About time: Can apps help you focus?


7 minute read
Arthur Graham

Arthur Graham


Digital Insights

Three people look at smart phones at a train station

How can you make yourself 23% less likely to make errors at work? Simple: by putting your phone out of sight and out of reach.

That’s what a Florida State University team found in their study on the effects digital devices have on our productivity and focus.

Understanding that technology can hamper our ability to get stuff done is nothing new. Since the 1960s, sociologists, economists and psychologists have studied the ‘attention economy’ in an attempt to understand how and why tech affects our behaviour as individuals and societies.

The meteoric rise of the smartphone over the last decade has put the issue into special focus, with headline after headline warning us of the dangers of distraction for study, memory, building relationships, parenting and much more. So: what’s the real problem with mobile technology and our ability to concentrate? And can technology provide the cure?

The problem…

It’s easy to point the finger at apps and mobile technology and write them off as harmful for productivity and focus. But doing so would be wrong.

Viewing the problem from a higher level, smartphones and tablets revolutionised our ability to work remotely and connect with each other across the globe. They’ve helped simplify processes – everything from driving efficiency within the most complex organisations to making it easier to find a romantic partner.

Often, too, the issue of productivity and focus is confused with related, but distinct, challenges created by smartphones and app technology or other technologies. We know, for example, that excessive screen time can affect the way we interact socially and the attention we to pay our children.

The ‘harm’ that mobile technology causes in these instances and others remains controversial. The link between smartphones and poor sleep has not been proven. Earlier this year, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) raised eyebrows when it found no evidence that screentime is harmful to children.

These issues are separate to the subject of this article, which is how mobile technology affects focus. What is not in doubt is how powerfully mobile technology can act as a distraction.

On average, we now pick up our phones every 12 minutes. The average Brit spends nearly 24 hours a week looking at their phone. And as we’ve seen above, smartphones only have to be within arm’s reach to compromise our ability to focus on complex tasks.

This is a problem because distraction prevents us doing the ‘deep work’ examined by Cal Newport in his book of the same name – summary here. Deep work is the most productive type possible, and closely related to the state of ‘flow’ in which the brain and body work in unison.

Deep work is faster than unfocused work; it enables us to tackle complex issues. But it takes time – up to 30 minutes – to enter a state whereby deep work is possible. Distractions caused by smartphones and other digital technology can therefore prevent us reaching this state on a regular basis.

What’s more, checking our phones causes decision fatigue – because every time we see a new piece of content, we have to choose whether to engage with it. Our ability to make decisions declines as we make more decisions throughout the day. Attention-switching can therefore hamper the choices we make about other areas of our lives.

Cal Newport describes our subsequent inability to focus as an epidemic. This spells an opportunity for those who learn to cut digital distraction from their days. So why not use apps’ incredible ability to distract to do the opposite?

…Is the solution

Smartphones and tablets have, for years, included functionality that makes it easier to limit the number of notifications offered by their devices. But in the last year, these features have become easier and quicker to use.

On iOS, users can learn how much time they’re using on different apps via the ‘Screen Time’ feature in settings, before setting limits on the amount of time they can use apps for each day and limiting the notifications they receive using the ‘Down Time’ feature. Google’s ‘Digital Wellbeing’ suite does all of the above. Interestingly, the latter’s ‘Wind Down’ suite turns users’ display to greyscale when selected – because colourful smartphone screens have proven to be more compulsive than black and white ones.

The methods above work by either making users aware of their mobile use, or by limiting when and how devices offer a distraction. Third-party apps like Space and Moment do something similar – educating users on their screen use and allowing them to compete against other users to be as distraction-free as possible. RescueTime is the best-known app of this type, and has the added benefit of synchronising across your laptop and desktop, too.

More interesting are the third-party apps that seek to improve user focus by breaking the ‘habit loop’. Habits are automatic human behaviours, triggered and actioned without conscious thought. Each recurrence of a habit involves three stages; cue, habit and reward. The office worker hits their 3.30pm blood sugar slump; they eat a biscuit; they feel momentarily better.

The habit loop - tea and biscuits at work

This is the ‘habit loop’. And as Charles Duhigg shows in his book  ’The Power of Habit’, these loops can be almost impossible to break without substituting the ‘habit’ stage with a new action, thereby creating a new, better habit.

To limit the distraction caused by smartphones, an app can add a new stage in the habit loop. A cue – boredom, tiredness, anxiety – prompts a user to pick up their phone. Before they can access distracting content – their habit – an app offers a new interaction that breaks the loop.

Flipd does this by hiding apps within the phone – so users have to choose to break their own self-imposed rules. Siempo positions a dialogue box over the selected app, which grows over time. Forest gamifies the process, by enabling users to ‘grow’ a digital tree, which dies when they access their phone.

Of course, determined smartphone users will still find a way to access their chosen app. If the apps above don’t do the job, Off The Grid might – blocking access to all apps at certain times of day, thereby forcing users to take a digital detox.

Blocking the most interesting, useful features of your smartphone is the nuclear option and it’s hardly convenient – preventing friends and family from contacting you.

If you still find yourself tempted to use your smartphone even while using the apps above, take heart. Distractions are nothing new. If it wasn’t mobiles, something else would take its place. It just so happens that smartphones and the apps they hold are designed to demand attention. You are not alone, and the apps above can help.

Understanding how habits are formed and how they stick is far more useful than throwing your phone in the bin. New habits take weeks to build and digital devices have proved incredibly powerful for steering human behaviour. As mobile technologies mature, it’s our responsibility as designers and developers to consider how apps can help users be less distracted and more present at work and play.

Found this article interesting? Learn the basics of mobile technology with our quickstart guide for businesses and organisations considering building an app.

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