitate discussions on consolidating all the platforms the company uses with the help of IT department. For example, it’s possible to use API to set it up the way that skype calls will be forwarded to a person’s phone if they are not picking it up, but only before 5.30pm). Employees should be aware of these options that can make their lives easier.
Fifth, we need to encourage the culture that honours flexibility. Great ideas are rarely born in front of the computer. Instead, teams can have walking phoneless meetings outside of the office for 15 minutes, as practiced by one company. HR can propose to set up a “tech-free” area in the office, where people are encouraged not to bring their devices, but just come and think, or chat with others. Offering a few standing desks will also encourage employees to stay more focused (it’s difficult to stand for a long time, and we tend to be more focused when standing).
Whichever solution you go for, they need to be simple, and help reduce the amount of things to manage, as opposed to adding to them.
What is one thing that you as an HR can you do this week to help your employees stay more productive and creative in an age of digital distractions?
ESTIMATED READING TIME – 6 MINUTES
This is an extract from Anastasia Dedyukhina’s new book “Homo distractus: Fight for your choices and identity in the digital age”. We've launched a crowdfunding campaign for it, to get your copy please support us here!
In my teenage days, Russian boys dreamt of becoming oil billionaires, and girls hoped to become oligarch’s wives or lovers (no, there wasn’t much equality back in the days). Twenty years after though, boys and girls in Russia, UK, USA, France, China and pretty much everywhere in the world hope to become billionaires by building and selling a tech start-up.
Tech companies have replaced oil barons not only in teenage dreams, but also in the global markets. Five top businesses by market capitalization are now Silicon Valley enterprises; six of the world's wealthiest 10 people made their money in technology.
Our time and attention is what feeds this growth. It became the main currency of today’s economy.
The new gods
In pre-historic times, humans were constantly short of energy, and so needed to constantly hunt (or gather) to refill it. This consumed most of their time. As civilization progressed and we discovered and started using fire, and then electricity, we were able to gain more energy from food, and consequently, more free time.
We didn’t make a good use of it though. This time and energy is now occupied by very large internet corporations. Technology has become a new kind of religion, and the ultimate goal of these new gods is to keep us online as much as they can.
We check our devices between 85 and 221 times per day, scroll down pre-loaded Facebook and Youtube feeds, buy things online even when don’t need them, and continue to endlessly consume. We can’t concentrate anymore without being interrupted every five minutes by a notification. And even if researchers like Gloria Mark from University of California, Irvine, show that even a short interruption significantly increases the time needed to complete a task and is bad for your productivity, we are increasingly encouraged to be distracted – in the office and outside of it. In fact, we are told that we are being productive and agile by trying to be everything everywhere.
Click and keep
A number of studies by Microsoft, Google and similar companies show that the longer we stay online, the more likely we are to buy something. The more internet pages we browse through, the more advertising an internet company can show us, and so the more money they make.
As a result, their KPIs, their success metrics, and designers’ bonuses, are usually tied to how much time we spend on a website or app, and not on how productive or focused we are. Their objective is to keep us online as long as possible, and to make us click on the ad links as much as possible. And they succeed, if one can call it a success. As per Ofcom report, 49% of Brits admit to spend more time online than originally intended.
In “the click economy”, each click is rewarded by money. And usually it’s Google and Facebook who benefit from a “click economy” the most, since they have the most visitors.
The business models that require people’s attention and clicking on links require a constant flow of new content, which needs to be produced at a top speed. The goal of many popular sites is therefore no longer information, but the attention itself. The quality of this attention doesn’t matter, as long as people click.
Whereas there have been experiments to measure, how engaged and interested in the content visitors are, most advertising is still sold based on cpc (cost per click). Just because it’s the easier for a media planner (a person who decides, how ad dollars or pounds will be spent across different websites) to use one number to compare the costs of buying ads on different websites, even if the audience of these websites is completely different.
This is why both advertisements and article headlines get more extreme and nonsensical. You might have heard of the term “clickbait titles” since these are title that help generate clicks. “You won’t believe what happens next”, or “How one woman made $$$ in her bedroom” or “Your mom will hate this trick” are all examples of attention-grabbing titles that make you want to click, click, and click more.
Music videos, commercials, movies, and reality TV shows look like softcore porn: any kind of attention sells. Youtube star Tyler Oakley in a 4.7 millions views video seats in front of the camera with bottles of beers duct-taped to each of his hands and drinks them for about an hour, giggling. Doing similar gigs, Tyler earns hundreds of thousands pounds and enjoys 8 millions subscribers.
Digital economy feeds through your attention, at the same time putting the quality journalism in a difficult position of competing for the same click pounds or dollar with the most obnoxious websites.
The captivating design
In order to capture human attention, software companies design their products in a specific way. This has been described in detail in Adam Alter’s “Irresistible” and Nir Eyal’s “Hooked” books, as well as in Tristan Harris’s blog.
For instance, a popular game Candy Crush adapts to the time you spend playing: if you play a few minutes every day, tasks are easy. But the more time you spend playing, the more complicated they become. Anna, a client of mine who runs a beauty salon, admits she only managed to stop playing the game when she uninstalled it from her phone.
A pre-loaded newsfeed on Facebook or Youtube is another way to keep a visitor on the website for longer. Notifications are yet another powerful and cheap way to make you come back to your device over and over again. An app will keep sending you notifications, until your habit is formed, and you don’t need further reminders, and your behaviour becomes automatic.
No wonder that companies make it really difficult to change notifications settings. For instance, it takes 6 steps to change your notifications settings on Facebook. One of the key UX design principles says that every action should take a user as few steps as possible – so obviously Facebook isn’t very interested in helping you get rid of notifications.
What can you do?
We might have not noticed it yet, but most of us are already living in the matrix, where our online experiences are pre-engineered, and distracted behaviour is encouraged to keep feeding the machine.
As in the movie, it starts with a realization. A good place to get your red pill is to start measuring, how much time you really spend online across all devices, and how much of this time is productive. I use a free version of Rescuetime browser extension to do that, and there are plenty of others to help.
I often find that my clients underestimate, how much time they spend online, by approximately two hours per day. This is a lot of time. This is one extra month per year you could get for things that matter. Do you complain that you don’t have time to do things that you’d like to? Here’s where your time goes.
If money is a stronger argument for you, you can do a quick calculation, how much distraction is costing you (also check Nielsen Norman’s work on the real costs of “free” online products like Gmail for businesses in distracted attention). For your back of the envelope calculation, simply multiply all the unproductive hours you’ve spent browsing by your hourly rate. This is the real money you’ve spent on being distracted.
This is an extract from Anastasia Dedyukhina’s new book “Homo distractus: Fight for your choices and identity in the digital age”. Please, support our crowdfunding campaign and get your copy here.
Most companies I worked for expected their employees to be accessible by email, skype or phone both during and outside of the working hours. In other words, I had to constantly check my devices to make sure I don't miss anything important. No, it was not investment banking. Moreover, me staying (dis)connected did not have any business impact, apart from my relationships with the employer, who believed that it was a proxy for my dedication to work (or the lack of it).
No wonder that even after I started my own business, I kept anxiously checking emails every fifteen minutes or so. Staying connected and responsive has become my first priority, and it has taken me a long time to unlearn this "skill" and focus on what's making an impact on my bottom line instead.
Does it sound familiar? As technology removed the boundaries between work and private life, most companies use "flexible working policy" to put their employees on a "digital leash", resulting into them working longer hours around the clock. About 47% office workers in the US say the tech increased their working hours, and one in threeemployees feel they are expected to be reachable via phone or email after office hours. Staying connected now defines your career progress.
Not good for business
But does it actually help business? The latest research clearly says: no, it doesn't. In fact, having your employees connected all the time costs your company money and your best people.
First, overwork can lead to all sorts of health problems and an increase in health insurance costs. For instance, UK employees who work the longest hours are also known for taking more health-related leaves than their European colleagues.
Second, when we are constantly connected, we tend to get tired faster as our brain needs to process more information simultaneously. As a result, the pre-frontal cortex stops functioning well, and we are prone to make more mistakes, become worse at managing emotional reactions, and tend to lose the focus on the bigger picture.
Third, staying constantly connected makes us less productive. An experiment conducted by Harvard Business School shows that knowledge workers who had predictable time off were more productive. Another study by Stanford University shows that our productivity falls after a 50-hour work week, and after the 55th hour putting extra hours doesn't add anything.
Productivity also gets impacted if we remain connected while working. Because humans aren't good at multitasking, for instance, when we get distracted by an incoming email, it takes our brain about a minute to go back to what we were doing before, even if we didn't open it! So if you keep your mailing program open and receive at least 60 emails per day, you lose one hour of your productive time daily just because your brain is trying to get adjusted.
What to do
The tech industry was the first one to realize that staying over-connected does not help business. No wonder that Mark Zuckerberg's sister Randi is running digital detox programs, and companies like Basecamp publicly praise on a 4-day work week.
It's time that more businesses learn the lessons from the tech companies and realize that if they want to make their people and business flourish, they need to establish a balance between tech and life. A digital leash might seem like a lucrative way to control your employees, but it is damaging your bottom line.
To learn how your company can facilitate a healthy relationship with technology for your employees, talk to us.
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Dr Anastasia Dedyukhina is a keynote speaker, author of Homo Distractus, professional coach and a pioneer of the Consciously Digital™ concept.