It goes without saying I’m a big fan of technology. I remember watching Star Trek as a kid and dreaming of a day when the technology I saw would become a reality. Fast forward a decade or so and we’re there. We don’t quite have teleportation yet which would be super useful in avoiding the ‘random’ searches I always get at the airport. As an example of said technology, here is an episode that ran during the 1990s:
And less than fifteen years later, we have this:
I can’t even begin to imagine what technology will look like fifteen years from now. I’m getting giddy right now just thinking about it, especially those hover boards that were everywhere in 2015 according to Back to the Future 2. Although I’m probably too old to start skating, the auto drying jacket would be very useful during the 9 months of the year Seattle’s weather is so awful it makes me wonder why I ever left San Diego. While I could go on and on about how much I love technology and hate Seattle’s weather, this post is meant to be an introduction to a series of posts I wanted to write about the how the use of technology has negative affects on our ability to focus. Make no mistake, I love technology and this post isn’t a rant on why we should all become Amish, but rather some reflections on the dangers of the way we currently use technology and some hopefully helpful pointers on how to navigate those dangers and the blessings that will come about as a result.
This content all came about as a result of a few weeks of reading and thinking through these issues at the start of this year, but I found no better summary as to how I feel and what I wanted to address than this excerpt from an article in the LA Times entitled “The lost art of reading”:
Of course, the source of my distraction is somewhat different: not an event of great significance but the usual ongoing trivialities. I am too susceptible, it turns out, to the tumult of the culture, the sound and fury signifying nothing. For many years, I have read, like E.I. Lonoff in Philip Roth’s “The Ghost Writer,” primarily at night — a few hours every evening once my wife and kids have gone to bed. These days, however, after spending hours reading e-mails and fielding phone calls in the office, tracking stories across countless websites, I find it difficult to quiet down. I pick up a book and read a paragraph; then my mind wanders and I check my e-mail, drift onto the Internet, pace the house before returning to the page. Or I want to do these things but don’t. I force myself to remain still, to follow whatever I’m reading until the inevitable moment I give myself over to the flow. Eventually I get there, but some nights it takes 20 pages to settle down. What I’m struggling with is the encroachment of the buzz, the sense that there is something out there that merits my attention, when in fact it’s mostly just a series of disconnected riffs and fragments that add up to the anxiety of the age.
Most of the content for this series came about during the transition time between my last job(Crumbly) and my current one (Automattic). I had a bit of downtime because of the holiday season and a desire to take some time off. I thought given all this downtime, I’d be able to use it fruitfully to start knocking things off my to do list, read those books I’ve always meant to, work on those projects I’d always postponed, etc. Around Christmas time, I realized I wasn’t being all that effective and I barely got anything done during my time off. The excerpt above captures my feelings pretty well. I would try and read or focus on something and my mind would wander. I’d check email, check out my favorite websites, check Twitter, etc. A few minutes into these wanderings I’d catch myself and then I’d go back to reading. A few minutes later I was back on email and the cycle would repeat itself.
I started to wonder why this was and I providentially stumbled onto(read: Googled) this article from Lifehacker entitled “How to Rebuild Your Attention Span and Focus”.
Many people want the ability to focus more and feel like they’re losing the ability to focus on a particular task for long periods of time. We feel like we’re losing that ability. Getting Things Done and all the other books out there tend to give you some rituals to cope with the problem — but only if you could stick to them. Most of us, just a few weeks after reading that book, sit next to filing cabinets (virtual or otherwise) and go about our merry way.
That’s because we’re focused on the wrong thing. To get a longer attention span — even a span long enough to read this article — don’t worry about managing the information. Worry about managing your attention. Paying attention, for long periods of time, is a form of endurance athleticism. Like running a marathon, it requires practice and training to get the most out of it. It is as much Twitter’s fault that you have a short attention span as it is your closet’s fault it doesn’t have any running shoes in it. If you want the ability to focus on things for a long period of time, you need attention fitness.
Neuroplasticity is how your brain changes its organization over time to deal with new experiences. It involves physical changes inside of the brain based on the particular tasks the brain is asked to complete. It’s why the hippocampus of a seasoned taxi driver in London is larger than average, and how a meditating monk grows grey matter. Your brain isn’t amythological deity but a physical part of your body that needs to be taken care of just like the rest of your body. And your body responds to two things really well — diet and exercise. Let’s presume your brain, being a part of the body, also does.
After reading this I began to think about how my use of technology was changing the way my brain worked and how it contributed to my inability to focus for long periods of time. This led me to two books in particular which I found to be incredibly useful in helping me to better understand my own mind and how my use of technology affected it. The first was “Brainwork: The Neuroscience Behind How We Lead Others” by David Sousa and the second was “Making Habits, Breaking Habits: Why We Do Things, Why We Don’t, and How to Make Any Change Stick” by Jeremy Dean.
Stay tuned for part 2 where I’ll start to dive into Sousa’s book and some thoughts on multitasking.