Do you find it hard to focus? Do you struggle with procrastination, feeling overwhelmed, or forgetfulness? Do you often find yourself frustrated after diving down an internet loophole only to find that hours have passed with nothing to show? You’re not alone.
Over the last few years, digitization has drastically shaped our world and the way we live and work. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way many of us have unknowingly created poor digital habits with our devices – leaving many of us constantly distracted.
With our devices always within reach, being able to focus now means fighting off all the other tasks, tweets, buzzes, messages, alerts, and people vying for your attention. Technology has many benefits – but the reality is that it has also left many of us mindlessly scrolling, switching between dozens of tabs, and struggling to focus and sustain our attention long enough to complete the task at hand.
That’s where Brian Solis comes in.
Brian Solis is a world-leading digital anthropologist and futurist, keynote speaker, and author of eight bestselling books. Brian studies the impact of disruptive technologies on business, as well as its impact on society and has been called “one of the greatest digital analysts of our time.”
His latest book, Lifescale: How to Live a More Creative, Productive, and Happy Life, walks readers through his personal journey to understand, work through, and solve the challenge of his own digital distractions in order to restore his focus, creativity, and happiness.
Lifescale delves into the tech industry’s persuasive design techniques that got us addicted in the first place, and then offers a framework and step-by-step guidelines for assessing our values and rearranging our priorities so that we can achieve greater productivity, heightened creativity, and balance in our lives.
With Lifescale, it’s less about throwing away your phone and becoming a Luddite and more about learning to get the most out of technology without allowing it to dominate our lives.
So with this in mind, we decided to sit down with Brian this week to learn a little more about his work with distraction and how we might better manage our digital technologies in a way that allows us to be happier, healthier, and more productive.
Firstly, what started it all for you? When did you realize that your relationship with technology was something that needed to be examined, monitored, and even actively sculpted?
There are two answers here. The first is that as a digital analyst I have long studied social media, mobile devices and advised many of the well-known players in this space. There were several occasions early on where I questioned the design impact of the tech innovations that were coming along.
However, at the same time, as a user of these same technologies I didn’t connect the dots to the impact they were having on my performance and my thinking. I knew deep down that my behaviors weren’t helping, but I always felt if it was really a problem then I would recognize it and be able to control it. Instead, the truth was that I would find an excuse every time to ‘justify’ my need to hit all the apps and networks that were at the root of my problem.
It wasn’t until I had a deep crisis when I couldn’t finish the proposal for my eighth book that I had to start taking this issue much more seriously. At that point, so much was on the line, and it wasn’t okay.
Looking back, the problems were there long before I noticed them and it wasn’t okay that I let it get that far. So I have a lot of empathy and understanding for people facing these struggles. We don’t have as much control over technology as we believe. We tell ourselves we’re okay, when we’re not.
Can you briefly define lifescaling and explain what made you write Lifescale.
I’ll answer the second part first. What I learned was that my ability to get deep and stay deep, which is often what’s referred to as ‘flow,’ and to produce something I was passionate about, had completely misfired. It just didn’t work the way it used to.
So when I was unable to complete the proposal to my eighth book, a sequel to X: The Experience When Business Meets Design, I had to do some soul-searching. It sucks to fail and I had noticed an increasing pattern in my work. Research reports required more significant editing than before. I was even more prone to making mistakes in texts and emails, everything essentially. I would absolutely have something I wanted to say in my mind, but couldn’t express it with any depth. I began researching my problem and only found limited, superficial solutions. So, I decided to put my original proposal aside and spent a year researching and developing the book that became Lifescale.
So, to define lifescaling—I really want to emphasize that this book and this process of lifescaling is about a lot more than just getting more work done. It’s about exploring what’s most important to us, rediscovering our core values or even discovering them for the first time. We’re on a journey to move beyond looking good to strangers on Facebook, to living more genuine, productive and joyful lives, pursuing goals that really matter to us.
Our work and careers are a big part of that, but so are family and friends, and by that I mean real friends, not strangers who retweet us. And so is bringing back the creativity we all had as children. So much of our lives are about pushing that aside and I’m a big believer that making time for creative endeavors brings joy back to every aspect of our lives. Lifescaling is about productivity, creativity, defining our core values and living by those values.
What piece of research regarding distraction and technology have you found most astounding?
In 2016, I came upon an essay by Tristan Harris called “How Technology Hijacks People’s Minds—from a Magician and Google’s Design Ethicist.” And that really seemed to get directly to the heart of the matter and became the entry point into the rabbit hole in which I would spend the next year dedicated to researching distraction. This also became the basis of two massive keynote speeches on the dark side of technology, including one at South by Southwest.
At the same time I also started calling my friends in Silicon Valley to get inside stories that were, at that time, difficult to find, though they’re gradually becoming more commonplace. What I found most interesting in this research is the notion that many people realize that we are too involved with technology, but don’t do anything about it.
What are some of the ways in which you can see distraction take its toll?
One big side effect of all this tech-based distraction is a compulsion to multitask. I was surprised to learn just how many negative aspects of multitasking there are. First, let’s cut through one big illusion—it does not increase our productivity. It actually cuts it by about 40%.
It’s also been discovered that people who multitask do not pay attention, memorize, or manage their tasks as well as those who focus on one thing at a time. Studies have found that jumping between tasks and giving in to interruptions makes you forget important details, both in the moment and as you continue to work.
Multitasking even lowers IQ scores and diminishes our capacity to feel. Researchers from the University of Sussex used MRI scans to compare the brains of multitaskers and normal people and found that multitaskers had less brain density in gray matter, specifically the anterior cingulate cortex, the area of our brains responsible for empathy. So multitasking probably reduces E.Q. as well as I.Q. scores.
Finally, overall, I just see a decrease in true creativity because real creativity takes focus, which we’ve lost, and all the apps out there make it easy for us to think we’re being creative when all we’re doing is using a filter to make a selfie look more ‘artistic.’
What would you say to someone who believes it’s their poor self-control that is causing them to lose so much of their time to distractions?
I really like this quote, “We didn’t lose the ability to focus. It was programmed out of us.”
So, yes, I guess self-control is a factor, but, like with any bad behavior, there’s an original source that leads us on a new path. Research shows this. And experts like Tristan and his team at The Center for Humane Technology – which he cofounded in 2013—have shown that this effort to distract us and even get us addicted to games, social media and other tech-based platforms was an intentional strategy. Addiction was programmed into us.
I’ll add that, like any codependent relationship, self-control isn’t a black-and-white choice between right or wrong, good or bad. I learned firsthand that it’s an uphill battle. I realized that simply telling myself to not access these things – to simply try harder – wouldn’t work. It takes a truly elite individual who can work their way through this issue without help. That’s why I wrote the book. Lifescale represents my effort to develop a realistic solution to these issues.
How has your tech use changed since writing Lifescale? What are some of the new limits or boundaries you’ve created?
This is where I have to be completely open and honest because, for me, Lifescale was life-changing. It’s the book that I needed to write for myself. And, just because the book is finished, the journey is definitely not over. My journey or the reader’s journey. If we’re going to continue to use technology in our daily lives, we need a more mindful, intentional and purposeful approach.
I went from writing this book that recounts my journey through digital addiction to launching and promoting it, a process that, to be completely effective, requires that I use social media and other digital platforms. The irony isn’t lost on me—I intentionally threw myself back in that fire. So I take a copy of Lifescale with me everywhere I go as a resource to help keep me balanced, to remind myself when I’m using digital technology for a constructive purpose and when I’m getting sidetracked by tech.
What has a healthier, more sustainable relationship with technology allowed you to do? Or, what is the biggest improvement you saw after intentionally sculpting your relationship with technology?
Certainly, it has unlocked a newfound passion for creativity but also a new means to express and explore creativity. Specifically, as I promote the book, I’m now playing with more creative forms of how to share the Lifescale journey beyond my comfort zone, which up until now was books, blogs, articles and research-based reports. Now, I’m immersing myself in the visual arts and audio expression, including videos, podcasts and animated GIFs. I’ve been using technology to understand how to be original and engaging in ways that are truly me. And this openness to new forms of expression continues to expand.
On another level, I’ve also expanded my network of creative professionals who surround me, creative people who help me with new and emerging technology and collaborate with me to explore productivity in partnership with tech.
What is one small shift that you have made about the way you spend your time that had the largest impact on your quality of life?
This is important, I think. A lot of us are realizing that we have a problem with tech-based distraction and we’re looking for easy techniques and solutions. While I’m all for hacks and techniques that help us focus, they’re not a complete fix. The real solution to our digital malaise involves reflection, spending time cutting through all the things we’re doing, the ineffective ways we’re spending our time, and getting back to our core values, life purpose and a vision of what, for each of us, is a definition of what happiness and success in a modern era looks like. Too many of us are basing our lives on goals set down by our parents and their parents.
Not only do we have access to new and powerful technologies, we also have access to profound insights to humanity and ourselves. It’s time to rethink all these pillars of life itself, to use technology in ways that advance society and our own vision for what’s possible. And this is the source for true innovation which is so needed today and beyond.
So I guess the answer is that I’ve made a big shift, redefining priorities and values, rather than a small one. However, once you do the hard work to identify core values, other practices fall into place more easily. It’s harder to waste time when our values are always front and center.
What tools have you found most useful in helping you create new boundaries with distraction?
A big thing for me is headphones and speakers and curated playlists tailored to the type of work I’m doing. If I’m trying to write something that is motivational and I need to transcend that. When I’m working on research or pieces that require critical thinking, I choose soft classical.
I’ll list three other techniques, one of which also involves music.
First, certainly, Freedom has allowed me to filter out distractions when I really need to focus on demand. It’s one of the most complete, thorough solutions for distraction and it resolves a lot of distraction-based issues that other apps don’t address.
A more “old-school” technique I use is the Pomodoro Technique, named for the tomato-shaped Pomodoro kitchen timer. It’s a brilliant hack for focusing in on essential tasks for short, predetermined periods of time and demands that we shut out phones, email, coworkers and other distractions during those manageable periods. Basically you choose one task, set the Pomodoro for 25 minutes, focus exclusively on that one task and then take a five-minute break when the timer rings. It’s harder than it sounds because if you check your phone or give in to any other distraction during those 25 minutes, you have to start over.
I call my music-based hack The Vinyl technique. I came up with this one myself. At my lowest point with distraction, even the Pomodoro technique was too much of a challenge. With Pomodoro, I logged attempts at staying true to the 25-minute focus bursts and failed miserably at the beginning. It was also key to how important the entire topic is. Can you actually stay focused consistently on one project for 25 minute bursts? My ultimate goal was to hit what’s referred to as 52/7 in my book. My first attempt at the 25-minute test hit 3 minutes before I reached for my phone (without a notification!) It was muscle memory! It felt like I couldn’t learn how to break my bad habits to get far enough to then learn how to unlearn and learn and train myself to get to a deeper state to find my flow.
So, ultimately it took a hack of the Pomodoro technique to work. I had to hack the hack! I called it the vinyl spin. Each album can play for about 22 minutes on each side. So, it was less time, but increased the incentive to focus. I would pull a record, evoke all the sensations…
Smell (old musty amazing); Sound, of course the sound of the record playing, but the first part, was the sound the paper, the sleeve, the crinkling, the slide out of the sheath, etc. The crackling of the needle before anything begins…then the end…the constant pop until you stop it, and; Touch (every step of the process) including touching the needle and placing it down on the vinyl.
There was a sense of urgency to focus before the end of the playing side. I think this is a funky approach. It helped me learn enough to focus long enough to kick ass in those bursts.
What are some of your biggest distractions and how did you combat them?
Some of this was covered in my last answer. At my worst, I couldn’t go three minutes without checking my phone, even when it wasn’t sending a notification. Destructive muscle memory had taken over!
Another difficult thing I had to do was to literally put everything away, to teach myself what it was like to work or create or even just to sit in silence. Not meditation, just natural silence. And to be comfortable with that. In many ways, it’s like an addiction to cigarettes and alcohol. Your body is going through withdrawal.
Through this process I also realized that I was a social media junkie. I had to work through my compulsion to constantly check social media, to spend too much time there. As with silence, I had to overcome my FOMO around having a constant, rather than targeted and effective, presence on social media. I had to learn to be okay with not being the most popular person in the room or even being in the room at all. In today’s world that translates into not giving feedback every time someone posts something new online.
This struggle gets easier with practice, but it never completely goes away. That’s the point of it all really. We’re always growing and learning.