In mid-2020, I picked up a book for the first time in a while and sat down to read it. At this point, I can't recall exactly which book it was, but I remember that I enjoyed it– I think it was Alexander Chee's How to Write An Autobiographical Novel. Despite the beautiful prose and engaging content, I struggled to stay focused. As I read, I would periodically set the book down and check my phone, or I would let my thoughts wander so that my eyes glanced over the content on the page, but none of it registered with my brain.
I had to re-read passages over and over again to get them to stick. Otherwise, it was as if I’d waded through a haze of ink and paper, eventually realizing that I had no idea how I had gotten to some unknown location in the book.
Realizing how much I struggled to stay focused, I was a bit troubled. I love to read. I even got a degree in English because of my love of literacy (no, mom, I don’t regret not opting to be pre-med instead).
If I love reading so much, why was it that I had such a hard time reading and staying focused on the content on the page? After all, in college, I often forced myself to camp out at my favorite coffee shop, guzzling whatever caffeine was available and having marathon reading sessions where I would complete three or four books a week and retain enough information to write essays about them.
It seemed unlikely that my ability to comprehend and store information had undergone a fundamental change between my early twenties and my late twenties. Instead, I suspected that what I had observed with my reading attempts was more of a habit-based ailment than some fundamental change of how my brain works. Being a nerd who wasn’t invited to parties in high school, I knew exactly what to do: research the crap out of the topic, put together a game plan, and blog about my results several months later.
We’re at step three. Let’s dive in.
How We Work Shapes How We Think
Let’s say that you need to send a letter to someone, and you have three options for sending it: text messaging (SMS), email, or a handwritten letter. The gist of the letter should be the same regardless of how it is that you’re sending it, but the chances are that the three “letters” would ultimately be quite different.
Over SMS, you may be more inclined to be direct, and you may include an occasional emoji to further convey the emotion behind your message. As you’re drafting, you may wonder if the other person can see the three bouncing dots indicating that you’re tying, and if so, you may abridge your message so you can send it sooner. Maybe you’ll even break it up into a few different messages.
What about email? Chances are, you would start your email with a salutation, which you likely wouldn’t in a text message. The language that you use may also be a bit more formal than it would over a text. It’s easier to break your ideas up into paragraphs via email, and you’ll want to include some type of complimentary close (is sincerely too formal? What about best wishes? If I just say best, will they think I hate them?).
If you’re super old-fashioned and send a handwritten letter, (A) let’s be friends because I love writing letters, and (B) once you get over the foreign feeling of writing a letter, the actual language that you use is likely going to be unique. I’ve noticed that folks, especially Millennials and younger, feel a bit awkward writing letters by hand. Balancing formality with informality creates a gray area that’s difficult to navigate. We also force ourselves to slow down so that our hands can keep up with our brains and our handwriting can be legible. As a result, handwritten letters are often very thoughtful in a way that electronic communications aren’t.
This isn’t a recent phenomenon brought about by the advent of computers and cellphones, either. Every moody boy’s favorite philosopher, Nietzche, observed something similar. As he grew older and sicker, he had a hard time writing by hand as he once did. On the cusp of having to give up his writing, he decided to purchase and try out the new Danish-made Malling-Hansen Writing Ball, which would allow him to continue writing without the finesse required of writing by hand.
The device enabled him to continue writing, which thrilled him, but it affected his writing that he hadn’t anticipated. As recounted in Nicholas Carr’s seminal work on the interplay between the Internet and neuroplasticity, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains,
One of Nietzsche’s closest friends, the writer and composer Heinrich Köselitze, noticed a change in the style of his writing. Nietzche’s prose had become tighter, more telegraphic. There was a new forcefulness to it, too, as though the machine’s power– its “iron” – was, through some mysterious metaphysical mechanism, being transferred into the words it pressed into the page. “Perhaps you will through this instrument even take to a new idiom,” Köselitz wrote in a letter, noting that, in his own work, “my ‘thoughts’ in music and language often depend on the quality of pen and paper.”
“You are right,” Nietzche replied. “Our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.”
With these examples, I do not intend to imply that one form of communication is better than another. They each have their purposes, and I am adamant that to use technology well, you have to, well, use it. I’m writing this article using a computer and publishing it on the internet. If you want to go in-depth, I can discuss how nameservers function to identify content across a series of DNS entries and CDNs to deliver that content to your device when your browser requests it. Technology isn’t bad. It’s also not inherently good. It’s just a tool, and as such, it shapes the work that you do.
If it Fires Together, it Wires Together.
Things get tricky in our modern age because the technology we use is so robust that we often develop a sense of reliance upon it. Additionally, it’s expansive. When you pull your phone out of your pocket, you can do so much more than just make phone calls. You can send texts, check social media, take photos, edit photos, look something up on the Internet, listen to music or podcasts, make purchases, and even sneak off by yourself with a new tab open in private browsing to look up some… never mind on that last one. I’ll keep it advertiser and search engine friendly.
My point is that there is so much that we can do with our technology that we rarely focus exclusively on what we need to do. Tasks bleed together, often without us even realizing it. For example, this morning, when I got out of bed to turn my alarm off, as soon as I tapped the button to silence my alarm clock (AKA my iPhone), I immediately swiped over to my inbox to skim through my new emails that came in over the night. From there, I hopped into TikTok to check my notifications without ever really thinking to myself that I wanted to do so. Then, as I shifted into writing mode, my instinct was to open Google Docs to write, and, while it was loading, open a new tab and pop into Twitter to scroll for a bit. I reigned myself in and went back to writing, and my next thought was, “play some music– it’s too quiet.”
With how most of us work and spend our downtime nowadays, we train ourselves to make these associations habitual. If we’re on our computers, there’s probably a shortlist of activities we always do– apps we open, websites we check, etc. If we’re on our phones, we’re much the same way, and we also likely have more notifications on our phones to compete for our attention.
When changing pace– such as going back to a printed book, which doesn’t afford us many opportunities for distraction– our minds often struggle to slow down and operate with limited stimuli. That’s why so many folks want to play music in the background while they read. It gives another sensory input and stimulation source to keep your mind at the pace and activity level it is used to when we’re online.
It’s not just activities like reading that are affected. At work, you may notice that when you’re faced with a particularly difficult or stressful task, you’re more likely to procrastinate by spending time checking social media or chatting with coworkers. If you’re like me, you probably justify it by saying that you want to give yourself time to think, but rather than thinking about the problem at hand, you just end up avoiding it until you have to address it. Or, perhaps you’re working on a project that requires a creative solution, and you just feel stuck; every time you open the project doc to flesh out your ideas, your mind goes blank and you end up pivoting to something else so that you don’t have to think about it.
Most of us end up training ourselves to have weak attention spans or feel a sense of stress when we have to engage in quiet, thoughtful reflection because our technology makes it easy to do so. Again, I’m not a technology naysayer. Tech is amazing. I work for a SaaS company and applaud technology for the leaps it has made in the realms of creativity, accessibility, entrepreneurship, and so on. Still, I think we can use it better.
Habits to Note and Reconsider If You Want to Get Better at Focusing
When I wrote Big Picture Living: A Guide to Finding Fulfillment, I started with a few chapters on the concept of insight– our capacity to understand why we do what we do. Insight and self-awareness are critical if we want to get better at putting focused attention into activities that are productive and meaningful for us, allowing us to build our ideal lives.
In order to solve a problem, you first need to identify that the problem is there, and that’s what Insight allows you to do.
So, I would like to challenge you to be attentive to your actions throughout your day, particularly actions that you normally don’t really think about and just do out of habit or instinct. Specifically, be on the lookout for the following.
An Overabundance of Sound
Do you automatically put on music, podcasts, audiobooks, or other background noise when you sit down to work? If so, you’re probably training yourself to associate focus time with the background noise; noise that requires attention to discern, such as audiobooks and podcasts, require a significant portion of your overall attention, so they’re likely preventing you from successfully focusing elsewhere.
Try this instead
If you don’t feel that you can quit having background noise cold turkey, consider using a tool like Brain.fm or a white noise application. There are also binaural beat tracks available on YouTube for free, but I recommend avoiding YouTube and the potential distractions there as much as possible. This way, you’ll still have some auditory input that your brain craves, but it won’t be intrusive and won’t take you away from the task at hand. Brain.fm is a favorite tool of mine since this is a big one that I struggle with, and it is specifically designed to help you be more focused and productive while you’re working or creating, or more relaxed during your downtime.
A Pavlovian Relationship to Dings, Pop-ups, and Chirps
Most sites and apps make money by sustaining your attention, so they vie for it with a series of notifications and gamification tools to remain at the forefront of your mind. Additionally, workspaces often rely on email, Slack, Google Teams, and other tools to keep folks connected and engaged in conversations. As a result, most of us are affronted by a near-constant onslaught of push notifications, alerts, and dings marking the arrival of new messages.
We become like Pavlov’s dogs. As soon as we notice the alert, we drop what we’re doing and address it immediately. As a result, we engage in a behavior known as context switching, which is where we divert our attention away from one thing, apply it to something else, and then try and bring it back to the original task. When we do this, it’s hard to get back in the zone and focused on the original task. Our minds need to take several minutes to reorient to where we were and what we’re doing, which means that we end up losing out on a lot of potentially productive time and, unfortunately, we often end up half-assing whatever it is that we’re working on.
Try this Instead
As much as possible, try to block your biggest distractions from sending you push notifications. For example, when I’m working on a difficult project, I will mute my Slack notifications. Additionally, I will hide Slack from my computer’s dock at the bottom of the screen so that I can’t see visual notifications. I do the same thing with my phone– during focused work or creative time, I move it to the other side of the room so that it’s not as available and capable of distracting me. Don’t be afraid to communicate with your friends, family, coworkers, and manager that you want to have focus time and won’t be able to respond to new notifications as soon as you receive them. Within a work context, it can help to also block off time to follow-up on notifications so that you know nothing is being missed.
Starting Your Day on the Wrong Foot
Based upon conversations I’ve had with a variety of folks about their tech use and how they achieve offline-online balance, one of the common trends is that people who struggle the most with disconnecting are often the people who get online as soon as they wake up. Most of us use our smartphones as our alarm clocks. When we roll over and pick up our phones to silence our alarms, it’s really easy to go straight into social media, email, YouTube, news sites, or whatever else. Once we do this, we set our tone for the day. Some people have an easier time stepping away from distraction, but many people end up having a snowball effect. Once they’ve started consuming distracting materials, they struggle to stop.
Try this Instead
If possible, get an old-fashioned alarm clock to use instead of your phone. To make it even better, get an old-fashioned alarm clock and keep it as far away from your bed as your room allows. That way, when it starts going off, you don’t have a choice but to get out of bed and cross the room to silence it. As much as possible, delay getting online until your day is in motion. I most often advise starting your day with some water, journaling or meditation, and spending time to enjoy breakfast and whatever grooming rituals you do daily; ultimately, though, you need to find the routine that works best for you. Put some time in your calendar to mindlessly scroll online. Perhaps schedule it for the end of your lunch break. Regardless, make sure you give yourself an opportunity to build up productive momentum before allowing yourself to shift into distraction mode.