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How to be Creative and Remain Focused in the Digital Distraction Era

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The way we use digital devices has a strong impact on our cognitive skills. The main skills impacted are creativity and focus; both are very much needed in future jobs and they are very much influenced by our digital habits, said Monica Bormetti. She spoke about focus and creativity in the digital distraction era at Agile Business Day 2019.

Bormetti explained that by creativity, she is referring to the skill of finding innovative solutions and connecting unrelated things, rather than an artistic capacity like being a good painter. Pretty much every job requires a dose of creativity, she said, especially as more and more simple jobs will be automated. If we want to preserve our spot in the market we need to improve our human skills, Bormetti argued.

We often tend to think that creativity is a native skill that some have and others don’t. "In fact, that is not true," said Bormetti, "we can train all our cognitive skills, including creativity, in order to develop this capacity."

She mentioned that it is important to preserve relaxing and empty moments in our daily life, because that is when our brain is able to make connections among unrelated things and find interesting insights. Bormetti stated that this process is somewhat reduced, in general, by the way we use digital devices, filling every empty moment in our days. Checking notifications and reading the latest news while we are waiting for the bus takes away the chance to let our mind wander in those few minutes, Bormetti said.

Something similar happens to focus, as Bormetti explained:

We have to think of our brain as a muscle that reinforces the neural paths the more we use it. This means that if we train ourselves to constantly be distracted by our notifications, we will then struggle when we want to do concentrated work. The result is that we will find other ways of distracting ourselves, since we are not able to concentrate anymore.

Bormetti mentioned that we can train our brain for better concentration by keeping our attention focused on something we want to do.

InfoQ interviewed Monica Bormetti after her talk at Agile Business Day 2019 about how working in a multitasking mode drains our cognitive skills, how to limit distraction, and what we can do to become more conscious about the use of technology in our work.

InfoQ: How does working in a multitasking mode drain our cognitive skills?

Monica Bormetti: Our brain is not built for working in multitasking mode, not even women’s, unfortunately. Research says only 2% of the worldwide population is really able to conduct multiple tasks effectively. For the rest of us, when we try to multitask we struggle and in general it’s a waste of time and energy. We are able to conduct two activities at the same time only when one is more demanding than the other, and so we can split our attention. But multitasking is not an efficient way of dealing with tasks, especially at work. To test yourself, time yourself while you count from 1 to 10, and then the letters from A to J. In a second round, time yourself when you mix those two categories: 1-A, 2-B, etc. Most humans take more time on the second task, just because we have to switch from one content to another.

InfoQ: What should we change in our behavior to limit distraction, both for ourselves and for the people who we work with?

Bormetti: There are several little but effective things we can do in our working life in order to improve our concentration and limit distractions.

Here are some suggestions for individual professionals:

  1. Managing notifications: I suggest turning off all of your notifications, wait a couple of days and then resetting just the ones that you really miss and need.
  2. Choosing specific times to check your inbox: in general everything at work can wait a few hours for a response, so don’t let others choose when you should dedicate time to your inbox; set your own timing.
  3. Using a "do not disturb" sign on your desk: for those who struggle with managing colleagues interruptions, you can use a paper sign to protect yourself, in specific moments.
  4. Organizing your desktop and mobile screens: people are not able to resist temptations so put all digital distractions (social media, messaging apps, gaming) out of sight .
  5. Do not disturb mode: set short but very focused working time slots throughout the day.

Here are some suggestions for teams:

  1. No internet connection in meetings: main sources of distraction during meetings include notifications, and more and more employees feeling as though they are wasting time in too many meetings. I suggest making shorter but distraction-free meetings.
  2. Clear and specific rules in instant messaging services (eg: Slack): every member needs to think about the benefit or cost for the receiver before sending a message that will overload their incoming conversations.
  3. Limit sending communications (emails, documents, comments, chats) as much as you can: try to write in a more effective way, lowering the number of communications you send and also shortening them (effective writing).

InfoQ: How can people become more conscious about the use of technology in their work?

Bormetti: The first step to becoming more conscious is observing ourselves and becoming aware of our digital habits. Downloading a tracking App (Eg: Moment, Quality Time, Space) on our mobile devices helps in getting a clear picture of the quantity and quality of our usage. This is very useful for mobile devices, in particular since we have them in our hands all the time and often are not aware of how and when we use them.

Similarly, we can ask ourselves a few questions in order to understand in which situations we get hooked by our digital devices at work. For example, understating the effect of instant messaging App notifications, email or news makes us more aware of how we can improve our digital life.

In general, a positive use of technology, especially at work, requires using it intentionally. When I am 100% conscious of the way I spend my time online, we can say I own that time, and that is good. The problem is when I open my inbox to check an email and after an hour I am still there hooked by all the rest of the emails I received, and at the end of the day feeling I have wasted my time.

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