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In Defense of Distraction

I’m not ready to blame my restless attention entirely on a faulty willpower. Some of it is pure impersonal behaviorism. The Internet is basically a Skinner box engineered to tap right into our deepest mechanisms of addiction. As B. F. Skinner’s army of lever-pressing rats and pigeons taught us, the most irresistible reward schedule is not, counterintuitively, the one in which we’re rewarded constantly but something called “variable ratio schedule,” in which the rewards arrive at random. And that randomness is practically the Internet’s defining feature: It dispenses its never-ending little shots of positivity—a life-changing e-mail here, a funny YouTube video there—in gloriously unpredictable cycles. It seems unrealistic to expect people to spend all day clicking reward bars—searching the web, scanning the relevant blogs, checking e-mail to see if a co-worker has updated a project—and then just leave those distractions behind, as soon as they’re not strictly required, to engage in “healthy” things like books and ab crunches and undistracted deep conversations with neighbors. It would be like requiring employees to take a few hits of opium throughout the day, then being surprised when it becomes a problem. Last year, an editorial in the American Journal of Psychiatry raised the prospect of adding “Internet addiction” to the DSM, which would make it a disorder to be taken as seriously as schizophrenia.

A quintessentially Western solution to the attention problem—one that neatly circumvents the issue of willpower—is to simply dope our brains into focus. We’ve done so, over the centuries, with substances ranging from tea to tobacco to NoDoz to Benzedrine, and these days the tradition seems to be approaching some kind of zenith with the rise of neuroenhancers: drugs designed to treat ADHD (Ritalin, Adderall), Alzheimer’s (Aricept), and narcolepsy (Provigil) that can produce, in healthy people, superhuman states of attention. A grad-school friend tells me that Adderall allowed him to squeeze his mind “like a muscle.” Joshua Foer, writing in Slate after a weeklong experiment with Adderall, said the drug made him feel like he’d “been bitten by a radioactive spider”—he beat his unbeatable brother at Ping-Pong, solved anagrams, devoured dense books. “The part of my brain that makes me curious about whether I have new e-mails in my in-box apparently shut down,” he wrote.

The most advanced Buddhist monks become world-class multitaskers. Meditation might speed up their mental processes enough to handle information overload.

Although neuroenhancers are currently illegal to use without a prescription, they’re popular among college students (on some campuses, up to 25 percent of students admitted to taking them) and—if endless anecdotes can be believed—among a wide spectrum of other professional focusers: journalists on deadline, doctors performing high-stakes surgeries, competitors in poker tournaments, researchers suffering through the grind of grant-writing. There has been controversy in the chess world recently about drug testing at tournaments.

In December, a group of scientists published a paper in Nature that argued for the legalization and mainstream acceptance of neuroenhancers, suggesting that the drugs are really no different from more traditional “cognitive enhancers” such as laptops, exercise, nutrition, private tutoring, reading, and sleep. It’s not quite that simple, of course. Adderall users frequently complain that the drug stifles their creativity—that it’s best for doing ultrarational, structured tasks. (As Foer put it, “I had a nagging suspicion that I was thinking with blinders on.”) One risk the scientists do acknowledge is the fascinating, horrifying prospect of “raising cognitive abilities beyond their species-typical upper bound.” Ultimately, one might argue, neuroenhancers spring from the same source as the problem they’re designed to correct: our lust for achievement in defiance of natural constraints. It’s easy to imagine an endless attentional arms race in which new technologies colonize ever-bigger zones of our attention, new drugs expand the limits of that attention, and so on.

One of the most exciting—and confounding—solutions to the problem of attention lies right at the intersection of our willpower and our willpower-sapping technologies: the grassroots Internet movement known as “lifehacking.” It began in 2003 when the British tech writer Danny O’Brien, frustrated by his own lack of focus, polled 70 of his most productive friends to see how they managed to get so much done; he found that they’d invented all kinds of clever little tricks—some high-tech, some very low-tech—to help shepherd their attention from moment to moment: ingenious script codes for to-do lists, software hacks for managing e-mail, rituals to avoid sinister time-wasting traps such as “yak shaving,” the tendency to lose yourself in endless trivial tasks tangentially related to the one you really need to do. (O’Brien wrote a program that prompts him every ten minutes, when he’s online, to ask if he’s procrastinating.) Since then, lifehacking has snowballed into a massive self-help program, written and revised constantly by the online global hive mind, that seeks to help you allocate your attention efficiently. Tips range from time-management habits (the 90-second shower) to note-taking techniques (mind mapping) to software shortcuts (how to turn your Gmail into a to-do list) to delightfully retro tech solutions (turning an index card into a portable dry-erase board by covering it with packing tape).