Are you addicted to the distraction drug?

Are you addicted to the distraction drug?

A September 2015 tweet from Wall Street Journal columnist Jason Gay was one of the funniest I read last year: ‘There’s a guy in this coffee shop sitting at a table, not on his phone, not on a laptop, just drinking coffee, like a psychopath.’

While tongue in cheek, the reality is that it is increasingly rare to be in any public setting and not look around you only to discover that everyone in your surrounds is glued to a screen.

I had an experience recently where I realized my own susceptibility in this regard. I was on Hamilton Island speaking at a conference and upon checking into my room, came across a tourism flyers in the hotel compendium urging the reader to experience the ‘world famous sunrise’ from Passage Peak. “The views are breathtaking and the experience unforgettable” the brochure assured me.

And so I set my alarm for 4.35am the next morning, threw on some exercise clothes and headed out of the hotel to find the marked rainforest path that led up the mountain’s side. 45-minutes later I stumbled out of the bush onto the rocky ledge at the summit of Passage Peak and my breath was taken away immediately. The horizon was radiating with a deep pre-sunrise orange glow and I sat down to watch as the sun rose over the Whitsundays.

Naturally, I had bought my smartphone with me to capture the moment and, having taken a number stunning panoramic shots, it occurred to me that I should post one to Facebook. After all, if it isn’t on Facebook, did the moment really happen! As I loaded Facebook however I noticed a few urgent emails that had arrived overnight from clients in the US and so once I had finished on Facebook, I quickly skipped over to my emails to take a look. The emails contained a few links that required me to click on them and one led me to a news headline that demanded my attention… and on it went.

Before I knew it, 11-minutes had passed. I looked up from my phone only to realize I had all-but missed a sunrise I had woken up at 4.30am to see!

Recent research indicates I am far from alone in this vulnerability to distraction.

According to Pew Research, in the last year alone 8,000 pedestrians in the US were seriously injured or even killed because they had wandered into traffic while glued to their phones. In the German city of Augsburg, distracted pedestrians have become such an issue that local authorities have even installed stop lights in the pavement at busy intersections for the benefit for pedestrians looking down glued to their phones.

Perhaps nowhere is the constant barrage of distraction having more of an impact on focus than in the modern office environment. Recent studies have found that office workers are interrupted — or self-interrupt — roughly every three minutes. The problem with this is that once we are sidetracked or our attention is broken, it can take some 23 minutes for us to return our focus to the original task.

Now, while current levels of distraction are largely a function of the enormous volume of technology vying for our attention in modern times (and perhaps the smartwatch is the most insidious of all), the simple truth is that we can’t entirely blame technology for our distractedness.

That’s right. We need to take some responsibility ourselves. Believe it or not, you actually enjoy being distracted, interrupted and unfocussed more than you know.

According to MIT neuroscientist Earl Miller, every time we complete even insignificant tasks (such as sending an email, answering a text message or uploading something to Facebook), a tiny amount of our body’s reward hormone, dopamine, is released. Our brains love dopamine so we’re encouraged to keep switching to small tasks that give us instant gratification. This creates a dangerous feedback loop where we begin to feel like we are accomplishing a lot but in fact we are spinning our wheels.

The reality is this: while distraction may come naturally to us and can even be pleasurably addictive at an unconscious level, it is truly devastating to our productivity. In order to build momentum and get into a flow state, being able to concentrate and focus deeply on important tasks is critical. In the words of celebrated American author Og Mandino, ‘It is those who concentrate on but one thing at a time who advance in this world.’

So, how addicted are you to the distraction drug and is it perhaps time to kick the habit? It is time to put the phone down and be in the moment? Sure, you may look like the odd one out at your local cafe, but extraordinary results and powerfully creative ideas are rarely the domain to ordinary people.


About Michael

Michael McQueen is a 4-time bestselling author and multi award-winning business strategist. He has worked with many of the world’s best-known brands and is a regular commentator on TV and radio.

Michael’s most recent book Momentum: How to Build it, Keep it, or Get it Back, is a must-read guide to achieving breakthrough growth, unstoppable vitality and sustained success. It is available in all good bookstores and online at

Michael McQueen is a multi-award winning speaker, change strategist and bestselling author of ten books.

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