As I sit down to write this blog, I'm facing a blank page. I know it's going to be difficult, because it always is. Maybe I'll just check my email first, or update on Facebook or Twitter, or read the morning headlines on The New York Times, or sneak a peak at Google Analytics, or read the comments readers have left overnight on my earlier posts.
Something insidious has happened. The same device most of use to get our primary work accomplished — a computer, a smartphone, an iPad, or some combination of the above — is also now the repository of 1,000 distractions and every imaginable source of immediate gratification.
As we seek to work, just a keystroke or two away we also have access to Google and YouTube, books and blogs, TV shows and movies, music and video games, email and texting, newspapers and magazines, and countless web sites and apps. We're free to indulge our every whim, no matter how trivial, and that's exactly what we do.
The social critic Linda Stone has coined the term continuous partial attention to describe the fractured way we now focus. "With continuous partial attention," Stone explains, "we keep the top level item in focus and scan the periphery in case something more important emerges." Or something more alluring, reassuring, or simply less demanding.
Staying singly focused on a task in this digital era is like trying to resist eating while sitting in a bakery as cookies, pies, cakes and tarts emerge fresh and fragrant from the oven. There's a reason Cinnabon points its air vents out into the corridors at airports.
The easier it is to indulge our desires, the harder it is to exercise self-control.
Human beings weren't designed to manage the level of temptation to which we're exposed every day. That's why — irrational as it is — we take on more and more debt, grow fatter and fatter, continue to profligately spend down the earth's finite resources ,and struggle to pay attention to anything for very long.
I share this view with Daniel Akst, author of We Have Met the Enemy: Self Control in an Age of Excess. It's one of the most important books I've ever read — trenchant, compelling, elegantly written, and scary in its implications. It's also the sort of book most of us avoid because we don't want to engage with anything that makes us feel bad.
Instead, like children, we want what we want now. And in recent years, science has helped us to understand better just what we're up against when it comes to self-control.
We now know, for example, that it's more immediately exciting to flit from subject to subject than it is to stay concentrated on one thing at time. We're gluttons for novelty. That's because the thrill of the new activates dopamine, the neurotransmitter in our brains associated with pleasure.
Once we've experienced an initial rush, we're inclined to keep seeking it, even as the pleasure diminishes over time, and even when the consequences are ultimately self-defeating — as they are from overeating, or snorting cocaine, or shifting focus from one object of attention to another
Repugnant as I find Amy Chua, the so-called Tiger Mother, I share her conviction that the capacity to tolerate discomfort and delay gratification in the short term is the key to achieving any form of excellence in the long term.
Unfortunately, we each have an infinite capacity for self-deception. Even our prefrontal cortex — our reflective mind — can get co-opted by our most urgent and primitive desires. Rather than making thoughtful, reasoned choices, we often end up using the highest capacities of our brain to rationalize, justify and minimize our self-destructive behaviors.
So how do we stop kidding ourselves and take back control of our attention — and our lives? Here are six simple ways to start:
1. Let your deepest values become a more powerful guide to your behaviors. What do you truly stand for? How do you want to behave, no matter what? Keep those commitments front and center through your days, both as a source of energy and direction for your behaviors.
2. Slow down. The faster you're moving, the more likely you're reacting rather than reflecting. Set aside intentional times during the day — they can be as short as a minute or two — to check in with yourself. Think of them as "wake up" calls.
3. Build deliberate practices, ritualized behaviors you do at specific times until they become automatic. For example, begin by doing the most important thing first in the morning, uninterrupted, for 60 to 90 minutes. Make the start time and the stop time inviolable, so you know exactly how long you're going to have to stay the course.
4. Create "precommitments" to minimize temptation. Our capacity for self-control gets depleted every time we exercise it. Turn off your email entirely at certain times during the day. Consider working at times on a laptop that isn't hooked up to the Internet. Do this for the same reason you should remove alluring foods from your shelves (or avoid all-you-can-eat buffets) when you're on a diet.
5. Share your commitments. Tell others what it is you're intending to do, and ask them to hold you accountable. If you work in an office, get others to make the same commitment with you — and choose the most public way possible for everyone to share how they're doing.
6. Start small. Attention operates like a muscle. Subject it to stress — but not too much stress — and over time your attention will get stronger. What's your current limit for truly focused concentration? Build it up in increments. And don't go past 90 minutes without a break. That's the time to let your attention wander.