Creative thinkers need an ‘attention rebellion’ in an era of tech distraction

Creative thinkers need an ‘attention rebellion’ in an era of tech distraction

Ideas are only born when our minds are free from distractions. So we must champion different ways of working so technology can help us rather than drown us.

Do you often feel like you’re mentally buffering, screen-fried, always alert and struggling to think creatively?

If so, you’re not alone.

2024 started with me wondering why I’ve found it harder to get to ideas in comparison to pre-pandemic times, with feelings of mental exhaustion present more often.

The topic of “brain drain” was entering more conversations in the office and in media land. “Busy” became the default answer to the customary question: “How are you?” While the issue is complex, I believe there’s an answer to creative blocks beyond being busy.

The way we use technology impacts our attention span.

According to author and attention coach Catherine Price, the cost of constant notifications and doom-scrolling is that the brain changes to think the same way, becoming more easily distracted and less able to focus.

Focus thievery

This behaviour is happening all around us. Average smartphone usage in the UK is over four hours a day — equivalent to over two months a year. A study cited by Business Insider revealed that we touch our phones at least 2,617 times a day.

Add to this equation our work-based screen time of attention-hopping between apps, social platforms, browser tabs, instant messages and emails, and the impact of “focus thievery” becomes apparent. This is bad news for creative thinking.

Here comes the science.

Ideas are born from new connections forming from what you’ve observed and absorbed. According to Massachusetts Institute of Technology neuroscientist Professor Earl Miller, “free of distractions, your mind will think back automatically” and connect the dots.

The magic of this mental dot-to-dot happens during “flow states”, where we’re so immersed in one thing that the sense of time slips away.

Yet, it’s thought that the average office worker gets just three uninterrupted minutes daily and each interruption costs an average of 23 minutes to reclaim focus.

War on multitasking

As agencies, we’re effectively attention-span brokers for clients. Our craft is needed more than ever to help clients create impact in an age of constant distractions, but increasing time pressures and distractions can draw us away from the thinking that delivers competitive advantage.

While there’s more at play, I believe we can make a start by waging war on multitasking.

Multitasking is a myth. The term originated in the 1960s to describe the first computers to manage multiple tasks simultaneously. It was never meant to apply to people.

When we think we’re multitasking, we’re just switching tasks faster than we can see, incurring the “switch-cost effect”, which is proven to make us slower, more error-prone and less creative.

This is reinforced by a Hewlett-Packard study that found our IQ can drop by twice the amount caused by smoking cannabis when trying to focus while getting constantly interrupted.

So let’s unite to promote more “monotasking”.

Reclaim our brains

We can champion techniques such as the Pomodoro method of focus blocks and making it more acceptable to block out focus time in our diaries.

We’re seeing this approach work and recently I felt a fuzzy feeling of validation when facilitating a client workshop as a strictly tech-free zone. They loved the process and the outputs.

Our brains can be reclaimed, but we need to face the truth that our environment makes getting into flow states harder than it has ever been.

To change this, we need to work together to create cultures more conducive to creative thinking and we can do so by adopting author Johann Hari’s idea of forming an “attention rebellion” in media.

We haven’t evolved to operate like machines and we’re not meant to. If we don’t act now, we could be sleep-working into our own attention crisis.

So let’s challenge the next phase of how we use technology to be better, for AI to free up our minds and time, rather than drown us in distractions. Let’s create cultures that better balance pace with space, champion monotasking and become attention rebels.

Ketan Lad is head of creative media at Goodstuff Communications

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