Mass distraction: why is it so difficult to focus on anything?

With so many things vying for our attention, it is far too easy to become sidetracked.

There's a whole new wave of tech companies whose big pitch is the relief they offer from the burdens of the modern white-collar workplace. Squarespace, whose ads you've heard if you've ever downloaded a podcast, helps you promote your personal brand by making it easier to build a website. Slack, whose slogan is "be less busy", promises to bring all your messaging and file-sharing systems together in one place. If you're in the growing ranks of independent contractors, FreshBooks​ supposedly makes it harder for clients to ignore your bills.

The very existence of these firms shows how – in an economy where everyone's multi-tasking, and a growing number of thankless duties are falling upon individuals who are ill-equipped to handle them – even the most diligent workers can easily get sidetracked from their real business.

A momentary mental block becomes an occasion to skim through your social media feeds.
A momentary mental block becomes an occasion to skim through your social media feeds.  Photo: Reuters

It's easy to dismiss workplace procrastination as a moral weakness, even a form of psychological damage. If social media in late December was any indication, lots of us have guiltily resolved to stop putting things off in the new year.

But procrastination circa 2016 doesn't just mean blowing off assignments to binge-watch Making a Murderer. Often, it means laying aside one pressing obligation for other little things that still need doing – like trying to get paid, or replying to the boss. Call them micro-procrastinations. They're not your fault, but over time, they add up.

"What's expected of people now makes it impossible to get sustained, serious attention to any one thing," Barry Schwartz, a psychology professor at Swarthmore College in the United States, says.

Schwartz comes at the problem from two angles. He's the author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, a seminal 2004 book about the paralysis that consumers suffer when confronted with too many decisions. He also wrote Why We Work, published in 2015, about finding satisfaction on the job.


Instead of happiness, micro-procrastination mostly yields bad habits. If you're an academic working on a research paper – or, purely hypothetically, a newspaper writer facing a regular deadline – a momentary mental block becomes an occasion to skim through your social media feeds. (Bonus tic: If you zone out while scrolling through tweets on your computer, just pull out your phone and check Twitter there, too.)

Alternatively, there's a spreadsheet to analyse or a presentation to write by Monday morning. But you also have email to answer, your  bank account requires niggling paperwork, and your professional network will wither without proper cultivation on LinkedIn. If your employer cut back on training, you should also be on the lookout for online courses that will help you keep your skills fresh in your spare time, right?


If nothing else, there are software services that block out the Internet for people who don't trust themselves to turn it off and keep it off.

There's also a whole self-help industry that promises people more effective control of their lives. But even that's a mixed blessing. The website Lifehacker, for instance, recently featured items about how to organise your to-do list, manage your tax-deductible medical expenses, and calculate the true value of your time. Go ahead, read all about it. It'll only take 10 or 15 minutes.

Ultimately, the battle against micro-procrastination won't be won through individual effort. In most areas of public policy, we recognise that most people have limited financial resources. At some point, we'll also have to acknowledge there's only so much time and attention that those same people can devote to new tasks that are dropped in their laps. Squarespace and Slack might have their charms, but technology can't save us from ourselves.