The Hierarchy Of Digital Distractions

Tuesday, September 8th, 2009

The Hierarchy of Digital Distractions

I notice these days that I can spend hours at my computer, in a cloud. A swampy blur of digital activity, smeared across various activities and media and software.

Emailing, writing, tweeting, designing, browsing, taking calls, Skyping, Facebooking, RSS Feeding – all blurred into a single technological trance.

I seem to switch randomly from one to the other. But actually is there a subtle hierarchy in this cloud? Do I prefer some distractions over others? I think so.

The Cloud

In this diagram, each level in this hierarchy trumps the next.

So, if you get a new msg on Facebook, but your landline rings, you’l take the landline call. You might have a spasmodic moment of ‘uh? wadd I do’. But, usually, you’ll take the call.

Similarly, if you get a new SMS whilst opening a new online dating message, you’ll be hard pressed not to read that SMS. It’ll take a great force of will. You may attempt to do both simultaneously. But if you really observe yourself closely, one will take priority – even if it’s only by milliseconds. The SMS will win your attention.

And so on up the chart…

(I understand this post reveals much about my pitiful life. There’s no need to say that in the comments, thanks.)

But if I’ve missed any distractions, feel free to suggest them. I realise AIM and MS Messenger introduce a whole universe of distraction. I don’t go there. I have enough distractions.

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Show Comments ( )

  • Mark

    Like you have a partner. Hah.


    PS Love it.

  • Steve

    I’m sorry but all that get’s trumped when the kettle finished boiling and it’s time to make tea (my kettles digital by the way) :-)

    Lovely graphic!

  • christopher

    i don’t bother with chat software now because fb and gmail both have the capability, so i haven’t booted up aim in forever.

    as to the hierarchy of attention given to various interruptions and distractions, i completely agree with what you said, but wonder at the impetus behind the choices. things that are either a more immediate medium or simply have happened last (time weighted) would seem to get higher precedence than anything that could be put down and picked up a little later with no ill affect.

    im’s don’t have to be real-time. they can be, but often one party may be delayed in answering for various legit reasons. it’s not like a phone where you need to keep the conversation going or get off the line (perhaps that’s something that will change in the future with always on, always present services – just read this fast company article this morning on that). likewise, updating or commenting on facebook isn’t as time-sensitive as a sms message could be.

    but also, almost any recent interruption will attract our attention. something new and shiny often trumps what’s already in front of us. consider the reverse of your example – if an im or sms popped up while you were on the phone, wouldn’t you be tempted to read it – especially if the other person was carrying the conversation at that point?

  • Rob

    Looks like this is based on more data than Maslow ever used. I don’t think Maslow even knew what data was.

  • flokra

    Wikipedia is missing, definitely.

  • Kevin Mears

    What did I think? I thought it was/is great.

    Ooh hang on, just doing…something …else…

    See what I did there? :-)

    Really, though this struck a chord with me. I ‘m glad I’m the only one with a cloud of distractions around me

  • mark allen

    Very funny. If your life is sad I’m afraid there are many of us in the same boat with you. There was a consulting lesson differentiating ‘important’ from ‘urgent’ in that a phone call is always urgent seeming but not always important. Few people have the force of will to subordinate those things that are urgent but not truly important. Once that aspect is added, you’d have a fine teachable graphic model here!

  • See-ming Lee 李思明 SML

    Awesome! I like especially the multiple levels of email / twitter categories – but perhaps they can be reworked a bit to group them for visually clearly…?

  • krishna

    This is an awesome image describing the true facts.. :)

  • Cycnet

    I love this post but what I love most is the fact I am reading it on my mp3 player – as if it is some how better to be surfing the net on an mp3 player than on the computer sitting just two feet away…… I am tempted to suggest we all have internet addictions

  • Emil

    I think you missed ‘making diagrams of the hierarchy of digital distractions’ :)

  • katiep


    i agreee completely. wheres Wiki.

    that site is a must.

  • Willem van der Horst

    Brilliant, love it! Thanks for that

  • Neil Reddin

    Nicely done.

    Pretty near the top I’d have to include a two year old crawling under the desk and playing “IT geek toddler” with the back of the machine.

  • René Schmalschläger

    “Blurred into a single technological trance” Nice :-)

  • sophie

    This is great kinda like Maslow 2.0 – thanks!

  • chaosnet3

    Adding to the right the variable ‘engagement’? Arrow pointing downwards?

  • TuringTest

    And then there’s the black hole of the Internets

  • Mickey R

    Apple event live broadcasts

  • christopher

    of course, technology can warp these effects too. just this morning i was writing an email and my cell, sitting on the desktop next to my laptop, rang. but i glanced over, saw it was someone i didn’t need to talk to and kept writing.

  • Junaid Ahmed

    I love this one so much that I’d like to get a poster of this! do you think you’ll be able to provide me with that?

  • Ed

    Great list, very much aligned with my own experience.

    I’d just add one thing, Email, Tweets or Facebook FR from an Ex Partner really need to be somewhere near the top of the respective lists!

    • david

      ex-partner – yes! good idea

  • titou

    Very nice and interesting work, thanks !

  • Adam

    The chart confuses devices with services.

    Many of the services (Flickr, text messages, etc.) are available via the iPhone so it is essentially a bundle of the services. It’s only natural for a bundle to beat out any one of the parts of the bundle.

  • Zelloss

    So true!!!! Cant fail it!

  • Mike Greer

    I love this post! This is really powerful stuff. I’ve posted links to it several places (LinkedIn, Facebook, etc.) with this challenging question for business folks:
    * What should project managers and those in PM leadership positions be doing to deal with the “digitally distracted?
    … and this question for parents & teachers:
    * How can we compete for, and get, sufficient “mindshare” from the “digitally distracted” when we want their attention and focus?
    Everyone who tries to coordinate groups of any kind should be thinking about this.
    Thanks so much for the great concept!
    Mike G.
    Michael Greer’s Project Management Resources

  • Vijay

    Excellent illustration

  • Chia

    Scary how true that pyramid is. Not sure if real life really trumps Twitter for some though.


  • FL

    were all pretty much fucked

    flickr should be up there somewhere

  • Mel

    GEEZ, this is completely true.
    all this communication is awesome,but its extremely distracting, esp. when I’m trying to get HW done!

  • Michael Fidler

    Until I bought an iPhone, I might have disagreed with that portion of the diagram, but it belongs there!

  • gaetano marano –


    I’ve found this very interesting blog just today in a post of the Chron’s SciGuy blog

    here you can find an article, similar to your visual posts, about a “VISUAL Shuttle to Capsule comparison”:

    gaetano marano

  • Anon

    I believe Youtube should be in there somewhere. It is the ultimate distraction.

  • Peter Hanschke

    Wow! This IS my world. Hang on TweetDeck just beeped …

  • Alastair Mucklow

    Yes. The hardest part of navigating the digital swamp is resisting distractions and focussing on a single task for more than 5 minutes.

  • Pete Nawara

    Google Wave is one hell of a distraction..

  • Colin

    I love this and laugh every time I reread it, due to its thorough applicability to my own life. But I must resist the temptation to share it with my wife — somehow I don’t think she’d find it as amusi– Ow! Now she’s slamming the laptop on my fingers again. And they’d just healed up from last time…

  • isaac

    Spotify should be on the list too. When you mix this with music related blogs it’s the end of your time.

  • Annalie Killian

    This was SUCH a cool infographic….I discovered it via the intranet manager at Rolls Royce who shared it on her Facebook page and I used it in a speech I gave- now I can properly attribute it. You are AESOME and I’d like you to do some work for me to help create an infographic of our business strategy. Please contact me?

  • Debbie

    Damn, I meant to take my daughter’s leftover Adderol today.

  • Ben Dover

    In the Hierarchy of Digital Distractions, you forgot to add the “Porno” category…. :-D

  • Stephen Kirby

    Thank you for this excellent prompt to switch off and get a life. I think I’ll have it as my homepage.

  • aavexplorer

    Other distractions:
    rss twitter email myspace facebook voip calls cell calls home calls work calls
    updates and synchronizing for all the previous on muliple devices mixing in data plans and prices updating status and events through home computer work computer personal cellphone work cellphone, receiving status and events on home and work cellphones, work computer home computer
    home TV mobile TV home recording mobile recording home TV streamed from the internet sling box home TV streamed to wireless device
    messages from home cell home line VOIP line work line work cell
    digital photos taken from phone uploaded from home or work or phone to wireless account updated through many different devices, videos taken from phone uploaded to many different websites
    contacts from home cell work cell home phone VOIP phone all backed up into one area or multiple areas then multiple devices needed to find multiple contacts
    address book from home and work and written down in an agenda sync………………….


  • Kevin Maness

    Any chance you might put this on a t-shirt? I’d probably buy 6 of them! I love this graphic.

  • ryan

    I love your stuff, BUT I’m not sure I agree with the pyramid shape. If you were to show them relative to the time spent on each, that would be much different. Right now, they are just a priority list or dependency graph and don’t relate to the shape.

  • Bob K

    Is it just me or do others get the feeling that we’re being eaten alive by this cloud of digital stuff?! I found this a while ago on Wikipedia under “Attention economy”…

    “…in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it” (Simon 1971, p. 40-41).

  • Sue Burnett

    Please could you update your Hierarchy of Digital Distractions to put Angry Birds at the very, very, VERY top?!

  • Andreas

    So is “attention deficit” in this context a disorder or a natural evolutionary response to the plethora of information sources?

  • Alaina

    Cats trump all computer work because they can sit on your lap top. And they are furry.

  • srw

    Since when did ‘iphone’ become synonymous with ‘smartphone’? This says a lot about the diagram creator. Such a ridiculous error makes me discount this diagram as bullshit.