The Internet, Distraction and Sticky Notes

Revealing the hidden Rdio window, I check the name of the band that’s caught my ear. “Who are they? Where are they from?” I wonder. I recall the furniture exhibit I visited earlier in the day. “How much does that chair cost? Who makes it? How is it made?” I remember an email that I need to send, a quote to write down and a book to purchase. These thoughts run through my mind as I sit at my work desk. Seemingly benign, they have significant power to disrupt and distract my focus.

These thoughts are given their power of distraction by the multi-purpose tool sitting on my work desk: a computer. The internet is but a click away. Out of Photoshop and into Chrome, I quickly find myself deeply entrenched in a band’s Wikipedia page or a furniture manufacturer’s website. Not only has the last ten minutes been spent reading information of dubious usefulness, my concentration has been broken. I must now refocus my attention to begin anew on the task at hand, any previous momentum squandered and lost.

Today, the satisfaction of every fleeting curiosity can be reached in seconds. Thanks to our phones, we need not even be sitting in front of a computer. A question arises in conversation. No one knows the answer. A phone appears. Google is searched. The answer is found. What were we talking about again?

The price we pay for this convenience and abundance of information is subtle but real. As Herbert Simon stated, “A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” In conversation, our private screens often win our attention more fully than the person sitting across from us. In our minds, we are deprived of what it is to remember, ponder and wonder. At work, we are robbed of productivity and focus – which brings me back to my desk.

Satisfying the whims of trivial curiosity is now second nature. Searching instinctively comes before thinking. The implication for those who do their work on computers? Distraction is second nature. I don’t have all the answers, but I have found one simple weapon to be effective in reprogramming my response. All that is required is pen, paper and a slight diversion. Instead of typing into Google’s search box, I write interrupting thoughts on a sticky note. My mind’s impulse to act is satisfied. I’m left with a bulleted list – an inbox if you will – of disparate thoughts, unintelligible to anyone but me.

Focus is the real goal. Productivity, thoughtfulness, and creativity don’t exist without it. Having unloaded stray thoughts, my mind is cleared to focus on the task at hand, uninterrupted. Upon completing the task, taking time to revisit the list becomes a reward for work well done.

This process has one peculiar side effect. As I begin typing the contents of my list into a search box, it suddenly becomes shorter. Thoughts once so urgent to warrant interruption are viewed in a new light. Feigned importance fades to triviality, a waste of even my free time.