In years gone back, the world was a much simpler place to be, at least from a communications point of view.
Going back to the early days of the Internet and Mobile communication, life was to a degree a lot more simplistic. You generally had three things to keep an eye out for, these were.
- Telephone Calls
- SMS Messages
In that world, keeping an eye on those three things meant your brain had lots of space to focus on real work. You know, the kind of thing that’s useful. A series of events or tasks that leads to an outcome for you, your customer or your business.
The modern world we’re in today is a bit of a swindle. For example, if back in that old world I decided to purchase a phone with a carrier such as Vodafone and a friend decided to purchase a phone with BT Cellnet, or let’s say even another carrier in America – Verizon for example, regulatory law and interconnects between providers would at least let us call each other. The rate might be more expensive for an “off-net” call, but it would still work. Simply stick in the number, hit dial and you’d get connected. From a user’s perspective, it was easy, simplistic and relatively pain free.
So, moving on, with nearly 30 years of evolution in this area, you’d think from a usability perspective, we’d be miles in front right? The reality however is very different. In some respects, the differences are huge. Phones are now full-blown computers and the phone element is merely another app, the battery life is extraordinary, as is the display technology. The network speeds are completely different, video calls are easy, sharing digital content is easy, so with all this improvement, where is the problem you ask?
Now, for example, take that old list of things you had to concentrate on and look at what you now might have to concentrate on;
- Telephone Calls
- SMS Messages
- Multiple Email Accounts
- Facebook Messenger
- LinkedIn Messages
- Twitter DMs
- Instagram Messages
- Slack Notifications
- Microsoft Teams Notifications
Before, we had three sources of notifications and annoyances. Now, the above list, which for quite a few people is a reality has twelve items. The core of this problem is that people only have a certain amount of thinking time per day while working. Now, rather than focusing on a few channels, people are focusing on dozens. This hugely limits productivity and causes fatigue when working on complex problems – the problems that when fixed ultimately lead to good outcomes in our personal or working lives.
The above situation has materialised through a highly competitive environment that values the attention of “eyeballs”, largely for data slurping and ad-revenue purposes. In addition to that, there is a severe discourtesy for the needs of users of these platforms with the needs of the platform but way before the needs of the user.
Finally, in the past, telecom regulators would intervene and ensure networks interconnected allowing users of different services to talk to each other – sometimes at exorbitant costs – but at least it was a possibility. If that wasn’t the case, can you honestly imagine the madness of walking around with 6 different handsets in your pocket to talk to people on different networks? As bizarre as that sounds, it’s exactly what we’re doing from a virtual standpoint right now.
There are some solutions – apps that overlay or use APIs to condense the messages into one stream, but let’s face it, it’s a bit of a bodge and it’s less than perfect. The ideal solution would be to be able to pick your preferred platform and message people on other platforms from one place, it’d be much easier and would allow you freedom of interaction without needing to use a dozen platforms just to speak with a few people.
This madness should end, but unfortunately it doesn’t look like it will any time soon. So, in the meantime, what can you do to beat it? Well, a few things can work and give you a sense of control and freedom back.
- Turning on Auto-Reply Messages on social media channels on a schedule – letting people know you won’t be answering reduces anxiety your side, as you know people won’t be left waiting. For those that know you, they’ll at least realise that message isnt getting through and if it’s something important might message via another means of communication.
- Make a plan on paper before getting to the computer – computers can be great procrastination devices with lots of distractions, especially with browsers automatically signed into social media services. Plan before you get to the computer, close any unnecessary programs/tabs, turn notifications off and work to your plan ignoring the background noise while you get your tasks done.
- In some professional settings (programming for example), have a “workstation” and book time in your calendar to be at your workstation. That machine should have your core development tools/systems access tools on, but no social media/email or anything else distracting. Make time for replying to people but get away from the culture of immediate replies all the time. This can also be highly effective for writers, researchers and anyone else who needs to focus. Other alternatives can be using virtual machines or second desktops but being physically separate can help immensely.
Ultimately, setting boundaries and getting away from an immediate reply culture will hugely improve your way of working on a day to day basis. Technology is great but always make sure you’re driving it and it’s not driving you.
Until social media companies interconnect like the phone networks have for decades, we’ll keep facing this problem, and the list will continue to grow. At some point a regulator will step in, or a new competitor will start to solve this problem, I’m certainly not the first that’s noticed it. Until then, do the best you can to keep undistracted!
This piece was originally written prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s highly likely we’ve all got bigger distractions than this right now, kids, partners, family and concern for those around as well as daily life just not being quite normal anymore. We thought we’d publish it unedited in the hope that it might still help people find some balance and a few ideas for switching off from an endless stream of information that emanates from so called “Smart” devices. Stay Safe.