Title: The Distraction Addiction: Getting the Information You Need and the Communication You Want, Without Enraging Your Family, Annoying Your Colleagues, and Destroying Your Soul
Author: Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
Publisher: Little Brown
Acquired: From the publisher for review consideration
Review: In The Distraction Addiction, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, a “professional futurist” with a PhD in the history of science, asks a useful and important question: “Can we stay connected without diminishing our intelligence, attention spans, and ability to really live?”
I like the way that question is phrased because it addresses both the positive and the negative ways that technology impacts our lives. I love that it’s easy to check in with my family and close friends with a quick text message or comment on Facebook. I love that being online has led me to close friendships with other book lovers on both sides of the country. But I’m frustrated by the way that I have let technology start to affect my own behavior and cut into the time that I have for other pursuits. No tool or technology or advancement is all good or all bad — a philosophy that Pang adopts throughout the entire book.
Pang opens the book with the Buddhist idea of the “monkey mind” — a mind that “leaps about and never stays in one place.” As humans, our monkey mind is attracted to information, new choices and blinking things, regardless if those are good or bad technologies or choices. He goes on to note that in Buddhism, “mental discipline is more an end in itself, rather than just a means to an end. The everyday mind is like churning water; learn to make it still, like the mirror-flat surface of a calm lake and its reflection will show you everything.”
That image of the monkey mind resonated with me. When I get stressed or overwhelmed (or even just when I’m procrastinating), I get into a weird habit of compulsively flipping through my various feeds and social networks to see what’s going on. Twitter. Facebook. Feedly. Instagram. Email. Twitter. Pinterest. Twitter. Email. Feedly. Twitter. It turns into an endless loop of refreshing and refreshing until I get something new that never really comes. That looping is an unhelpful and unsatisfying way to spend time that, until I read this book, I wasn’t conscious that I was doing as often as I was doing it or, more importantly, conscious of how it made me feel.
Throughout the book, Pang advocates for an approach called contemplative computing:
Contemplative computing isn’t enabled by a technological break-through or scientific discovery. You don’t buy it. You do it. It’s based on a blend of new science and philosophy, some very old techniques for managing your attention and mind, and a lot of experience with how people use (or are used by) information technologies. It shows you how your mind and body interact with computers and how your attention and creativity are influenced by technology. It gives you the tools to redesign your relationships with devices and the Internet, to make them work better for you. It’s a promise that you can construct a healthier, more balanced relationship with information technology.
It sound a little pie-in-the-sky, I know, but I found that the studies, examples and profiles Pang included in The Distraction Addiction gave me some concrete ideas about how I can use technology better. Each chapter is focused around a verb — breathe, simplify, meditate, deprogram, experiment, refocus, and rest — which I think reflects the overall usefulness of the book.
One habit that reading The Distraction Addiction made me address is the constant pinging of notifications on my phone. Earlier this year I had sound notifications on for almost every app I had installed, so my phone was always beeping and blinking at me with new information, forcing an interruption with whatever I was working on because I’m not a person who can just NOT look at a new message. For awhile I’d just keep it on silent almost all the time, but then I ended up meeting calls or text messages that were actually important.
In the book, Pang talks about making deliberate choices about technology and arranging your space to encourage focus. Having the phone buzzing at me was letting other people dictate where my attention was going at a given time. I don’t need to do that. As a result, I’ve shut off all notifications (including email, which felt like a huge thing), but leave the phone on for messages from my family and close friends that are actually important. Not having an object (and the people who utilize that object) have such control over my attention has been helpful.
On some level, most of what Pang outlines in this book isn’t new. But it was packaged in a way — using a potent mix of psychology, philosophy and common sense — that resonated strongly with me when I read it. I still have a lot of work to do to control my monkey mind, but I appreciate having a variety of ways to think about how I can consciously use technology to make improvements.