Essays on Technology and Culture

The Attraction to Prosthetic Distraction

Recently, I uninstalled Twitter from my iPhone and iPad. And Facebook. And my client. And the few games I had installed on my phone, too. I’m not going as far as that guy who turned his iPhone into a dumbphone, but I understand his reasoning. With less things on my phone for me to pull out and check when the urge strikes me, I have more mental resources to focus on whatever the task is at hand. That’s what these things are for, which is why I also installed an app on my work and home Macs to block access to time-sink social networking sites when I really need to get down to work.

There’s an attraction to prosthetic distraction. I’m not going to talk about dopamine and neuroscience here. That’s far out of my area of expertise. For me, it’s just about knowing where my time is going. The more time I spend at my work computer with my phone in my hand instead of putting my fingers on the keys, the less I’m getting done. It’s math. When I had a mindless job that required me to sit and do repetitive tasks that a robot or shell script could do, I didn’t have to feel guilty about checking Facebook every half-hour. Now that I’m a knowledge worker, that kind of behavior isn’t as easy to justify.

There’s always a use case behind some of the prosthetic distractions we have on our person. After all, Facebook is the only way I can really keep in touch with some of my friends—they’re not going to switch to Path or whatever form of communication I prefer. I just question the need to always have it available. When there’s dead space in my life to fill, that’s a fine time to check in on Facebook, but that’s not when I should be working. [1] Anything that gives me the incentive to keep my phone in my pocket, my iPad in my bag, and my fingers making the clackity noise as I work is a net good.

Why do we choose distractions? They’re easier. It’s the path of least resistance when we face something harder for us. That’s the appeal. I’m certain some of us have the ability to resist the siren call of finding out what amusing bon mot that @BastardKeith tweeted out in the last hour. [2] Just like the big advice in productivity circles is to not check your email in the morning (something I’m guilty of doing), and scheduling times to get caught up, we should consider that approach to our social networks and other prosthetic distraction.

After all, we can only focus and be productive for so long at a time. After a half-hour or hour of legit work, checking in on Twitter and App.Net is the palate cleansing sherbet that prepares us for the next course of actual work. Keeping it off my phone and running Anti-Social is just my method for ensuring I don’t take the easy way out. It helps that I can update all these services without having to view my timelines, though, thanks to Drafts. Decide for yourself if your prosthetic distractions are more distracting than they should be. Then find a way to fix it.

  1. When those times hit, I use 1Password to log into my Facebook, Twitter, and ADN accounts using the web interface. I don’t have to worry about annoying push notifications, seeing brightly colored icons begging for my attention on my home screen, and there’s just enough friction to keep me from doing it all the time.  ↩

  2. Bastard Keith is a burlesque MC in New York City. He’s consistently hilarious, sex-positive, and entertaining as hell to follow. And he puts on a great show at any of a number of NYC burlesque events. You haven’t lived until you’ve heard him sing the lounge version of “Baby Got Back”.  ↩