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All Posts  /  DIGITAL MARKETING TRENDS  /  March 28, 2013 

What Online Distraction Costs

Why exactly did you click to read this article? Was it because you’re at work and decided to check out your Twitter or Facebook? And then you found the title irresistible – because you don’t have the willpower to avoid online distractions?

We’re all suffering from online distraction. This piece started out as a click from my own Facebook page (which I was, yes, checking at work), ending up at an article written by Marc Parry in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “You’re Distracted. This Professor Can Help.” The article talks about a University of Washington course being taught to help students tune out the distractions of the online world – email, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, favorite websites – and focus on their schoolwork.  The class offers “mind-training exercises…designed to raise students’ awareness about how they use their digital tools.”

The problem isn’t new, but it’s growing. Back in 2005, we wrote a newsletter article, “Finding Your Way Back,” which featured a New York Times article that stated “each employee spent only 11 minutes on any given project before being interrupted and whisked off to do something else…. And each time a workers was distracted from a task, it would take, on average, 25 minutes to return to that task.”

And this was before Facebook and Twitter. We followed up five years later with an iMedia blog post, “Is Your Computer Getting in the Way of Your Productivity?” which talked about software packages that would prevent your access to the multiple distractions  found on the Internet, helping you stay focused.

A more recent blog post, “10 Ways to Eliminate Online Distractions, Rescue Time, and Focus More on Achieving Your Goals” talks about the costs associated with our collective distraction.  Basing distraction on “six short 10-minute Facebook sessions,” a day, author Tal Gur states that:

  • “Your productivity loss from using Facebook is not just one hour, it is one hour plus the time it takes to get back into a good work mode after Facebooking.”

  • 30% of each workday is consumed by such distractions, according to Jonathan Spira and Joshua Feintuch’s report, “The Cost of Not Paying Attention.”

  • This is, Gur calculates, results in a loss of 12 hours out of the 5-day work week.

  • Which, based on a $25/hour salary, translates to a cost of $15,600 spent on distraction each year.

Back in the context of the university student, Parry says:

At its extreme, that debate plays out in the writing of authors whom the critic Adam Gopnik has dubbed the Never-Betters and the Better-Nevers. Those camps duke it out over whether the Internet will unleash vast reservoirs of human potential (Clay Shirky) or destroy our capacity for concentration and contemplation (Nicholas Carr).

On college campuses, meanwhile, educators struggle to manage what the Stanford University multitasking researcher Clifford Nass describes as a radical shift in the nature of attention. Mr. Nass, who lives in a freshman dormitory as a "dorm parent," sees that shift on students' screens. They write papers while toggling among YouTube and Facebook and Spotify. They text and talk on smartphones. They hang out in lounges where the TV is on.

The fear that such constant media bombardment will create a generation of students who cannot focus has prompted the University of Washington course, which includes such strategies as mindful attention to distraction along with meditation.

For the business person who finds focus difficult, Gur’s article includes 10 steps to eliminate distraction.  These include a similar type of mindful attention to the root causes of personal distractions, along with technological tools to barricade them – tools such as rescuetime.com, LeechBlock (a Firefox add-on) and BlockSite (for Firefox and Chrome).

The cost of online distraction is disturbing and the potential damage to our collective focus even more so. Back in 2010, we concluded our blog post by asking:

We’re curious – how do you deal with the everyday distractions online? Have we come to such a state that we actually need digital babysitters to stay on track?

The answer to the second question, increasingly, seems to be yes.

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