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Review: ‘The Distraction Addiction’ by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang

Review: ‘The Distraction Addiction’ by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang post image

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
Genre: Nonfiction
Year: 2013
Publisher: Little Brown
Acquired: From the publisher for review consideration
Rating: ★★★★★

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.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • bermudaonion (Kathy) November 13, 2013, 2:29 pm

    Boy, does this sound like a book for the times. I noticed I was spending way too much time on my phone and have made a conscious effort to cut back on that.

    • Kim November 13, 2013, 9:28 pm

      I didn’t think my phone habit was a problem until the boyfriend started commenting on it. He’s usually pretty chill about things that annoy him, so for him to say something means it must have gotten bad.

  • Shannon @ River City Reading November 13, 2013, 5:17 pm

    Oh man, I totally need this book. It sounds like it’s a pretty sensible read that doesn’t expect you to totally give up your technology, but just tone things down a bit.

  • Jenny @ Reading the End November 13, 2013, 6:28 pm

    I love “monkey mind”! I have a total monkey mind! This is the whole reason I haven’t gotten a smartphone, even though every other human person on earth has one. (I depend on herd immunity really! Whenever I am with people and a question arises for which a smartphone is required, I can safely assume that one or more of my interlocutors will have a smartphone and can look up information for me.) Anything that goes bing when there’s stuff is bad for me, and I know this about myself. On the day that I cave and get a smartphone, I will keep this book in mind.

    • Christy November 13, 2013, 7:28 pm

      ha ha – I’m going to start using “herd immunity” to explain why it’s okay that I still don’t have a smartphone.

    • Kim November 13, 2013, 9:30 pm

      The constant pinging was making it really, really hard to concentrate when I needed to settle in and work on something. And honestly, I love not getting notified for every new email… there is almost no information that comes in that way that needs my immediate attention.

  • Christy November 13, 2013, 7:27 pm

    I often do that exact same looping thing – and later feel guilty for wasting my time so much. I’ll add this book to my to-read list!

  • Katie @ Doing Dewey November 13, 2013, 7:30 pm

    Wow, this sounds like a really good book! The subtitle sold me on it pretty hard to begin with, but it also seems like it has the researched-backed actionable advice which is what I always want from a self-help or lifestyle related book. I’ve also experienced what you mentioned about flipping through social media, mostly when I feel overwhelmed by all of the things I could be doing for work. Definitely going on my to-read pile 🙂

    • Kim November 13, 2013, 9:30 pm

      The subtitle is great — one of my recent favorites 🙂

  • Julie Merilatt November 13, 2013, 7:31 pm

    Not only am I easily distracted, I hate when my mind is idle. I don’t know if that’s better or worse. My mom noticed that while she stayed with us. While everyone else was just chilling watching TV, I had to be doing something with myself besides…

    • Kim November 13, 2013, 9:31 pm

      I am that way too. It feels strange to just sit… but it makes me testy and tired to always be consuming information. It’s hard to balance.