In my last blog post, I wrote about Johann Hari’s latest bestseller Stolen Focus. In the book Johann creates urgency about the collective collapse of our ability to pay attention. His main premise is that our decline of attention is not a fault of everyone’s lack of willpower, but rather a result of systemic forces, such as surveillance capitalism and the increasingly rapid pace of life. Yet, that is not to say that our personal lifestyles, family routines and practices, or organizational work policies remain without effect. Indeed, it is fair to note that although the world at large seems to try to distract us all, we are distracted to different degrees, we are not equally robbed of our attention. In her book Attention Span psychologist Gloria Mark argues that there are many influences on our attention, it is neither ‘stolen’ by technology nor ‘given away’ by ‘willpowerless’ people, but rather an interplay of individual, social, environmental, and technological factors.
So what can we do to protect or enhance our attention?
Johann Hari suggests looking at attention on three layers: the spotlight (our immediate attention), the starlight (our long-term goals and vision), and the daylight (our ability to see clearly, our mindful awareness, our purpose). There seem to be several relevant ideas in each of these layers, both for the individual and society at large.
According to Mark’s research, technology does indeed affect our attention, as data indicates that by now ’knowledge workers’ are able to focus on one screen without interruptions for just 47 seconds. As the so called dopamine loop concept suggests, our brains are hungry for constant novelty and gratification that we get with each smartphone buzz or a new e-mail notification. So, our spotlight attention requires quite some willpower to resist all the temptations of a technologically savvy world. At the same time, our generally high stress levels and common sleep deprivation diminish our abilities to resist. It is therefore logical that we can work to resist the temptations with the help of different stimulus restraining strategies, such as disabling notifications for social media, switching our phone display to black and white mode, leaving the phone in another room from your working space, or even using a lockbox. If we can eliminate distractions and give ourselves a prolonged time of focusing on one task, we can tap a bit more into what Cal Newport calls deep work. In one podcast episode that I happened to listen to, Newport shared an impactful yet rather extreme example of a distraction elimination strategy, where in order to avoid internet temptations and conduct proper deep work a person would buy a long distance flight in order to work on the plane with zero access to internet (sadly, even this strategy doesn’t work anymore on most flights these days…). At the societal level, in work environments for example, it seems to be quite useful to establish clear boundaries on ‘being available’ time, introduce ‘do not disturb’ deep work hours and institute ‘right to disconnect’ policies and laws.
Interestingly, Gloria Mark argues that we would do better with a more balanced approach to the use of technology and ‘mindless’ scrolling in general. Aiming to be constantly focused and productive and decreasing useless time on the phone (be it scrolling or mindless games) to zero are unrealistic goals. Instead, Mark argues that we need to take breaks to replenish our resources and be temporarily focused again, and suggests that when used strategically, such simple games as candy crush can actually help in restoring our mental energy and resources. Hence, our relationship with technology cannot be seen simply as good or bad, it is much more nuanced and having a balanced and healthy relationship with it requires a lot of awareness.
Mindful awareness also seems to be an important ingredient in terms of our daylight and starlight attention. If we are unable to pause and recognize our whereabouts in terms of attention, thoughts and emotions in the present moment—and our choices or priorities at large—we will continue merely reacting to what is happening in our life, instead of proactively shaping it. For example, if your starlight goal is to spend more quality time with your loved ones, do your daily routines, chosen activities and actual time allocation reflect that goal? In his deeply insightful book Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals Oliver Burkman highlights that we are way too focused on clearing out our to-do lists, thus postponing the things that matter to when we will get that ‘free time’. Yet, we do not realize that in today’s fast pace of life there will always be more items adding to our to-do lists than we have time to do. We must prioritize and choose between what to do now, what to do later, and what to drop. Moreover, we need to face the reality that we are not necessarily making these choices between things we actually want to do and things we do not really care about, but between several actually meaningful things. Being there for your family, spending time with your friends, contributing successfully at work, exercising regularly to stay healthy, travelling, reading good books – given our limited time, even several of these activities must be sacrificed to a bigger or lesser extent. This realization might be hard, yet the expected payoff might be worth it. If we can manage to pick well our starlight goals, direct our attention to them, and learn to let go of the rest, we might feel less rushed, more fulfilled and more in charge of our time and attention.