Are digital distractions stopping you from achieving your best work? PwC Partner Monty Hamilton talks to author Brian Solis about his research into the downside of devices and social media.
There are few people that don’t consider their mobile phone a constant companion. Most of us have grown to rely on our smartphones for work, personal and social activity; they make us feel faster, more efficient, networked and active. The question is, is that such a good thing?
A 2018 survey by research company Global Web index found that seven out of 10 respondents had tried to moderate their digital use in some way.1 There is plenty of evidence to suggest that too much screen time can affect mental wellbeing, or actually diminish productivity or creativity. Even the big tech companies – whose business models rely on having a growing user base interacting with their digital products – recognise it.
Google’s Digital Wellbeing site is built around the value of ‘hitting pause’, offering a range of tips and tools to do just that. In 2018, Apple launched a Digital Health Initiative to help users monitor and limit time spent on their iPhones and iPads. There are a whole range of digital detox apps – from those that reward self-control with gift vouchers, to apps that will lock down your internet browser or social media for a set amount of time. Somewhere in between the carrot-or-stick approach sit apps like Forest, which gamifies offline time by growing a virtual seed as a timer ticks away. Log on again too quickly and your ‘tree’ will die.
One in five of the surveyed people that tried to cut down their screen time went cold turkey – completely removing digital activity for a specific period. But when you’re at the executive level, is a digital detox really achievable?
In senior roles there’s often pressure to be accessible 24/7. If leaders appear to not be connected, they may fear giving off the impression that they’re not engaged, or are doing a bad job. In any case, these days it’s impossible for executives to completely unplug for any length of time.
Yet if it’s clear that a barrage of information can alter the way you do your job – and could even be stopping you from achieving the things you need to achieve – how is it possible to strike the right balance? This was the problem faced by author and digital analyst Brian Solis, who has released a book about how digital devices impact the way we learn, work, think and communicate.
I caught up with Brian a few days after his keynote at SXSW Interactive to discuss the topic of digital distractions. In the video below, we talk about how Brian’s journey of research taught him how to lead a more balanced and productive life… and finally complete a book he’d struggled with for so long.
Monty Hamilton: As someone who spent so much time evangelising the opportunity of technology, it’s somewhat ironic that you’re now sharing with us a story and a narrative around how we can manage technology – and perhaps our addictions and excess use of technology.
Brian Solis: I’ll tell you the thing about this book: it was a very eye-opening and life-changing journey for me. I needed it. (I’ll get to that in a second.) But the other thing is, the irony of this is that you’re right.
I’ve helped launch a lot of the companies, I’ve helped advise a lot of the companies that are guilty of making us a bit more tech distracted – and even in some cases, tech addicted. At the same time, it’s also a challenge or an issue that I didn’t realise I had. I don’t think most do, so I hope I can overcome this part of my journey, which is, how do you sell a book to people who don’t know that they have a problem?
They might feel like they spend too much time on their phone. I was on an escalator with a dear friend of mine at South by Southwest and she said, “Oh, man, these wellness notifications on the phone are killing me”. She said, “Yesterday, I got a notification that I was on my phone for five hours”. I thought, Why are the notifications about your wellness killing you? Maybe you spending five hours on your phone might be the problem? I think that’s the same thing with me: I didn’t realise I had a problem until I had a problem.
Monty Hamilton: Let’s unpack how you got to that point. Because if there’s one thing that’s wonderful when sitting on the other side of the world, it’s that when keeping in touch with you, literally within seconds of contacting you, no matter what time of the day it is – and I never know where you are on the end of my message – you respond almost instantaneously, which is great for me but I always do ask myself the question: Have you got your phone with you 24 hours a day? And how healthy is that? How did you discover the reality of the challenge you were dealing with, personally?
Brian Solis: The answer is yes, it’s with me 24 hours a day. Unfortunately, however, you Monty are one of the only people I will respond to in real time. The reality is, I actually set out to write a different book. It was a follow-up to my last book, which was X: The Experience When Business Meets Design . I decided that that book was going to be (to continue the pun,) a new chapter in my life. I wanted to make a more mainstream book that was going to grow my presence, so I wasn’t constantly having to be on airplanes, taking every single opportunity that came my way – in addition to a full-time job doing research, and also anthropology work.
But I couldn’t get past the proposal stage. I felt like I wanted to go to my publisher with a proposal that clearly explained what I was trying to do and why it was different and who it was going to reach and the value to them. Which makes all the sense in the world. But I struggled through it; there’s this disconnect between what I’m thinking and what I say and then also with what I was writing.
So I hired a developmental editor to help me to make sure that I’m bringing the best out of me. Actually, it was a bit embarrassing to be honest with you because I was making mistakes. I wasn’t clear in many ways and the edits that were coming back continuously were just very frustrating and also heartbreaking and also demeaning. I was feeling myself sort of break down in the process. I’m doing that as I’m also doing research as I’m also keeping up with my tech because I have to keep up an online presence as part of my work. I guess, to be honest with you, I just gave up. Six months into the process I was disenchanted, disheartened.
Monty Hamilton: So having done this seven times before you just reached an impasse. I’m not overly familiar with the book writing process, but obviously that proposal stage is a really important one, and the concept… and you just reached an impasse?
Brian Solis: I reached an impasse. I blamed it on everything. I’ll come back to this in a second. But I blamed it on everything in that moment – on everything but myself. So: it’s writer’s block. It’s the stress of everything else. It’s, I’m also a father and a husband. And trying to continue with all of these things in a way that I feel, or felt, that I was doing my best.
Monty Hamilton: Yes.
Brian Solis: But I needed to understand what was going on, because I still had a book to write. As a speaker, it’s sort of your album, as if you’re an artist: you have to have an album if you want to go on tour. It it had been at that time I think two-something years since X had been released. To me, it felt like yesterday. But it was also notable on the bottom line as to where those speaking opportunities were coming from. You could see its legs slow down a bit.
Long story short – I decided to just really get into what was going on. What I found was that my ability to focus and concentrate had been dramatically impacted. Then, through further self discovery and research, I had found that actually my books five, six and seven had also increasingly gotten worse and worse and harder and harder and longer and longer to produce. This one, I never got past the proposal stage.
That’s when I realised I need to understand, What’s impacting this? What was impacting my focus, my depth, my creativity? Why was I was I making so many mistakes? Why was I not clear in my communications, when that’s my whole living? I learned that I was affected by the very technology that I had championed over the years,
Monty Hamilton: Right. We talk about mobile phones, about notifications and distraction and, you know, all of the statistics depending on which country and which narrative you read. Yet thousands of times per week, or hundreds of interactions per day, we’re checking our phones, we’re checking them in the toilets, we’re checking them under the cover of the duvet at night so our partner doesn’t see or the light doesn’t wake us up.
I myself, having reflected on this book from you, and spending some time with us, it’s been a real cause for me to sort of think, How am I using technology? The conclusion for me is this scenario where I think I’m kind of present. But the reality is that I’m not. I’m actually zoning in and out of conversations in physical groups to jump into the second conversation or read some content on my phone. It’s a bizarre, almost creeping phenomena, because it is not linear, right? It’s not on or off – all of a sudden, we’re addicted, right?
The iPhone is 11 years old this month. So this has crept in, but you’ve discovered that some of the application are not only creeping in by way of a new application, they’re explicitly designed to get our attention. In fact, there’s people working in these organisations who are focusing on, how to actually give that cognitive stimulation.
Brian Solis: Yes, it’s more than cognitive stimulation. It’s absolutely persuasive design. In fact, that’s what it’s called. There’s a course at Stanford University that BJ Fogg has taught. It’s directly attributed to the design of Snapchat. There’s a fantastic individual who’s also sort of a pseudo whistleblower in the industry. His name is Tristan Harris, who is also a designer. He has been probably the loudest voice, revealing all of the tricks that go into why we look at our phones so much.
There also are social hacks, if you will, and conscious hacks and ego hacks. I say those things because that’s legitimately what they are. What’s happening is that when you, let’s say, post something online, and people react to it, what happens is that you’re getting this validation.
Monty Hamilton: Yes.
Brian Solis: But it’s more than that. What’s also happening is that it’s unlocking up to six different chemicals in your body that make you feel something, usually better than how you felt before that had happened. Or the withdrawal of those chemicals were forcing you to crave to share something, or to interact more just because you hadn’t felt that in that minute.
Monty Hamilton: So this is no different to someone experiencing withdrawal from smoking a cigarette, for example.
Brian Solis: Absolutely. One of the tricks that they use is called variable intermittent rewards. It’s not unlike what you see with the slot machine. Every time you pull it, it’s just so close. And you feel like you every time you pull that handle, I’m one step closer.
You feel that when you open your favorite app, or when you share something, and it fires up. You get this sensation that you are going to win. After that you don’t think about whether or not you’ve won, because you’ve gotten what you needed. Basically, you’ve gotten a fix.
The depth of what’s happening while we use the phone is much deeper than that. That was a topic of my 2018 presentation at South by Southwest, that it was a very honest revelation on stage of where I had been, and where I was. I had found in my research, all of these design secrets, the impacts of these – essentially these designs – on our bodies, on our minds, on our spirit, also on our relationships.
It also turns out that the same design techniques are behind a lot of the fake news; that they’re meant to stimulate cognitive biases, so that they create these insular groups and communities to essentially polarise and create division between one another. It’s honestly quite brilliant in how it’s been developed and how it’s been implemented. But I still had a book to write!
I think the number one question that I walked away with from 2018 South by Southwest was, what do I need to do about it? I also needed to answer that question, what do I need to do about it? So I took the research further.
It turned out to be less of a technology story. There’s a reason why we felt like we needed to give into this. There’s a reason why we did give into it. I think what I had learned at the very beginning stages was that, there was no manual in life to teach us how to react to these things. We were given a very big platform, a very, very big stage to amplify who we are and what we do to share our life. And it was also very seductive and intoxicating in ways to see that people would follow and interact with that. In many ways, it’s sort of this micro-celebrity that resulted in the process. What we didn’t realise, as those who have been awoken, was that our parents and their parents and so forth, have lived life a certain way. They had access to new media along the decades…
Monty Hamilton: …Yes, but the newspaper was a daily publication…
Brian Solis: …Exactly. It was still telling you what was happening. You didn’t have to the platform to have the same or bigger sort of presence as a newspaper, or a channel or network. So there is no operating manual for a lot of this stuff. And we’re sort of figuring it out on our own. And it’s slow.
You brought up cigarettes earlier, let’s go back to the 50s and 60s when doctors used to be the face of cigarettes. It wasn’t until research and advocacy groups really broke through the lobbyists and the tobacco industry to reveal the truth. Even then, people fought it. The same is true for sugar. The same is true for carbon. The same is true for you name it and there’s just naturally a fight before we’re able to break through this.
It’s interesting to see though, that right now we’re in the Wild West of sorts of reacting to what’s happening to us as individuals, the answer is not technology related. One of the things that I did – it sounds silly in hindsight – was to Google how to fix my symptoms. Some really great things came up, such as practice mindfulness. I did learn a lot about mindfulness and presence and yoga and meditation (I haven’t tried yoga yet. That’s on my list of things to do.) But meditation, yes, calm and headspace in terms of apps, productivity apps, Burning Man, Esalen Institute in Big Sur [a retreat in California], a lot of really wonderful things. But really, what you have to do first is, accept that you have a problem so that you’re on a mission or a quest to solve that.
Where I got to was that it wasn’t just addiction, it was the effects of everything. So I was probably not the best husband, I wasn’t the best father – even though I felt then I was. I thought that I was the best friend. In turn, I looked at the interactions that I had and they were much, much more superficial, even though they were well intended and deep in those moments, it just wasn’t what friendships could possibly be.
Monty Hamilton: That’s profound, right? We’re not just talking about sort of the boundaries or the motive of technology, you what you’re saying is that this addiction was having a macro impact on your whole of life.
Brian Solis: Absolutely. It’s not just the addiction. I want to make that clear. I don’t want people to feel like, oh my gosh, you have a problem. It’s just the nuances of constantly being open to distraction. The addiction we can talk about later. That’s something that honestly after this book, I have to manage because I still need to live with technology.
I’m not asking anybody to abandon their phones, I think they can have very positive impacts on what we do once you know your intention of why you’re here and what you’re trying to do. Because then it can be an enabler for something greater. But yes, absolutely. The constant impact of distraction is rewiring our brain to move faster, to think faster to try to do multiple things at once, even though we’re not actually moving these needles at once. Nor are we delivering at the calibre and the quality that we could if we were just simply mono tasking. It’s stripping us from depth of focus. It’s stripping us from this spectrum of creativity, it’s stripping us of empathy. It’s so hard to feel for the constant things that are barraging us, online and in the real world. Because we’re moving so quickly amongst all of these different things. Look, at the same time, that same technique that’s happening to us on our phones is happening in news and information. So we might feel horrible about the outrageous, or the outlandish, or the devilish thing that might have happened today, but tomorrow, something else. We’re speeding up. It’s not healthy, it’s not good for wellness, it is not good for happiness. It turns out that some of the direct results of all of this, of living this lifestyle – not just using the tech but all that’s in it, causes a lot of things like crazy anxiety, and lack of sleep and depression, loneliness; these are the longer term effects. The shorter terms are basically the stepping stone to all of this. So none of it’s really good.
Monty Hamilton: It does pose the question about the prevalence of mental health [challenges] amongst youth and adolescents. Are we simply measuring [the increase] more effectively now or is technology and hyperconnectivity a contributing factor to it?
Brian Solis: A hundred percent. I did research (I wish I could publish the results of it) where I interviewed women from 61 to six and the entire preface of the research was to understand the impact of Instagram, Snapchat, all of the apps on their impact of self beauty, self esteem. It turns out that it’s just unbelievable that people are trying to live to these false standards, these false livelihoods that just aren’t even real in the first place. Just on the superficial level it’s leading to things like – it’s called dysmorphia, in some cases Snapchat dysmorphia or filter dysmorphia – where women are trying to look like how they look online. Or if you use the face tune app where you contour your face, take away some of these wrinkles. Whatever it is that you do to feel like you’re projecting the ‘you’ that you want to see, or that you want the people to see that follow you. At some point you feel like you need to like that in the real world. None of this is healthy.
Then again, none of what we do every single day is helping us understand that this is happening to us and at what level. We get people who might tell us, “Oh, you use your phone too much. Put it down, look up, go for a hike.” But that’s not going to solve the problem.
Monty Hamilton: So having realised your predicament, you’ve gone on this mission, I guess, to try and understand and research, how big is this challenge. More importantly, in your new book, you’ve pulled together some very effective techniques and, dare I say it, a very helpful guide for people who can just switch off and need to be leveraging technology in their lives and how they can manage it,
Brian Solis: This was something – to be quite honest with you – I wasn’t ready for yet. I wasn’t ready for what that book was going to become. Because the issue is affecting so many things that we don’t necessarily appreciate today. For example, relationships, or performance. I was struggling in a lot of my work. I didn’t realise because, everything that I did online, everything that I do through my device reminds me – I call it accidental narcissism – it just reminds me that I’m the best, the most important person in that moment. I’m being celebrated in those moments.
You fool yourself, or at least blind yourself into seeing all of these things that you’re actually not doing as well as you could. What ended up happening with the book was, none of the superficial things were solving the problem. What I realised was that the decisions that I was making about my relationship with technology and how I was living my best life was from a different centre of reference than how I had grown up.
All of the steps that led me to this different centre of reference put me in a place that I actually thought I was still back here. This soul searching, the self discovery, the self awareness that came from a lot of this research, allowed me to put together a system that asks some pretty deep questions – and then re-ask them, because we usually fail the first time around.
It brings you on a human path to move the centre of reference wherever you want to. But it’s intentional now. It’s not manipulated by how you use technology and how you move and react based on technology. It’s now intentional. You are where you want to be. And you’re going to go where you want to go. Because now you know where you are, you figured out what’s important to you, and you understand now what it’s going to take between where you are here, and how to get here. That’s what the book really comes down to. It’s called Lifescale, because it was really about taking control of all of these things. It doesn’t even have to be about technology, although the first couple of chapters make the case of why we’re on this path together. The rest is just simply recentering your life for a life that we want to be prepared to live.
Monty Hamilton: That’s pretty full on. I’ve had the chance on my flight over here to dig pretty deep into the book. As an executive myself, and plenty of our audiences are tuning in from companies across the world, what are some of the practical things that we can do?
For me, I always try and make an effort when I get home, of at least having some clear time and turning the phone upside down or off even, to connect with my family and have quality time. We’ve all got our little things that we do, but the question I’m asking myself is, Am I succeeding or am I just managing or coping? So what are some of the really practical steps that your research has told you people can do to manage the reality of this challenge?
Brian Solis: One of the first things that I do – and thank you for being there in the presentation at SXSW which, I try to at least get people on a path to be ready. Which is what I call a ‘life hack’ or ‘productivity hack’, which is getting you ready to get to the depth that’s going to allow you to see these things.
One of the easy tasks was to at least practice the art of the Pomodoro Technique. Figure out all of the things that you have to do in a given day. What’s ‘immediately do’, what do you have to start, and then what do you have to communicate? Then balance your day with the deeper stuff at the beginning and turn everything off. Do the less important stuff as the day goes on, sort of closing out your day with maybe some time for social media, and definitely email, but don’t pepper those things in between.
Monty Hamilton: OK.
Brian Solis: The Pomodoro Technique asks you to focus for 25-minute bursts. No distraction. And then in those five minute bursts afterwards (so 25 minutes and then five minute bursts) where you can take a breath, get a water, go to the restroom, whatever it is that you need, but I asked not not to check email unless you really have to, which is fine, and definitely not social media. It’ll all be there later.What it’s doing is it’s helping you build a discipline to focus longer and I’ll tell you honestly, when I first tried to do it I focused maybe for two or three minutes before I just unconsciously or subconsciously reached for the device, because it was a muscle.
Monty Hamilton: You were probably checking the time – or did you literally have a timer?
Brian Solis: Oh, no, I literally had the timer because I felt like I needed to completely dive in. And it was hard because I didn’t have the discipline for it. I’ll be honest with you, I still struggle with it. It’s a constant barrage: we get new apps, new services, new devices all the time. So the book itself has become very valuable from the beginning where it teaches you all these productivity hacks, to the end you’re reminded why you’re doing these things in the first place.
Read about the digital detox and more takeaways from SXSW Interactive 2019 here.