Don’t get distracted and crash

About half a million people are injured each year from motor vehicle accidents involving a distracted driver. (This post isn’t actually about driving—we’re going to use driving as an analogy to understand something else.)

This article cites research to answer a bunch of FAQs about the dangers of talking on the phone while driving. One of these is:

Q: Is talking on the phone more distracting than talking to a passenger?

A: The cognitive workload for the driver is the same, according to Strayer. In his test, conversing with a passenger rated a 2.3 on the 1-to-5 scale; talking on a hand-held phone, a 2.4; and a hands-free phone, a 2.3. However, having another person in the car generally results in safer driving, because there’s often an extra set of eyes on the road. Also, passengers tend to stop talking when the demands of driving increase, Strayer says. “So passenger and cell conversations have different crash risks because the passenger helps out.”

There are a couple things going on here. One of them is that the passenger has more situational awareness: the phone-based conversational partner may not even know their counterpart is on the road, let alone any of the details. The passenger can observe not only the driver but also the state of the car and the surroundings. They may additionally be aware of the intended destination, and so on. The other main thing that’s going on is that the passenger is going the same place as the driver, in the same vehicle, so they have a natural built-in interest to help the drive go well. They have a shared intent, and aligned interests.

Now, if I’m on the phone with you while I’m driving, you (hopefully!) don’t want me to crash, but psychologically it’s very different from when you yourself are (a) at risk and (b) your hindbrain knows it.

So I think that there’s something important going on with both of these pieces: awareness and values.

Other hazards of distraction

If you get distracted while driving, you might get in an accident. If you get distracted while working, or otherwise pursuing some sort of goal, you might waste time and fail to achieve your aims. And as with driving, other people can totally be distracting.

Given that, what can we learn from the driving analogy, that might inform how and with whom we choose to relate?

Situational awareness

The first piece of course is to relate in ways that have greater situational awareness. For instance, I was once in a café, wrapping up some computery stuff following a skype meeting, before I had to head out to catch transit to meet someone else. My friend messaged me and we started chatting about something, and it was a really interesting conversation, but of course my friend had no way of knowing that I was in the middle of things and on a tight timeline.

Whereas if someone were talking to me in person, they might pick up on the physical cues of my situation, and see that I’m in a rush. Lots of people are pretty tactless, but to a large extent they can still tell if you’re busy, or stressed, or in a rush, etc.

Talking to people on instant messenger loses a ton of those cues. Unless they ask (or you volunteer the info) they don’t really have any idea of the context you’re in. Were you mid-pomodoro, intending to work, and just happened to open gmail or facebook to look something up? Or were you aimlessly browsing the internet? Or engrossed in a novel on your phone, while walking somewhere?

I often try to not be disturbable by chat when I’m working, and this is why: opening a portal for people to message me out of context means that I’m likely to get distracted. And this might be fine sometimes—so is talking on the phone—but not while driving/working.

Shared intent & aligned interests

The other piece is around shared intent. If you’re trying to do something focused in a casual, social space (in person or e.g. on facebook) it may be very hard. People will show you cat videos, and talk loudly to each other about subjects that pique your curiosity but which you don’t actually care about.

If, by contrast, you’re in a library or a study hall (or a virtual coworking space), then there’s an understanding that everyone who’s there is there with the shared intent to be focused. So people are less likely to interrupt you, and more likely to respect your request if you ask them to be quiet. In fact, they might even be glad that you asked them to be quiet, if it reminded them that they’re not doing what they want to be.

An additional level of this is having aligned interests. Intuitively, the most obvious example of people coworking with aligned interests is something like a company. I think this is actually a little deceptive: in most companies, most peoples’ incentives aren’t actually tied very closely together at all, and may to some extent be at odds if people are competing internally for resources or status.

I think you can create aligned meta-interests by getting people engaged in the project of supporting the shared intent. Consider the event I’m currently hosting: Focus Week. It’s a bunch of people doing important work together in a house for a week. We’re all working on totally different projects, so on that level we don’t have aligned interests: if I can interrupt someone to get a question I have about my own project answered, then this is an object-level win for me, even if that interruption is super distracting for the other person.

However, everyone here isn’t just trying to achieve their projects—we’re also trying to achieve a peak state of focused, quality work… and we know that in order to do that successfully, we need to mostly not be disturbed. So we uphold the norms we generally want followed, to because it’s in our aligned meta-interests to have a very productive environment.


This might sound like I’m suggesting that everyone become productivity bots or something, but it’s much the opposite! When you and the people you’re interacting with have high situational awareness, shared intent, and aligned interests, that means you can actually be much more spontaneous and playful and relaxed in your interactions, because you know that the system as a whole is aimed to keeping your attention on the road.

For instance, the virtual coworking rooms on Complice cycle between work periods and break periods. I often feel very game to chat casually during the break periods because I know that the conversation isn’t going to suck me away from my work for longer than the 5-8 minutes of the break, and that at that point the other people that I’m with will actively encourage me to go back to work. If you’re friends with a certain kind of people, you can abruptly end conversations with “welp, my pomodoro break is over, ttyl!” but this can be a bit harder to do, leading to a tendency to have half of one’s attention in a chat conversation while trying to attend to something else.

So this applies to not just work, but also play!

In terms of taking action on this advice, there are a few things to try:

  • spend a few hours in one of the virtual coworking rooms: list of public rooms
  • put your phone on airplane mode or do-not-disturb mode while working or otherwise trying to focus
  • when engaged with a group of people working on different projects, try to nurture the sense of shared intent and shared purpose

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About Malcolm

Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Complice, a system for achieving your important goals.

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クリス » 27 Feb 2016 » Reply

Comment 1:

I sometimes found myself reluctant to make the person on the phone aware of the situation.

As to why, imagine this example conversation:

[person A, on the phone]
“Hello, are you free to talk now?”

[person B, while eating a sandwich]
“Sorry, I am busy now. I am eating a sandwich.”

It is actually plausible that person B has a strong preference against being interrupted when eating a sandwich. If not for phones, person B would simply eat sandwiches in privacy, and no one would question his preference.

Comment 2:

The same meta-problem may occur if you have not enough background about what is on someone’s mind, not just the situation they are in.

[person A]
“Hey, guess what, I finally got around to buying that new fridge,
but then when I put it in my kitchen I realised that the door opened
to the wrong side, and now I have to walk around the sink all the time!”

[person B, obsessively thinking about humanity’s existential risks since two weeks ago]
“Haha! I’ll keep this mind the next time I need to buy a fridge!”

    Malcolm » 28 Feb 2016 » Reply

    Haha I like that second example.

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