Day by day, our attention becomes more and more an important currency for technology companies. All the apps and ads in them are built in a way that always keeps you distracted. This doesn't help much with productivity, cognitive function and overall feeling of wellbeing.
Companies that own social networks and who create apps for your gadgets have whole departments of people working on how to adjust their products so that they make it irresistible to you. They know very well how the human brain works so the tools they use are aimed at literally changing its structures and reinforcing behaviour that will lead you to consuming more of their product.
Our species has many interesting features that have evolved to make us seek what is important for our survival, one of them is our reward system. It is activated when we are having/anticipating food, having/anticipating sex, experiencing a parental connection to our offspring or getting social recognition. The same pathways are activated when you get a notification from a social media app or find an interesting item in a web retailer. Well trained psychology specialists create strategies that will activate this behaviour and reinforce it.
American behaviourist B.F. Skinner studied reward systems. He conducted a series of experiments on pigeons. In one of them he would place a pigeon in the cage with a button that if pressed, would open a window with food, so the pigeon would receive a treat each time it pushed the button. After some time the food was no longer given each time the button was pressed, but would be given randomly. Being conditioned to receive a reward each time for pressing the button, the pigeons started to compulsively press it hoping to receive food and the fewer times they would receive food the more times they would press the button. A similar process happens in your brain each time you have an urge to pick up the phone to see if you've received any notifications or messages.
Social recognition is one of our basic needs for happiness. In ancient times it was important because being part of the group was crucial for survival. Collaboration was always one of the main features of our species, and besides, a good social status would give you a better chance to find a mate who would be willing to reproduce. We are living in a different time now, but exactly the same processes still affect our behaviour without us even noticing them and technology is developing at such a rate that our brains simply are not able to cope with it.
The lack of ability to pay attention is probably one of the most common problems that many people encounter these days. Reading a book or concentrating for a long period of time on one task is becoming more and more complicated. It affects our learning ability, our memory, relationships, our capacity to create. Our way of life changes all the time and at a much faster rate than ever before. Technology plays a major role in affecting our ability to be productive and to keep up with the world. (H. H. Wilmer, L.E. Sherman, J.M.Chein, 2017)
So what can we do now? For most of us getting rid of gadgets is impossible. For many it is essential part of making a living and promoting their work, a platform to contact clients and bosses. It is hard to keep up with the world without using technology at all, so we need to develop strategies to control it rather than let it control us.
First i'd recommend learning more about how your reward systems work. Here (scientific explanation) and here (simplified explanation) you can find information about the anatomy and function of those. Knowledge is power and having a better idea of your own physiology is already a big step towards getting better control of your life (like with any addiction).
After understanding that and how you are being manipulated, choose ways to regulate the use of technology better. For example, you can use the same tactics that ad developers use to hook you on it and condition yourself as a Pavlov's dog: reward yourself with something that you are fond of for each time that you don't use the gadget and spend some time productively studying and/or working without any distraction.
It is different for everyone depending on what your work is, but most likely nothing horrible will happen if you leave your phone at home for a change and see that it is not the end of the world. If this is impossible - schedule times throughout the day where you allow yourself to check your gadgets for work and then other times when you use them for fun. Do not to mix the two. There are app blockers and different programs that you can use in order to not let distracting apps get you off the track when you work with a phone/computer. (SelfControl, Freedom, Anti-Social, FocusWriter, WriteRoom, StayFocusd, LeechBlock, FocusON - among others. A very cool one that I personally like - Forrest, they plant a real tree for a certain amount of time which you spend undistracted).
Manage your relationships with people - make sure nobody is expecting you to be online 24/7. Teach people to respect your personal time and only answer their emails/messages within a certain schedule.
Meditate every day and a lot. Meditation is a very potent way to recover focus deficit. Read in this article how it affects your brain and how adults are being treated from attention deficit desorders with its help.
MORE MORE. Move with attention. Movement practice with awareness is a very powerful tool to restore the ability to concentrate. In this article i have written in more detail how our body is the most powerful tool we have in order to reshape our brain structures and how moving with attention creates the most powerful changes in it. Besides that, moving in itself gives you a serotonin boost (Simon N. Young, 2007) which is a very powerful substitute for any kind of addiction.
There are many books that can help you with better management of your time and attention (if you are still able to read a whole book :), including books specifically written about this exact issue. Just to name a few:
- Homo Distractus by Anastasia Dedykhina
- The Shallows by Nicholas Carr
- Facehooked by Suzanna E. flores
- Reclaiming Conversation by Sherry Turkle
- The One Thing by Gary Keller
- Deep Work by Kal Newport
Addiction to our gadgets is just as bad as addiction to anything else. Maybe it doesn't have such a profound impact on our health from first sight, but it definitely doesn't help our quality of life. As with anything new, i really hope technology companies will make steps to regulate the harm they are making (like what happened with the tobacco industry, for instance), but i encourage everyone to take responsibility for their own life and control their consumption of junk information that the modern world is filled with. Restore your ability to be fully present in the world in which you live.