Revisiting the Distracted Mind

As both an online student and an instructional designer, I find myself thinking about attention spans often. Last year, I wrote a post here about harnessing the distracted mind, in which I offered tools and methods for staying focused, even when hilarious YouTube videos or brilliant longreads are just one browser tab away. What I’ve come to realize over the past year is that distraction is never going to be something we can just “fix” with a simple productivity method or even a research-backed app. Don’t get me wrong – those can help. But computers, and the evolving ways in which we use them, will always create behavioral challenges for us.

For example, take multitasking. Lately, the term “multitasking” has started to be replaced by “task switching”. We don’t perform multiple tasks at once, the argument goes; we merely switch from one task to another. When you use a computer, task switching is often motivated by on-screen notifications. Slack or Skype notifications pop up whenever someone sends out a message. Chrome wants you to know that someone commented on that Google Doc you were working on two days ago. Outlook has a new meeting invitation for you. Each of these little taps on the shoulder can seriously derail your focus.

Some say that the solution to notification fatigue is easy: just turn them off. There are a few problems with this idea, though. The first one is pretty simple: what if you miss out on something really important, like a reminder that you’re supposed to meet your boss in fifteen minutes? Sometimes, those little pop-ups can save you from serious mishaps.

Another problem is that, when notifications are turned off, people tend to interrupt themselves. Dabbish, Mark, & Gonzalez ( 2011) theorize that we actually condition ourselves to self-interrupt. They argue that we grow so accustomed to being interrupted that when we remove external interruptions, we compensate for their absence by creating our own interruptions. You know what this looks like: you’re typing away at a project, and suddenly you have the urge to check something totally unrelated. One experiment found that this kind of “internal” interruption resulted in even more lost time than external interruptions (Katidioti, Borst, Van Vugt, & Taatgen, 2016).

What’s worse, people who experience feelings of frustration with their current task are even more likely to self-interrupt (Adler & Benbunan-Fich, 2013). Imagine an online student who spends the workday on a computer, with its own barrage of notifications. After work, the student goes home, spends some time with family, and then sits down at a laptop to do some coursework – say, organic chemistry. If the content is difficult to comprehend, it’s likely that just the act of paying attention to the content is going to be hard. Scientists have found that shifting attention tends to result in mental fatigue and a drop in performance (Hopstaken, van der Linden, Bakker, Kompier, & Leung, 2016). It could be a tough night for that student.

So where do we go from here, and how do we solve this problem? There doesn’t seem to be a silver bullet or life-hack that can truly make distraction go away. Some researchers suggest that we need to rethink software design to minimize distractions (Mark, Iqbal, Czerwinski, Johns, & Sano, 2016). After all, if software has conditioned us to distract ourselves, maybe it can reverse the trend. Instructional designers might consider altering course design so that students get more positive feedback. That could reduce the feelings of frustration that lead to self-interruption. In the meantime, it might be helpful just to become aware of the behavioral costs we pay as we further ingrain technology into our lives.


Adler, R. F., & Benbunan-Fich, R. (2013). Self-interruptions in discretionary multitasking. Computers in Human Behavior, 29(4), 1664–1670.

Hopstaken, J. F., van der Linden, D., Bakker, A. B., Kompier, M. A. J., & Leung, Y. K. (2016). Shifts in attention during mental fatigue: Evidence from subjective, behavioral, physiological, and eye-tracking data. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 42(6), 878–889.

Dabbish, L., Mark, G., & Gonzalez, V. (2011). Why Do I Keep Interrupting Myself?: Environment, Habit and Self-Interruption. Chi, 3127–3130.

Katidioti, I., Borst, J. P., Van Vugt, M. K., & Taatgen, N. A. (2016). Interrupt me: External interruptions are less disruptive than self-interruptions. Computers in Human Behavior, 63, 906–915.

Mark, G., Iqbal, S. T., Czerwinski, M., Johns, P., & Sano, A. (2016). Neurotics can’t focus : An in situ study of online multitasking in the workplace. Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 1739–1744.

Tags: | | |

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *