COVID-19 did what the best of businesses couldn’t. It put digital transformation in motion at a rate so rapid, it didn’t account for the time needed to settle in with the new order. And just like that, we took the leap of faith with technology for remote working, remote learning and remote doing. Over 5 weeks into lockdown (& counting!), it is leading to more digital distraction and unproductivity than ever – across businesses, geographies and generations!

Speaking of the latter, virtual learning for 1st graders isn’t as great as it sounds in theory. First day of remote learning through a virtual conference tool for my 6-year old looked something like this:

1.Arrange laptop for the kid. *Fight ensues between me and the hubby on who sacrifices ‘their’ device*

2.After much coordination with other parents over phone and WhatsApp, log in to the virtual classroom successfully.

3.Get your patience tested as children (read: parents) join the classroom over the next 15-20 minutes!

4.Explain to your child that his teacher is inside the laptop(yes, that’s the only way!) and this is his new classroom.

5.Train a young, curious mind to focus on the teacher while avoiding distractions (like seeing his friends after almost 2 months!).

It’s crazy, to say the least! But, sadly, it’s only the tip of the iceberg!

In the first of a series of ‘Growing Up Digital Australia’ reports, the Gonski Institute at the University of NSW has warned that ‘digital technology has become a growing distraction from learning and that students are less able to focus on educational tasks.’ Out of the 1876 teachers, principals and school support staff from Government, Catholic and Independent schools surveyed, a 59% decline was observed in students’ readiness to learn with 84% saying that digital technologies were a growing distraction in the learning environment.

The stats are no different (or better) for adults!

Like all animals, we evolved to switch attention instantly when we sense danger: the snapping twig that might signal an approaching predator, the shadow that could indicate an enemy behind a tree. Our goal-directed, or top-down, mental activities stand little chance against these bottom-up forces of novelty and saliency — stimuli that are unexpected, sudden or dramatic, or that evoke memories of important experiences. And tapping into these bottom-up stimuli are our digital devices that draw our attention away from our goals (read: distract), through buzzes, vibrations, flashes of light etc.

While we are not new to the digital landscape, the sudden permeation of it all – in all spheres of our lives – work (virtual conferences, instant messengers for remote communication and collaboration, dependence on Cloud for everything), play (streaming services and social media), children (virtual learning, YouTube and gaming), household work (apps for groceries, veggies, dairy and other essentials) – is jarring and throwing productivity out of gear.

Rescue Time, which provides time management advice and tools, noted that out of the 10 hours employees spend sitting at their screens each day, half of those are on chat messaging apps like Slack, Teams and Workplace. On an average, information workers spend 3 minutes on any single task before being interrupted or switching to another, according to a Microsoft study shared with Recode, which used wearable sensors and computer-tracking software. Multitaskers can experience a 40% decrease in productivity, according to Microsoft.

It’s a Digital Deluge, as per Psychology Today’s ‘Why Am I Stressed and Anxious All the Time?’. “There’s a stunning amount of messaging coming at us on an average day and we’re constantly consuming digital information. It’s actually cognitively overwhelming and people are confused”, it reads.

Adding to the digital overload is a sense of loss — of freedom, of loved ones and a lack of safety which is breeding fearful founders, stressed housewives, self-quarantined employees, and bored children by the truckload!

Labdhi Shah, Counselling Psychologist at Mind Route, says that we are currently caught in a loop of “unproductive anxiety”. The absence of treatment, ambiguity, and too much negative news are all fueling anxiety and stress, confusion and anger, all of which are exacerbated by fear of infection, having limited access to supplies of necessities, inadequate information or the experience of economic loss or stigma.

According to Ginger, 88% of workers reported experiencing moderate to extreme stress over the past 4 to 6 weeks. Among those reporting stress, 62% noted losing at least 1 hour a day in productivity and 32% lost at least 2 hours a day due to COVID-19–related stress.

The Productivity Pill

The most basic definition of workplace productivity is spending more time on the right work. Acknowledging that productivity will be hampered, because a significant amount of time and mind space are being devoted to keeping yourself and your loved ones safe, in communicating and coordinating with your team over tech-enabled communication channels vs. in-person, the amount of distractions – digital and physical – you will be battling through your workday, is the first step toward reclaiming your productivity. The second is to get our act together to stay safe and SANE with the below productivity hacks for addressing digital distraction.

1.Embrace Intermittent Digitizing

Intermittent Fasting, an eating pattern where you cycle between periods of eating and fasting for weight loss, fat loss, and a reduction in the risk of some diseases, is big in the fitness circles these days. But why just your food, you can put your digital consumption on a diet too.

Take this one step ahead with a no-phone zone. This forces you to put your phone physically out of sight (and hence out of mind).

2.Allow for binge time

FOMO is real, which is why deprivation to a dopamine-producing activity will only lead to withdrawal symptoms. Instead, setting a designated time for binging your heart out on streaming services/social media gives you the joy while controlling the time spent mindlessly.

3.Delete that news app!

Not just is that ping from every news distracting, during today’s pandemic times, it’s distressing and demotivating as well. An unnecessary stressor we can easily live without!

4.Change Notification settings

Do you really need that notification informing you of your 1st-degree Connection’s activity while you are trying to crank out a critical task at hand? Be it LinkedIn, WhatsApp or mail, review all notifications and keep them to a minimum.

5.Practice Emotional Hygiene

We spend a lot of time worrying about our physical health, but we sometimes neglect our mind in the process. To maintain good mental health, you can practice “emotional hygiene” by being aware of your emotions, avoiding negative talk, practicing affirmations, meditation etc. and reaching out for help, when needed.

“Are you going to mop the house or do the dishes”, asks my hubby in a voice loud enough for the neighbors to enjoy the conversation.

“Umm. I will do the dishes while cooking”, I answer while typing out this blog post, replying to a team mate’s IM and checking notification on my LinkedIn – all at the same time. 

Digital (and physical) distraction and unproductivity – what’s that?!

‘The month that was’ is a monthly column covering the hot and the happening in the eLearning, L&D and learning technology space presented in a light, easy-to-digest format. While the aim of these posts is to keep the HR and the Learning & Development fraternity abreast with the latest news and views, it is a vent out for the author, Pranjalee Lahri, who deals with a one-and-a-half men pair – her hubby and her 6-year old son – as she moonlights as a wife and a mother.

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