Wisdom//

The Science Behind How Our Devices Affect Our Brains and Prevent Productivity

Sometimes “do not disturb" just isn't enough.

Courtesy of Jacob Lund/ Shutterstock
Courtesy of Jacob Lund/ Shutterstock

Wendy, a freelance marketing consultant, knew exactly what she had to do for the next hour at work. Her calendar told her that she needed to be in her office chair at 9 AM to write new client proposals, the most important task of her day. She fired up her laptop and opened the client’s file on her screen, eager to win new business. As she held her coffee mug with both hands and took a sip, a fantastic addition to the proposal entered her head. “This is going to be great!” she thought to herself.

But before she had a chance to write down the idea—ping!—her phone buzzed with a notification. Wendy ignored the intrusion at first. She jotted down a few words, but then the phone buzzed again with a different notification. This time her focus faltered, and she became curious. What if a client needed her? 

She picked up her phone, only to find out that a trivial tweet by a celebrity rapper was reverberating through social media. After tapping out of the app, another notification caught her eye. Her mom had messaged her to say good morning. Wendy fired off a quick emoji heart to let Mom know she was fine. Oh, and what was that? A bright red notification bubble over the professional social networking app, LinkedIn. Perhaps there was a new business opportunity waiting for her? Nope. Just a recruiter who had seen her profile and liked what he saw.

Wendy was tempted to reply, but she remembered the time. It was now 9:20 AM, and she hadn’t made any progress on her proposal. Worst of all, she’d forgotten the big idea she had been so excited to add to it. “How did this happen?” she moaned to herself. Despite having important work to do, Wendy wasn’t getting it done. She was, once again, distracted.

Does this sound familiar? Many of us have experienced just that kind of morning. The source of the distraction during these moments, however, isn’t an internal trigger. The ubiquity of external triggers, like notifications, pings, dings, alarms, and even other people, makes them hard to ignore. 

It’s time for us to hack back. In tech speak, “to hack” means “to gain unauthorized access to data in a system or computer.” Similarly, our tech devices can gain unauthorized access to our brains by prompting us to distraction. Facebook’s first president, Sean Parker, admitted as much when he described how the social network was designed to manipulate our behavior. “It’s a social-validation feedback loop,” he said. “Exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.”

To start hacking back, we first need to understand how tech companies use external triggers to such great effect. What exactly is the “vulnerability in human psychology” Parker described that makes us susceptible to the external triggers that so often lead to distraction? 

In 2007, B. J. Fogg, founder of Stanford University’s Persuasive Technology Lab, taught a class on “mass interpersonal persuasion.” Several of the students in attendance would later pursue careers applying his methods at companies like Facebook and Uber. Mike Krieger, a cofounder of Instagram, created a prototype of the app in Fogg’s class that he eventually sold for $1 billion. 

As a student at Stanford’s business school at the time, I attended a retreat at Fogg’s home, where he taught his methods of persuasion in more depth. Learning from him firsthand was a turning point in my understanding of human behavior. He taught me a new formula that changed the way I viewed the world.

The Fogg Behavior Model states that for a behavior (B) to occur, three things must be present at the same time: motivation (M), ability (A), and a prompt (P) More succinctly, B = MAP.

Motivation is “the energy for action,” according to Edward Deci, professor of psychology at the University of Rochester. When we’re highly motivated, we have a strong desire, and the requisite energy, to take an action, and when we’re not motivated, we lack the energy to perform a task. Meanwhile, in Fogg’s formula, ability relates to facility of action. Quite simply, the harder something is to do, the less likely people are to do it. Conversely, the easier something is to do, the more likely we are to do it. 

When people have sufficient motivation and ability, they’re primed for certain behavior. However, without the critical third component, the behavior will not occur. A trigger to tell us what to do next is always required. We discussed internal triggers in a previous section, but when it comes to the products we use every day and the interruptions that lead to distraction, external triggers—stimuli in our environment that prompt us to act—play a big role.

Excerpted from Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life with permission from the author and publisher.

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