Distracted girl on cell phone

Too Busy To Help

Todd Fonseca

Editor's Note: Childhood hero and beloved red-sweater model Mister Rogers has been in the news a lot lately, with anniversaries, movie releases and his well-quoted plea to “look for the helpers.”

But what if the helpers are too busy to look for you? And what if we, the adults, are the helpers, too distracted to do what’s right? While those questions may carry a moral weight in these trying times, the question is just as valid for our workplace, colleagues, organizations and private lives. If we’re too busy to help a lost child, how could we be expected to file our TPS reports on time?

Don’t think you’re distracted? What’s in your hand right now? Or next to your keyboard? Vibrating in your pocket? Impacting your brain just by being in the same room? Your phone. Won’t you be neighborly and put it down to read on?

In March 2014, a social experiment was conducted at Victoria Station shopping center in London where 5 year-old Maya was ‘left alone’ to see if anyone would take a moment to help the obviously lost and alone girl. In an hour, over 600 adults passed by her, but only one stopped to help, and that was after she had passed her by once before.

What’s going on?

While there may be many dynamics in place, one place to turn for answers is the now famous social psychology experiment conducted in 1973 by two Princeton University professors, John Darley and Daniel Batson and reported on in their paper “From Jerusalem to Jericho.”

Using the biblical story of The Good Samaritan as their inspiration, they enrolled 40 seminarian students at Princeton to take part in what the students thought was an assessment of vocational career interests of seminary students after graduation.

As each student individually came for the assessment, they were told that in addition to the various questionnaires they filled out, they would also be recording a response to a story so that there would be a greater understanding of their interests beyond what a simple questionnaire could achieve.

  • Half of the students were asked to read the story of The Good Samaritan
  • Half were asked to read a story about post-graduate career options

Once they completed reading the story, each was then told that they would record their response in a recording facility in the neighboring building. They were provided a map which directed them from the current office they were in to the recording studio nearby. Participants were once again divided into different groups.

  • One group was informed that they were already late for their recording session and should hurry next door (high hurry condition).
  • Another group was told the assistant is ready for you, please go right over (intermediate hurry).
  • A third group was told that it would be a few minutes before they would be ready for the recording but that they might as well head on over (low hurry).

As each student went to their recording session, they went through an alleyway where a victim was “slumped in a doorway, head down, eyes closed, not moving. As the subject went by, the victim coughed twice and groaned, keeping his head down.”

Each student’s reaction was then recorded–did they ignore the person, acknowledge them, ask if they needed help, provided help and so on.

What the experiment showed was, regardless of whether the students were preparing to record their response to The Good Samaritan or a response about post-graduate career options, their response to the victim was the same. Just thinking about giving a speech regarding doing a good deed for someone in need had absolutely no impact on the outcome.

Just thinking about giving a speech regarding doing a good deed for someone in need had absolutely no impact on the outcome.

What did have an impact, was whether or not the student was in a hurry.

  • 63% helped if they were in the ‘low hurry’ group
  • 45% helped if they were in the ‘intermediate hurry’ group
  • 10% helped if they were in the ‘high hurry’ group

These are seminarian students, half of whom were preparing to record their thoughts on The Good Samaritan parable, yet only 10% of them stopped to help if they were in the high hurry state.  Interviews with the students afterwards indicated that while they recall the victim, their focus on what they had to do was so high due to the hurry condition, they somehow filtered out or justified the person’s condition and kept on with their task.

What this means for us, who are likely not seminarian students studying to be in the service of others, is that good intentions are not enough when hurry consumes us.

Good intentions are not enough when hurry consumes us.

Let’s look at one big thing contributing to our ever-increasing feelings of hurry at work, at home and everywhere in between. Our phone. 

1/3 Of Your Waking Life

In December 2015, research conducted by Deloitte was reported in Time Magazine with the headline “Americans Check Their Phones 8 Billion Times a Day” with the average person checking their phone 46 times per day, while those younger checked far more frequently:

  • Age 18–24: 74 checks/day
  • Age 25–34: 50 checks/day
  • Age 35–44: 35 checks/day

People my age aren’t represented, probably because we much less frequently check our fax machines and telegrams.

Similarly, Nottingham Trent University tracked phone usage of participants over a two-week period and they found the average person looks at their device 85 times a day, spending a total of five hours browsing the web and using apps, which is about a third of a person’s waking life.

I’ve written before about how we get a dopamine hit dealing with the notifications and emails on our phones. This literally becomes an addiction we must feed and maintain. Research reported recently in the Minneapolis Star Tribune indicates that while drug addictions have decreased, it is speculated that phone and app addiction is the new drug of choice.

Few people can look at this notification screen without feeling that slight bit of anxiety to clear all of those red numbered notifications on each app.

All of this produces a feeling of being constantly behind, not being able to keep pace with all of the activity, and leaves you with an overwhelming FOMO (feeling of missing out). This elevates cortisol, increases feelings of and contributes to a feeling of being hurried, which prevents connection with others.  In fact, our cognitive distraction is so high, we don’t even see the needs of others around us just like 5 year-old Maya above.

Our cognitive distraction is so high, we don’t even see the needs of others around us just like 5 year-old Maya. 

What To Do?

There are three levels of action you can take to tackle these distractions. For the brave and those willing to go cold turkey, jump all the way to level 3. 

Level 1 – Embrace Boredom, Schedule Distraction Time

Cal Newport, a Computer Science professor at Georgetown University, in his book Deep Work, Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, discussed four rules for success at Deep Work. Rule three is to Embrace Boredom. Newport suggests that instead of scheduling focused work time, most of our working day should in fact be focused time and we should instead schedule our distraction time.  This could be ten minutes every couple of hours, or a larger scheduled block of time each day. Regardless, the point is to schedule the time into your workday and not allow phone notifications, distractions, websites and other items take you out of focus.

Level 2 – Remove the Addiction by Eliminating Notifications

The key is to eliminate the dopamine hit that causes the addiction. Using your phone’s settings, turn off all of the notifications on your apps. This will rid your phone of those pesky number filled red circles and reduce the temptation to check the app. (Instructions for iPhone and Android users.)

Go one step further by turning off cellular data and Wi-Fi–this way even if you check your phone, there won’t be any new data to get distracted by, yet you can still use your phone as, well, a phone.

Level 3 – Remove Social Media, Email, and Other Notification Apps Altogether

You might be surprised after a few weeks at Level 2, that you really won’t miss their ‘benefit’ but will instead find you are more focused on deep, game-changing work. You will be more connected to those around you, finding ways not only to help and be engaged, but also create an environment of trust, respect and collaborative innovation.

To make behavioral change, one needs to take small easy steps until that action becomes automatic.

Good intentions aren’t enough when we are consumed with our hurried lives. To make behavioral change, one needs to take small easy steps until that action becomes automatic.  Once this occurs, take it to the next level and repeat! While it may take time, start now. The rewards are deep, meaningful work and even more meaningful relationships with the real people, real needs right in front of the real you.

A version of this piece originally appears on Todd’s blog.

Todd Fonseca


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