Distracted by technology? Microsoft tries to help

Matt O'Brien
Associated Press

Technology companies whose devices and constantly scrolling online services have driven us to distraction are beginning to acknowledge that their products can be a waste of time. Some of them now say they’re trying to help.

Microsoft is rolling out a free update to its Windows 10 computer operating system Monday with new features to keep people in a distraction-free zone.

The “Focus Assist” feature enables workers to temporarily switch off email and social media notifications when they need to keep their heads down. They can allow messages from certain people to break through.

Microsoft says the update is inspired by research showing office workers are being interrupted or having to switch tasks about every three minutes — and it takes 23 minutes to get back in focus. Microsoft is also adding a “Timeline” feature aimed at saving time by more easily retrieving documents or unfinished work from the past 30 days.

“Almost every application and web service is vying for your attention,” said Aaron Woodman, a marketing general manager for Microsoft Windows. “Increasingly, people are going to prefer environments where they can control and manage their distractions.”

It may be easier for Microsoft to create such limits, as its business is far less reliant on advertising than Google and Facebook. With advertising in the mix, more time spent means more revenue.

Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android phones have “Do Not Disturb” modes for muting notifications. Microsoft’s biggest email rival, Gmail, began rolling out a redesign this week that includes time-saving measures. One uses artificial intelligence to allow Google to help respond to emails with quick answers such as “Will do, thanks!” or “Sorry, I won’t be able to attend.”

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg surprised investors earlier this year when he said he welcomed the idea of fewer hours spent on his site, arguing that “helping people connect is more important than maximizing the time people spend on Facebook.”

The social network also on Friday said it is adding a “sleep” mode to its Messenger Kids service to let parents limit when their kids can use it.