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Why Messaging Apps Kill Your Focus and Mess with Your Wellbeing

Do you live your life in an intricate web of instant messaging apps? Here's exactly how doing so will affect your attention span – and more importantly, your ability to handle stress.

William Iven / Unsplash

I have spent the past 20 years leading internet and technology companies, coming up with solutions to make lives easier. And I truly believe we’re overthinking the question of productivity. Not only that, we’re in denial and that denial is hurting us. 

Many people still instinctively believe that instant messaging apps are the key to communicating and getting things done. Their ability to be present on multiple platforms at once gives them the illusion of being in control. But actually, the opposite is true. 

According to TED psychology professor Amishi Jha, attention is “a flashlight you can direct to whatever you choose”. When you’re talking about instant messaging, this flashlight becomes a strobe. It makes your focus bounce chaotically at random intervals. 

This creates a state that tech consultant Linda Stone defines as continuous partial attention. When you adopt always-on behavior, being available to all people at anytime, anywhere in the world, you exist in a constant state of alertness. As a result, you can never really give your full attention to anything. 

Attention and the Brain

Jez Timms / Unsplash

You don’t need me to tell you that context switching is bad news for the brain. A review last year by academics from Oxford, King’s College London, Harvard and Western Sydney University found that this kind of behavior physically impairs cerebral areas related to attention span and memory. 

It’s alarming to realize that people who spend time constantly flipping between short activities online are limiting their ability to focus, to the point where scientists can pinpoint the impact. And an endless stream of notifications are encouraging the habit. 

The problem is, the more we react to this incoming wave of bleeps and alerts, the less cognitive capacity we have to ignore them. It’s a self-fulfilling reflex. 

Worse still, some researchers believe that we’re primed to respond to push notifications as part of a fight-or-flight mentality. “Having evolved in an environment rife with danger and uncertainty, we are hardwired to always default to fast-paced shifts in focus,” explains author Michael Harris, in his book The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection.

Stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol are designed to see us through these moments of high alert. Together, they activate a response system that elevates the heart rate, increases blood pressure and boosts energy supplies to the body. 

But, if we’re in a constant state of intense focus – switching attention and being “always on” – these stress chemicals have nowhere to go. Over time, they deplete levels of feel-good hormones such as serotonin, leaving us feeling wired and on edge. 

You know what happens next? Brain fog: that uncomfortable feeling that your mind is full of cotton wool, and you just can’t focus no matter how hard you try. Brain fog is an early warning sign of burnout, a condition that is now so widespread, the World Health Organization last year listed it as a disease for the first time. 

A Damaging Impulse

Robin Worrall / Unsplash

In a world where our attention levels are already frayed beyond recognition – the average American spends nearly three hours a day on their phone, checking it once every 12 minutes  – instant messaging platforms pour fuel on the flames.

Sure, they appear seamless and easy to use. Too easy. That’s the point. They even offer “do not disturb” features to “help” you focus. But this is a band aid treating the symptom, not the cause. If you remove the thing that’s dividing your focus, you remove the need to fight for focus.

Productivity is driven by focus. And you cannot be focused if you’re scanning three different channels at once.

Of course, your instinct is to be constantly aware and alert: and instant messaging feeds that impulse. But following it will, in the long-term, sabotage your concentration levels, and wreak havoc your wellbeing. 

The Simplest Solution of All

Jonathan Francisca / Unsplash

My team and I designed Spike so that you can get things done, without stress or distraction.

It uses the open structure of email to let you pull together all your chats, tasks, emails and project management into one location. You don’t need to log into different apps for different clients and teams, or spend precious minutes tracking down what information lies where.

But more importantly, you don’t leach your attention by constantly switching between apps and tasks. You just have one space for uninterrupted workflow.

Focus isn’t a state we need to “hack” with a complex set of tools. It’s been there all along. And there’s no need to choose between “off” (relaxed) or “on” (hyper-alert), either. You can pay attention and be available to people without feeling fraught. 

In my view, siloed instant messaging apps are disrupting concentration and making us chronically stressed. If we can instead get back to basics with a simple, smart email system that streamlines all elements of your communication needs and workflow, the focus will happen by itself.

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