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.
This article on the rise of attention economy says it best:
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.
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:
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!!
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:
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?
BY Kate Arends - April 9, 2019
Thank you for being here. For being open to enjoying life’s simple pleasures and looking inward to understand yourself, your neighbors, and your fellow humans! I’m looking forward to chatting with you.