Our Phones Aren't Just Messing With Our Politics—They're Also Slowing Our Economy | Opinion

The hand-wringing under way about the role of social media and smartphones in political systems around the world is well founded. Highly targeted, misleading and biased messages are bolstering efforts to undermine democracy. And nearly half of social media users are already "worn out" by the volume of political content they're seeing in the current election cycle.

But digital tools and algorithms aren't just eating away at our politics.They're also damaging our economy.

A survey from Udemy found that nearly two-thirds of workers now spend an hour looking at their phones during each workday; more than a third of millennials and Gen Z workers spend two hours checking their phones. And this does not include all the distractions on work computers, from email notifications to tweets and more.

Workers report increased stress and a lack of concentration as a result of all these distractions. "While we've let devices and technologies become fixtures, we haven't reckoned with how they're undermining our ability to focus and work smart," Udemy reported.

This problem starts before people enter the workforce. Recent studies show that students are missing out on about 12 percent of their favorite course in college, and 25 precent of their least favorite course, because they're busy checking their laptops and phones "for non-class purposes."

All this is happening because creators of digital platforms have been wildly successful. We're living in an iteration of the attention economy. Attention is currency, and these creators have learned to use psychology and brain chemistry to grab more than their share.

Generations of educators, parents and managers could not possibly have prepared us for the onslaught of information, showers of attention, celebration of self-interest and selfishness, and the flooding of egocentric emotions that come alive in these virtual spaces. As with cigarettes in the early days, we didn't understand that our digital indulgences were made to be addictive, and we didn't have information about the long-term effects they could have.

These tools are so potent that they even got me addicted—and I should know better.

After years as a futurist and adviser working with companies throughout Silicon Valley, I thought I was immune to some of the tricks these tools use. I knew, for example, that notifications are a temptation meant to fool you into believing that you only matter when people are reacting to or reaching out to you.

Still, I fell into the trap. I couldn't stop looking. A couple of years ago, my productivity, as well as my creativity, came to a halt. I also became less present as a husband and father.

To fix this, I had to unlearn the habits I had formed. Through lots of trial-and-error, I discovered methods that work—and go beyond the obvious, such as "turn off notifications." These steps can help anyone recover control of their time.

The first one is getting enough sleep—something that more than a third of Americans are missing out on, according to the CDC. Becoming more focused at work requires fixing this.

"In the largest study of its kind, scientists found that sleep-deprived people have a much harder time rebounding from distractions than people who are well rested," Psychology Today reported earlier this year.

This may be the "new golden age of television," and Americans now spend nearly half the day— a majority of our waking hours—interacting with media. But remember: those algorithms used by Netflix and Amazon to keep you watching don't deserve your precious sleep time.

The next step is learning to identify your personal peak time, and scheduling your most important projects then. Many of us are at our sharpest in the morning. But research in chronobiology finds that people's circadian rhythms vary. For several days, or even several weeks, watch how you operate during the day. When's your peak time?

Once you've determined that, schedule your deeper projects for that time. Allocate other blocks of the day for less mentally demanding work such as checking emails and answering those that just need a quick reply; taking care of paperwork; or having one-on-one meetings with staff. When you devote your peak time to your most challenging work, you and your business see better results.

Finally, beat procrastination by pitting the rewards of the long game against the immediate rewards of distraction. Procrastination is a subconscious attempt to avoid unpleasant emotions stirred up by the task we're meant to be doing. To overcome this temptation, build pleasant emotions around the idea of getting the task done. Visualize the tangible benefits and the feelings that will result from the timely and exceptional delivery of your project—and keep those firmly in mind when potential distractions pop up.

It takes practice and determination. But the rewards to letting go of tech addiction are tremendous. I call the process "lifescaling." It's all about working to achieve an intentional state of happiness, creativity and mastery in the face of distractions.

The more that we all do this—and the more our businesses help us to do this by fostering environments that are free of distractions—the more we all stand to gain.

Brian Solis is a world-leading digital anthropologist, analyst and the author of Lifescale: How to Live a More Creative, Productive, and Happy Life.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​