Living and Working in the Age of Distraction

This weekend the Metropolitan Museum extended their opening hours for visitors to see the Costume Institute’s blockbuster show about Chinese-inspired fashion, China: Through the Looking Glass. I’ve been wanting to see the show since it opened but never seemed to be able to make the time to check it out, so I was excited about the possibility of a late night visit. After meeting up with a good friend for dinner, we walked across the park to the museum, debating whether it would be busy or not; given that it was a holiday weekend, we wondered how many New Yorkers would still be in the city. I had forgotten my phone at home before dinner, which is unusual for me, so I was untethered as we walked through the park and up to the entryway of the Met. To my surprise, it was completely packed.


The show was beautifully curated and revelatory (to me at least) in the connections that it made between contemporary fashion and Chinese textiles and designs. I won’t go into full detail about the exhibition, because that’s not the point of this post, but it is useful to know that the experience was incredibly visually arresting – from the LED video wall that played The Last Emperor on a loop, to smaller screens with the films of Wong Kar Wai and Mao-era propaganda films, to the dramatic headpieces by Stephen Jones that sat atop vibrant clothes in stark lighting. There is a great video of the show narrated by the curator online on YouTube if you want to get a sense of the exhibition for yourself.


Amidst the sensory overload of the show and the large crowd, the thing that struck me the most, however, wasn’t the beautiful clothes but the number of cell phones, digital cameras, and tablets that blocked every view as people documented each tiny detail of the exhibition. Because I had forgotten my phone, I was in the minority of people at the exhibition: I was actually looking at the clothes, and not through a screen. I found myself becoming frustrated with the number of people who ran into me as they frantically posted their images to social media and by the crowds of phones blocking my view of the art. Why couldn’t people just enjoy the show? What have we lost in our desire to document every moment and post our every move for others to see?


Most ironically, I had a moment of reflection where I realized that I couldn’t judge any of these people because, sadly, if I had my phone I’d probably be doing the same thing.


This experience made me wonder, “what is the cost of living and working in a hyper-documented age”, where the value of an experience is judged by how it is immortalized via image, video, and text and where distraction has overcome focus as the modus operandi of life and work? We eat dinner with our cell phones on the table, ever tempted to steal a glance at email or social media or news to ensure we aren’t missing out. We reply to messages within moments to ensure we don’t have someone waiting on us on the other end. We document every moment to the point where synchronous experience is interrupted continuously by the snap of an image, where memory is shaped by a trail of accumulated documentation. We attend meetings at work with our laptops open, typing away while ‘participating’ in the meeting. What does being distracted, fragmenting our attention across modes of engagement, and constantly leaving a trail of documentation behind do to our ability to engage thoughtfully and productively in the moment?


Our conscious construction of who we are obviously has implications for the modern worker. Here are some of the ways I try to adapt to working productively in the age of distraction:


Turn Off, Tune In:

It is easier said than done, but tuning out distractions while at work is probably the most effective way of staying productive throughout the day. Turn off notifications for your social networks on all devices so that you don’t get pinged and tempted to feed the stream of digital data. I also block out time on my calendar to work at my desk so that when people try to schedule meetings they don’t fill up my day with meetings, leaving me with no time to actually do work. By turning off notifications and blocking time out on my calendar, I find I’m able to resist the seduction of checking in to see what is happening in my networks when I don’t need to; I provide myself short windows of time to tune out on social media, but I keep these very brief so that I don’t fall down a rabbit hole. At night, on weekends, on and on my way to work I allow myself to indulge, but while at work, I try to keep the buzz away.


Don’t Be Managed By Your Ego:

It is very easy to feel as though you are your number of followers, number of likes, and quantity of comments. Social networks encourage us to measure ourselves against each other (and even ourselves) with data points that are not entirely context rich or accurate. I’m as guilty as anyone of this (“Why did my post from a few weeks ago do so much better than the one from last week?”). Instead of making meaning out of who you are solely through these means, it is important to recognize your successes at the work you actually do; it might seem odd or obvious to suggest it, but it’s worth reminding yourself that your social media rankings are not the only measure of your worth. Take pleasure in the small accomplishments throughout the day and allow the work itself to be what brings you satisfaction.


Practice Humility:

Resist the urge to trumpet every success you have. We all have Facebook friends who have mastered the art of the humble brag. You don’t want to be that person and you don’t want your online persona to be perceived as egotistical. If you are looking to make connections for work, or looking for a new job, your potential partner or employer is likely to search you. The last thing you want is for them to find out that you’re rude, offensive, a complainer, or cocky in how you conduct yourself online. Instead, practice the art of congratulating other people (genuinely) for their successes and participate actively in online discussion with humility.


Use The Five Minute Rule:

Work is stressful and it is easy to vent inappropriately and then regret it. I try to practice the five minute rule before sending an email or a tweet or a response to something that I feel passionately about. I usually write the response, save it as a draft, and walk away. While away, I try to give myself some space from whatever it is that I was responding to, so that I can reflect on how I really feel, and often, to cool myself down. More than half of the time, I find myself revising what I was going to say; sometimes I decide not to say anything at all. I’m sure this has saved me from embarrassing myself more times than I care to admit.


Living and working in the age of distraction has real implications on how we behave: at work we are less productive and struggle to complete tasks of longer durations, and our personal lives are digitally available to any employer to search at any time. George Orwell would be both horrified (and gratified?) to see his dystopian future come to life via Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and yes, even LinkedIn where we chronicle a highly curated version of who we are that has a lasting impact on our public and private identities. Who we are personally and professionally has always been made up of external opinions of our behaviors and beliefs and our own internal sense of self. But in the current age of distraction, the factors at play are much more complex: our lives are searchable, traceable, easy to fabricate, difficult to erase, and the desire to control how we are perceived by others directly impacts in-the-moment experiences to the point where it is difficult to draw the line between the real and the manufactured. That famous ad from the 70s and 80s comes to mind: is it live or is it Memorex? Just like the protagonists of those commercials, I am struggling to tell the difference.


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