On Distractions

Written on 2024-06-16

My struggles with attention

I have struggled with attention a lot. But I was lucky enough to realize the dangers of social media and quit it a long long time ago. My life is still far from distraction-free. Sure, my mental health isn't constantly fucked by looking at masks of others around me on social media but that's just one way the internet harms our brains.

Let's take some concrete examples. WhatsApp was a frequent source of "distractions", so I quit it some 3 years ago. So did it work? No, Telegram more or less replaced it. The root cause of these distractions was me being available for chat or checking/responding to things. Unless I fix it, there's no amount of blocking or removing these apps that will fix the problem. What's worse? In most workplaces, the most available person usually gets approached the most, so it's a vicious cycle.

I mentioned I quit social media long ago. Well, not really, if you count Reddit as social media. Sure, it's anonymous and Reddit karma is nowhere comparable to social media clout that people chase. But it's still an endless stream of content to consume. That much consumption is harmful, even if you fool yourself into thinking that it's "mostly educational". So how did I fix it? By removing the app and using only the browser to access Reddit. It's way more annoying but I don't think I spent any less time by doing so.

The WORST offender in this is YouTube Shorts. The endless stream of content to keep you titillated with next to no effort. Don't like something? Just swipe or why even bother it's only 30 seconds. The Algorithm is good enough to trap you into hours of doom scrolling. There is NO WAY to disable shorts in the YouTube app. Eventually, I figured out a way to stop this: Disable watch history and search history. This also disables recommendation feeds entirely.

The meta realization I had over time was that no preventive/blocking mechanisms truly work. These apps have a deep impact on attention span, and it is not limited to "hard to focus" tasks like reading a book. I found myself constantly struggling to focus even while watching casual movies.

The Root Cause

"Fixing" this is still an ongoing process but what I've realized is that it's not reversible by just fixing the bad habits. The real problem was something else and these habits have just accelerated it.

The real problem is constant discomfort that comes from not having enough time to do it all; not having enough attention to focus on everything that matters. So in the moment of weakness, we let our discomfort get the better of us and switch to something else for a while. Now, if that something else is powered by BigTech engineered Algorithm tweaked with billions of data points, monitored by psychologists who have long sold their souls to ensure that you stay hooked on it for as long as possible. You. Are. Fucked.

Don't blame it all on Big Tech though, the reality is you WANT to be distracted. Blocking notifications, apps, and sites only works for a while, you will end up replacing distractions with other distractions. The only solution is to embrace the discomfort and resist the temptation to context switch.

This post was largely inspired by: