Executive Director's Blog: Focus

Rob's Blog: Snellen chart with the letters FOCUS blurred


Remember when we didn’t have supercomputers in our pockets?  When our smartphones didn’t vibrate and chirp with every message, social media update, and news alert?  Remember when students used to yield to moving vehicles instead of stepping in front of them, eyes glued to screens?  Or when drivers watched the road?  Remember when you could say hello to someone without competing with the podcast in their earbuds?  “This is us: eyes glazed, mouth open, neck crooked, trapped in dopamine loops and filter bubbles.”i

Through Our Fingers

It seems that the sister commodities of time and attention have been, well, commoditized.  While we have always doled out our time, we seem to be measuring it in increasingly small increments.  And while we have always directed our finite attention toward objects and pursuits of interest, our attention now feels less given than stolen.  We lament an age of “information overload,” but 10 generations have lived in a world filled with more information than they could ever hope to process in a lifetime.  “It can’t be that there are too many things to pay attention to: That doesn’t follow,” notes Tufts University professor Nick Seaver.  “But it could be that there are more things that are trying to actively demand your attention.”i

We allocate our time and attention to ever more tasks, often to multiple, simultaneous tasks, which leads to a phenomenon called CPAii  (continuous partial attention), where we pay attention to as much as possible as little as possible.  The resulting scarcity of time and attention is puzzling.  Technology and the new services built on that technology almost always promise to save us time and effort.  Peapod; Wag; Blue Apron; Cleanly; Lawn Buddy; Nest; and Amazon.  These services allow ordinary people to have someone else shop for their groceries; walk their dog; prep their meals; launder their clothes; maintain their lawn; heat and cool their home; and deliver virtually any item to their doorstep.  Bills can be paid automatically.  Prescriptions refilled instantly.  We ought to be basking in free time.  So where is it all going?

All That Glitters

Screentime, of course.  While it’s tempting to cite the number of hours Millennials and Generation Z spend in front of a screen, I will resist.  Intergenerational judgments of what is acceptable and unacceptable don’t help.  Instead, I’ll share what younger generations are self-reporting:

  • 54% of teens reportiii spending too much time on their cell phone.
  • 52% of teens report taking steps to cut back on screentime.
  • 72% of teens say they often or sometimes check for messages or notifications as soon as they wake up.
  • 92% of Generation Z are concernediv  about the generational gap that technology is causing in their professional and personal lives.
  • 37% expressed concern that technology is weakening their ability to maintain strong interpersonal relationships and develop people skills.

To summarize, younger generations recognize the inordinate amount of time they spend staring at screens and many are concerned about its effect on their personal and professional lives.  They wake up in the morning and reach for a phone.  They fall asleep at night in the blue light glow of a phone.  In between, they touch their phone, on average, 2,617 times a day.v  It’s worth asking:  Does a phone deserve this much of our finite time and attention?

There is an explanation for this behavior.  Competing apps, games, and platforms, driven by sophisticated algorithms and fed by terabytes of increasingly pervasive user behavioral data (that we voluntarily hand over), pick at the carcass of our attention spans for whatever scraps they can get.  “We live in a cutthroat attention economy” where “every product will get more persuasive over time.  Facebook must become more addictive to compete with YouTube.  In return, YouTube must become more immersive if it wants to compete with Facebook…  It bulldozes your immediate attention, rather than focusing on your long-term satisfaction and benefits.  It’s fundamentally misaligned with your interests, much like fast food and cigarettes.”vi

For all the good that technology has enabled - namely connectivity, efficiency, and convenience - it has negatively “impacted the development of cognitive skills, including intellectual curiosity, among the next generation, creating the risk of skill gaps when they enter the workforce en masse.  A shortfall in highly cognitive social skills such as problem solving, critical thinking, and communication, could be particularly evident.”vii

While younger generations may spend the most time, on average, staring at screens, they are not alone.  All generations feel the gravitational pull of screentime.  Social media, online games, YouTube, etc.  Even Grandma can’t close down Farmville.  To a greater or lesser extent, we are all hooked.  And this is by design.  When we complete a task, our brain hits us with a dopamine rush.  This “reward center” is an evolutionary vending machine.  Its function is to release “‘feel good’ chemicals when we do something that helps us survive and reproduce — like eating or mating.”  But “sometimes, as is the case with addiction, these brain regions become overactive in response to non-useful stimuli, like cocaine, alcohol, excessive sex or excessive gambling.”viii  What to do?

Opportunity Costs

The first question to ask yourself is: “What am I getting out of this relationship?”  Many of us began using Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat long ago, when the novelty of these mediums was, well, novel.  As a radio host recently reflected, “I used to get a kick out of posting something to Instagram and seeing people’s reactions.  But now I feel like I’m just going through the motions.  The thrill is gone.”  So why do we choose to keep doing it?  Perhaps for the same reason a smoker continues smoking.  Perhaps we are addicted.  Former Wired Editor Chris Anderson went so far as to say, “On the scale between candy and crack cocaine, it’s closer to crack cocaine.”ix

Skeptical that screentime should be lumped into the same category as other addictive behaviors?  Consider that big tech corporations have begun to preemptively try to help you manage your addiction.  Google, Facebook and Instagram have all introduced tools i to help you limit the time you spend on their platforms.  When corporations voluntarily try to limit consumption of their product, it’s a tacit admission that they know they’ve created a health problem.  It’s reminiscent of tobacco companies denying the dangers of smoking while introducing low-tar cigarettes.  A growing consensus of Silicon Valley executives are speaking out about the dangers of their own products.  When James Williams, a former search advertising expert at Google, asked some 250 attendeesi at a technology conference, “How many of you guys want to live in the world that you’re creating?  In a world where technology is competing for our attention?” not a single hand went up.

Children are especially vulnerable.  Those who know the most about how smartphones work don’t want their kids anywhere near them.ix  The very people building these glowing hyper-stimulating portals have become increasingly terrified of them.x  “I try to tell [my son] somebody wrote code to make you feel this way — I’m trying to help him understand how things are made, the values that are going into things and what people are doing to create that feeling,” said John Lilly, former CEO of Mozilla.  “And he’s like, ‘I just want to spend my 20 bucks to get my Fortnite skins.’”ix  Every moment children spend with their parents, they are also spending with their parents’ need to be constantly connected.  (For $12.99 you can buy an iPhone holster for your baby stroller.)xi   The first generation to be so affected, now 14 to 21 years old, “has lived a very unsatisfying youth and really does not associate their phones with any kind of glamour, but rather with a sense of deprivation.”i  Speaking of the impact of screentime on his own children, Anderson says, “We glimpsed into the chasm of addiction, and there were some lost years, which we feel bad about.”ix  Years.

Regardless of age, ask yourself whether or not the thrill of using these apps remains, or are you going through the motions out of habit?  Because wouldn’t it be a terrifying realization to discover that you’ve been spending thousands of hours over a dozen years doing something for which you lost interest long ago?  Similar to awakening to the epiphany of a being in a dead marriage or an unfulfilling job, many will eventually awaken to a hollowed-out relationship with Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, or even Farmville.  By then the time squandered will be irretrievable and the neglect caused by our inattention to those we love irreparable.

The second question to ask yourself is: “What else could I be doing with my time?”  Reading; exercising; checking out an art exhibition; writing a novel; learning to cook; exploring a new neighborhood; flying a kite; talking without distraction to a close friend?  Whatever is on your list, weigh it against the screentime you are spending.  Which is more satisfying?  Which is more likely to make you happy?  In many cases the choice is between a short-lived dopamine hit and a hard-won achievement that will have lasting impact.  There’s room for a mix of both, of course, but it’s up to each of us to determine our ideal balance, rather than have it determined for us.

Distracted at Work

How is this all impacting us in a work context?  Like any underutilized muscle, our attention spans can shrink and atrophy.  When this happens, we are easily distracted.  We struggle to sustain our focus.  We feel exhausted at the end of the day, but our output doesn’t match our exertion.  Here are some tips for rebuilding our attention muscle.  Remember that lasting behavioral change requires discipline and resolve to have the desired effect.  (If the list seems overwhelming, pick three.  You’ll be surprised by the impact even a few modest behavioral changes can have.)

  • Close your email for at least 6 hours a day.  The constant blinking and beeping and resulting hijacking of your attention greatly reduce your efficiency.  99% of emails do not require an instantaneous response.  Stop using a workflow designed around the 1%.  Timebox email responses.  An hour in the morning and an hour before leaving work.  2 hours of email time is plenty and, because it’s scheduled time, it won’t feel like a distraction.  You’ll be left with 6 hours a day to focus on impactful activities that require your sustained attention.
  • Delete apps for which the thrill is gone.  We hear buzz about an app, download it, enjoy it for a few months, and then lose interest.  And yet by then using the app has become habit and we go on allocating time and attention to it.  Do an app inventory and ask yourself if using them still gives you pleasure.  Be honest.  If the thrill is gone, lose the app and reclaim your time.
  • Be less alerted.  Push notifications violate your attention span.  Don’t let them.  Again, 99% of alerts do not justify breaking your focus.  True emergencies like weather warnings or missile attacks will reach you just fine.
  • Turn your phone off, or bury it where you can’t see it.  It’s not enough to silence your phone if it’s within eyeshot and every flash diverts your attention.
  • Find a quiet space to work.  Shared workspaces are still the norm and have their benefits, but they are not conducive to certain activities (writing, reading, thinking, planning).  When you need to focus on quiet work, find a quiet space.  Book a meeting room.  Find a quiet corner.  Get away to get focused.
  • Don’t bring devices to meetings.  If you have to show a PowerPoint, you have to show a PowerPoint, but unless the meeting necessitates a device, leave it behind.  Laptops, tablets and phones are portals to Distractionville and undermine our ability to give other meeting attendees our full attention and respect.
  • Multiscreen less.  Because we are inundated with content, we feel we must consume it faster.  This has led to the phenomenon of multiscreening, where we spread our attention between a TV screen (or two), a laptop, our phone, etc.  We are watching everything and nothing.  Our attention flits between the devices, losing the thread, numbed to nuance, remembering little.
  • Sleep more.  Buried in a fascinating study on the impact of screentime on intimacy trends is a deep truth: “Among the contradictions of our time is this: We live in unprecedented physical safety, and yet something about modern life, very recent modern life, has triggered in many of us autonomic responses associated with danger—anxiety, constant scanning of our surroundings, fitful sleep.”xii   We must better manage the devices that cause our anxiety so that we can reclaim basic recovery methods like sufficient sleep.
  • Practice mindfulness to improve concentration.  It takes practice to eliminate distractions and maintain focus.  Meditating for as little as 10 minutes a day can build your capacity to focus.
  • Exercise.  Exercising releases chemicals like serotonin, endorphins and dopamine, reducing your reliance on sedentary screentime stimuli.
  • Eliminate screens from your bedroom.  Curate at least one room in your home that is a sanctuary from distraction.  The one you sleep in is a great candidate. 
  • Read a codex, not a book on a screen.  Reading deeply requires sustained attention.  Reading on a device that also connects you to the web is like trying to do your math homework in a mosh pit.

I Can Quit Anytime I Want

It’s important we remember that screentime is a choice.  We don’t have to live distracted lives.  “The fact that we are the cause of this is, paradoxically, good news since it hands back to us the potential to change our behaviour and reclaim the brain function and cognitive health that’s been disrupted by our digitally enhanced lives.”ii  What’s more, it doesn’t take long to break free from the chasm of distraction.  It takes about three weeks for a repeating behaviour to form a habit.xiii

Disconnecting cold turkey can cause anxiety and drive you right back to the comfort of screentime.  To resist this, I encourage you to replace screentime with planned activities that specifically engage you for a period of time to the exclusion of everything else.ii  Though this may seem like self-deprivation, it is a case of addition by subtraction.  By committing to behaviors that remove some measure of distraction from our lives we regain an equal measure of focus.  And we need focus in our personal lives and our work lives.  Focus on our significant other.  Focus on our kids.  Focus on our projects.  Focus on our health.  Focus on our impact.  Focus on our communities.

Time and attention are commodities.  Reclaim them.

  1. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/14/style/how-can-i-focus-better.html
  2. https://amp.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/oct/14/the-lost-art-of-co…
  3. http://www.pewinternet.org/2018/08/22/how-teens-and-parents-navigate-sc…
  4. https://www2.deloitte.com/insights/us/en/focus/technology-and-the-futur…
  5. https://www.businessinsider.com/dscout-research-people-touch-cell-phone…
  6. https://medium.com/the-graph/stop-wasting-time-in-the-attention-economy…
  7. https://www2.deloitte.com/insights/us/en/focus/technology-and-the-futur…
  8. https://www.livescience.com/17033-gamer-brain-reward-system.html
  9. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/26/style/phones-children-silicon-valley…
  10. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/26/style/silicon-valley-nannies.html
  11. https://www.amazon.com/Emmzoe-Smartphone-Handlebar-Stroller-Shopping/dp…
  12. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/12/the-sex-recession/…
  13. https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2009/oct/10/change-your-life-h…

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