It’s Harder to Focus These Days. And No, It’s Not Your Fault.

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As I write this piece, I’ve checked Instagram 8 times, Twitter 3, Facebook 2. After I placed my phone out of hand’s reach, my first thought was to take a picture to document my forced separation and share the struggle to get focused on this article on Instagram. Even when we’re so aware of our distractions, even when I’m writing about said distractions, I find myself struggling to wrap my head around how unmanageable they have become. And they designed it that way.

When your entire life lives in a 3” x 6” black box, it becomes an extension of both your brain and your body. Maybe you can’t afford to miss a call from a potential employer; maybe your work IS being on social media. The point I’m making is we now live in a culture where time away from a screen is considered a luxury (and for elites, according to the New York Times), which leads me to this terrifying thought: our attention is for sale. And we’re consuming things with few limitations and boundaries that place our self-interest top of mind.

The anthesis for writing this post started with a comment on Instagram. Someone commented “we all have ADHD” in response to my clinical diagnosis. And even though the snark and ignorance he demonstrated around learning disabilities irked me, I couldn’t argue that he was wrong. With how many messages and devices we encounter daily, the average person is getting a glimpse into what it’s like inside my head 24/7. It’s like a stock market ticker that is moving in 25 different directions, or a bunch of angry bees in a jar.

We’ve all struggled to keep up with life, manage FOMO, and felt busy all day but gotten little to nothing done. It’s exhausting, and it’s not necessarily our fault. Here’s why.

Digital devices act as an extension of the body

This article on the rise of attention economy says it best:

One study, commissioned by Nokia, found that, as of 2013, we were checking our phones on average 150 times a day. But we touch our phones about 2,617 times, according to a separate 2016 study, conducted by Dscout, a research firm.

Apple has confirmed that users unlock their iPhones an average of 80 times per day. Screens have been inserted where no screens ever were before: over individual tables at McDonald’s; in dressing rooms when one is most exposed; on the backs of taxi seats. For only $12.99, one can purchase an iPhone holster for one’s baby stroller … or (shudder) two.

This is us: eyes glazed, mouth open, neck crooked, trapped in dopamine loops and filter bubbles. Our attention is sold to advertisers, along with our data, and handed back to us tattered and piecemeal.

We’re ALL overwhelmed

What do we do when our to-do lists are long and just thinking about them zaps all our energy? We say F*CK IT and turn on Netflix. I pull out my phone to write down an idea for an article that popped into my mind in the shower, and 20 minutes later I’ve done 10 other things unrelated to the task I had opened my phone to complete.

We’re also seeing and hearing about events and everyone’s opinions about said events at a HUGE scale. We’re just not wired to handle exposure to some of the traumatic images and stories that come from our digital proximity to the rest of the humans on this earth.

It’s important to remember that our brains are processing different information like it’s all the same. Danger can look like a loud thunderclap, a screaming baby, or just the sound of your email ringing on your phone. Our brain responds with the same energy no matter what threatening sound we may encounter.

We’re Exhausted

Just the act of paying attention requires a great deal of energy. The most articulate way I’ve read the difference between attention and focus was found on Quora of all places:

Attention means directing your mind from random or undisciplined thinking towards a specific thought (or thoughts) or action (or actions). Focus is attention but, focus includes a concentrated form of attention, where tremendous effort is exerted to heighten and enhance the attention given. 

When we’re exhausted, it’s hard to focus. And it’s the kind of exhaustion that can still exist even when we’ve had enough sleep. What we don’t always realize is that every thought requires some kind of energy, which is similar to energy exerted on other actions that happen automatically—like typing this essay, editing this essay, and then worrying if this essay is any good. All that focus costs us the same kind of energy as going through an extreme emotional experience or physical movement. In fact, much of our energy is lost in our own thoughts, like in daydreaming or worrying why we weren’t invited to that super cool party we saw on Instagram. We spend a lot of energy just getting things done throughout the day. No wonder we’re exhausted. So give yourself a little bit of a break!!

Attention is a limited resource

This is why we cannot rely on willpower alone. Every time we concentrate, we use a good amount of glucose and other metabolic resources. It’s proven that we get less effective the longer we focus. So breaks are important. They just have to be the restorative kind of break, which is harder and harder to implement when the devices that are distracting us are becoming more and more an extension of our bodies. Just taking the time to control your attention and not get distracted takes more energy than you may realize. The below excerpt from Your Brain at Work, by David Rock, explains this notion well:

Distractions are everywhere. And with the always-on technologies of today, they take a heavy toll on productivity. One study found that office distractions eat an average of 2.1 hours a day. Another study, published in October 2005, found that employees spent an average of 11 minutes on a project before being distracted. After an interruption, it takes them 25 minutes to return to the original task, if they do at all. People switch activities every three minutes, either making a call, speaking with someone in their cubicle, or working on a document.

Staying distracted has a cost

No matter how we slice and dice it, it takes energy to remove distractions from our lives. If you’re the typical working American, there is a distraction every 11 minutes, and afterward, it will take you another 25 minutes to settle into your task. And the more complicated the project, the more energy that’s required to “plug in” to a task that requires your full attention.

All of this is why finding a way to deal with distractions is so important for every one of us. Perhaps this relationship between distractions and our ability to focus is the beginning of a post-technology age, where those who can spend their time well succeed in a more joyful and purposeful life.

What are some ways you have learned to cope with an increasingly noisy world? How do you find the time and energy to get focused work done?

Listen to this essay on The Wit & Delight Podcast!

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BY Kate Arends - April 9, 2019

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April 11, 2019 4:05 am

Thank you for sharing this interesting and interesting article.gomovies

Sarah Jasmine
April 15, 2019 9:16 pm

Hello Kate Arends, I know you’re probably busy with everything, but I’ve read most of your articles on your website. Truthfully, I’ve always found inspiration within your writing. It resonates with me, and I bet many other people as well. It’s really cool how you can articulate all of these and phrase it in such a cool way where a lot of these readers could agree with you. No matter what articles you’ve written, I’ve always enjoyed reading em’. If there’s one thing I could wish in this world, is to have the ability to write like you. It’s filled… Read more »

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