Wednesday, July 13, 2016

You’ve Got a Squirtle on Your Desk

I have been thinking a lot about workday distractions lately. Although research shows that some level distraction is healthy (we all need to take breaks), certainly the advent of the online era introduced new challenges.

For example, every spring I read yet another article about the monetary value of all of the man-hours lost to March Madness. And even during sports season lulls, my phone never leaves my immediate reach, opening up a global marketplace of shopping, hobby message boards, and social media. I’m generally good about ignoring these and getting work done. But even when I’m focused on work, there’s always junk mail, ads, important e-mails for files I’m not currently looking at, messages from family, reminders to input time entries—the deluge of technological distractions never lets up.  

Enter Pokemon Go. You have probably heard much about this game, which was released in early July. At the very least, you’ve seen people staring at their phones on the street just slightly more than usual.  Shortly after the launch, I asked a colleague to come into my office to show me what it was all about. Opening up the app, she paused in the midst of her explanation. “Hang on,” she said, trailing off. “You’ve got a Squirtle on your desk.”

Pokemon Go is an augmented reality game you download for free and play on your cellphone. At its most basic, your job is to collect cartoon monsters by throwing balls at them. The program, developed jointly by the folks at Nintendo and Niantic (an Alphabet spinout), uses your GPS information to place the Pokemon in the world around you. They might appear only in specific places; for example, the GPM offices seem to be infested with Zubats. Conversely, some varieties might only be found near beaches, or at night. And there are even hotspots, where Pokemon are more likely to appear.

You “see” Pokemon using your phone’s camera. Your phone might buzz because a Drowzee is walking around your office. You find him with your camera, throw a Pokeball at him by flicking up on your phone’s screen, and then the screen flashes with stars and neon colors. Congratulations—you’ve caught yourself a Drowzee.

The whole thing is actually vastly more complicated than that. After some time experimenting with the game, I still don’t know what stardust is, how to compete at my local “gym,” or where in the world I find a Charizard. Seriously, though, does anyone know if there’s a Charizard near downtown?

The game is hugely popular. The Minneapolis Skyway is currently clogged with people out hunting for Pokemon.  Large groups congregate near hot-spots, creating an interesting sort of fellowship. After all, the core idea of the game is to encourage real-life exploration through the exploitation of digital addictions. That’s why hot-spots are often placed at local landmarks. Of course, stories abound about players falling off bicycles while trying to capture rare creatures, or simply tripping over fire hydrants. One poor girl even found a dead body while on a Pokemon excursion.  
I initially found it to be just another popular distraction that I needed to indulge in order to keep up on pop culture. But as I reflected more, I realized that this was fundamentally different than when I was 14 and would sprint home after school to play video games on my Nintendo 64. Pokemon Go is not limited to my apartment; I can feel my phone vibrating whenever a stray Pidgey flies into my office during a conference call. And instead of taking a short break to walk to Starbucks for coffee, today I walked to the IDS Center fountain to collect more Pokeballs, leaving me distracted AND dangerously under-caffeinated.  

Is this all absurd?  Absolutely. But is it any more absurd to occasionally pop onto Amazon to order socks mid-day, or pull up ESPN to check baseball scores? Or, for that matter, to satiate my Type-A personality by immediately checking every e-mail notification I receive, or attending to a host of other little micro-distractions that clog up my day?  In short, my desk has always been covered in Squirtles.  

Learning to tune all of them out is maybe the hardest part of the modern workplace—something that is only getting harder as the distractions themselves become more innovative. There will always be something more interesting or fun to do, people needing your time, or additional tasks pulling you away from your focus. We all struggle with it at times, and I don’t claim to have any secrets to fixing it. I’ve been experimenting with leaving my cellphone off during work hours. I’ve tried working from coffee shops on a laptop, or even just turning off my second monitor to avoid seeing two programs open at once. These all work, to varying degrees. But sometimes, the only thing you can do is let the Zubats fly away, be okay that you’ll never find a Charizard, and try to do one thing at a time.  

And so, I’m choosing to delete my Pokemon Go app rather than open it up and keep hunting. Then, for the next few minutes, I’ll dedicate some of that extra time to figuring out how to eliminate a few other distractions as well. I’m looking at you, Snapchat

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