Avoiding Digital Distraction

One Christmas, some friends and I had planned a getaway to another city. It was a much anticipated holiday, and I was looking forward to spending quality time with people who are important to me.

So why I was I sabotaging that very plan?

One night we were all out for dinner at a great restaurant, and I pulled out my phone to check Facebook – just quickly, I told myself. And when I looked up from the newsfeed on my phone, I realised I wasn’t alone. Or rather, in some ways, I was. Every single one of us was looking down at our glowing screens.

That was the a-ha moment for me.

I spend so little time, proportionately, engaged in meaningful interactions with the people I care about most, and here I was squandering a prime opportunity, and setting a tone for others to do the same. I was ‘checking out’ by checking online.

What was I doing? Why was I choosing distraction? 

Dealing with the digital ‘tidal wave’ of distraction

Half of all respondents to the Digital Lifestyle Information Survey 2011 said that they are online ‘from the moment I wake up until I go to bed’. They described the stream of digital information coming at them with metaphors like ‘a roaring river’ or ‘a massive tidal wave’. A third say they check emails in the middle of the night, and 40% acknowledge that because of their online habits, ‘I ignore family and friends’.

Sherry Turkle, in her book Alone Together, says –

“We’ve come to confuse continual connectivity with making real connections… We’re ‘always on’ to everyone.When you actually look more closely, in some ways we’ve lost the time for conversations that count.”


Being deliberate about avoiding distraction

None of us consciously want to abandon a meaningful personal connection for a superficial digital update. Yet we do it. So why is that, and what can we do to change our habits?

1. Recognise and acknowledge the pull 

You are likely addicted, to a certain degree, to your online channels and devices. The neural paths of stimulation and reward that come from new information, notifications and affirmations, whether in the form of email requests for help or likes on instagram, are real. (If that sounds like an overstatement, check out ‘The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains’ by Nicholas Carr, or ‘Hamlet’s Blackberry’ by William Powers.)

Own that, and decide what to do with it.

2. Determine your priorities

There’s a question I’ve started asking myself a lot to try to manage this – ‘What is most important in this moment?’

It could be:

– Monitoring and responding to urgent emails

– Touching base with a friend through social media

– Connecting with the person at the table with you

– Listening and reflecting in a speech or large meeting

– Being inspired by a great vista or concert or experience

– Taking time to slow your mind and refocus


All of these, and many others, may be the most important thing at different times. But only one can be most important in any given scenario.

3. Set boundaries

So we can recognise that without deliberate effort, we will lean in the direction of checking your online devices even when it undermines what we really feel is most important in a given situation. This recognition give us the freedom then, to decide to set some boundaries that empower us to live in a way that serves what we believe is most important to us.

These need to be principles that serve you and the realities of your life – it’s not about rules that everyone else should follow.

One example might be leaving your phone in your bag or pocket (with sound and vibrate switched off) when you meet up with a friend or loved one for a coffee or meal (especially since we know that even just the presence of a phone at the table can reduce feelings of intimacy).

4. Monitor and Realign

Take notice of the effects of your experiments on your level of digital distractedness?

What positive effects is it having?

Are your boundaries working for you?

In what situations or what states of mind do you find it most difficult to stick to them?

What tweaks might you need to make?

And most importantly – is this helping you live more deliberately in a way that honours what is most important to you?


Question: What is one experiment you could try this week to manage your digital connectedness in a way that serves what is most important to you in a given moment?