The curious case of Digital Distraction and Unproductivity – The Month That Was


COVID-19 did what the best of businesses couldn't. It put digital transformation in motion at a rate so rapid, it didn’t account for the time needed to settle in with the new order. And just like that, we took the leap of faith with technology for remote working, remote learning and remote doing. Over 5 weeks into lockdown (& counting!), it is leading to more digital distraction and unproductivity than ever – across businesses, geographies and generations!

Speaking of the latter, virtual learning for 1stgraders isn’t as great as it sounds in theory. First day of remote learningthrough a virtual conference tool for my 6-year old looked something like this:

1.Arrange laptop for the kid. *Fight ensues between me and the hubby on who sacrifices ‘their’device*2.After much coordination with other parents over phone andWhatsApp, log in to the virtual classroom successfully.3.Get your patience tested as children (read: parents) join theclassroom over the next 15-20 minutes!4.Explain to your child that his teacher is inside the laptop(yes,that’s the only way!) and this is his new classroom.5.Train a young, curious mind to focus on the teacher whileavoiding distractions (like seeing his friends after almost 2 months!).

It’s crazy, tosay the least! But, sadly, it’s only the tip of the iceberg!

In the first of a series of ‘Growing Up Digital Australia’ reports, the Gonski Institute at the University of NSW has warned that ‘digital technology has become a growing distraction from learning and that students are less able to focus on educational tasks.’ Out of the 1876 teachers, principals and school support staff from Government, Catholic and Independent schools surveyed, a 59% decline was observed in students' readiness to learn with 84% saying that digital technologies were a growing distraction in the learning environment.

The stats areno different (or better) for adults!

Like allanimals, we evolved to switch attention instantly when we sense danger: the snapping twig that might signal an approachingpredator, the shadow that could indicate an enemy behind a tree. Ourgoal-directed, or top-down, mental activities stand little chance against thesebottom-up forces of novelty and saliency — stimuli that are unexpected, suddenor dramatic, or that evoke memories of important experiences. And tapping intothese bottom-up stimuli are our digital devices that draw our attention away fromour goals (read: distract), through buzzes, vibrations, flashes of light etc.

While we arenot new to the digital landscape, the sudden permeation of it all – in allspheres of our lives – work (virtualconferences, instant messengers for remote communication and collaboration, dependenceon Cloud for everything), play(streaming services and social media), children(virtual learning, YouTube and gaming), householdwork (apps for groceries, veggies, dairy and other essentials) – is jarringand throwing productivity out of gear.

Rescue Time, which provides time management advice and tools, noted that out of the 10 hours employees spend sitting at their screens each day, half of those are on chat messaging apps like Slack, Teams and Workplace. On an average, information workers spend 3 minutes on any single task before being interrupted or switching to another, according to a Microsoft study shared with Recode, which used wearable sensors and computer-tracking software. Multitaskers can experience a 40% decrease in productivity, according to Microsoft.

It’s a Digital Deluge, as per Psychology Today’s ‘Why Am I Stressed and Anxious All the Time?’. “There’s a stunning amount of messaging coming at us on an average day and we’re constantly consuming digital information. It’s actually cognitively overwhelming and people are confused”, it reads.

Adding to the digital overload is a sense of loss — of freedom, of loved ones and a lack of safety which is breeding fearful founders, stressed housewives, self-quarantined employees, and bored children by the truckload!

Labdhi Shah, Counselling Psychologist at Mind Route, says that we are currently caught in a loop of“unproductive anxiety”. The absence of treatment, ambiguity, and too muchnegative news are all fueling anxiety and stress, confusion and anger, all ofwhich are exacerbated by fear of infection, having limited access to suppliesof necessities, inadequate information or the experience of economic loss orstigma.

According to Ginger, 88% of workers reported experiencing moderate to extremestress over the past 4 to 6 weeks. Among thosereporting stress, 62% noted losing atleast 1 hour a day in productivity and 32% lost at least 2 hours a day due toCOVID-19–related stress.

TheProductivity Pill

The most basic definition of workplace productivity is spending more time on the right work. Acknowledging that productivity will be hampered, because a significant amount of time and mind space are being devoted to keeping yourself and your loved ones safe, in communicating and coordinating with your team over tech-enabled communication channels vs. in-person, the amount of distractions – digital and physical – you will be battling through your workday, is the first step toward reclaiming your productivity. The second is to get our act together to stay safe and SANE with the below productivity hacks for addressing digital distraction.

1.Embrace Intermittent Digitizing

IntermittentFasting, an eating pattern where you cycle between periods of eating andfasting for weight loss, fat loss, and a reduction in the risk of some diseases,is big in the fitness circles these days. But why just your food, you can putyour digital consumption on a diet too.

Take this onestep ahead with a no-phone zone. This forces you to put your phone physicallyout of sight (and hence out of mind).

2.Allow for binge time

FOMO is real, which is why deprivation to a dopamine-producing activity will only lead to withdrawal symptoms. Instead, setting a designated time for binging your heart out on streaming services/social media gives you the joy while controlling the time spent mindlessly.

3.Delete that news app!

Not just isthat ping from every news distracting, during today’s pandemic times, it’sdistressing and demotivating as well. An unnecessary stressor we can easilylive without!

4.Change Notification settings

Do you reallyneed that notification informing you of your 1st-degree Connection's activitywhile you are trying to crank out a critical task at hand? Be it LinkedIn,WhatsApp or mail, review all notifications and keep them to a minimum.

5.PracticeEmotional Hygiene

We spend a lot of time worrying aboutour physical health, but we sometimes neglect our mind in the process. Tomaintain good mental health, you can practice "emotional hygiene" bybeing aware of your emotions, avoiding negative talk, practicing affirmations,meditation etc. and reaching out for help, when needed.

“Are yougoing to mop the house or do the dishes”, asks my hubby in a voice loudenough for the neighbors to enjoy the conversation.

“Umm. Iwill do the dishes while cooking”, I answer while typing out this blogpost, replying to a team mate’s IM and checking notificationon myLinkedIn – all at the same time. 

Digital (and physical) distraction andunproductivity – what’s that?!

‘The monththat was’ is a monthly column covering the hot and the happening in theeLearning, L&D and learning technology space presented in a light,easy-to-digest format. While the aim of these posts is to keep the HR and theLearning & Development fraternity abreast with the latest news and views,it is a vent out for the author, Pranjalee Lahri, who deals with aone-and-a-half men pair – her hubby and her 6-year old son – as she moonlightsas a wife and a mother.

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