No sooner had I sat down to write this article than I felt myself dawdling. First, I checked to make sure I had no new emails. Then, I looked at my phone to see if anyone had sent me a message. Next, I remembered that the office heater was leaking, and decided I needed to call the plumber immediately.
Even after endless hours studying the research on attention, and creating and delivering programs to help clients increase their ability to focus, I was finding myself stuck in the mindless loop of distraction.
The explanation is simple: distraction is addictive. Focusing in a deep and absorbed way can be difficult and lonely, so our minds automatically search for a more pleasurable, immediately gratifying experiences. The digital world is always there to support us with a new form of sabotage: relentless dings, beeps, scrolls, pop-ups, and banners that appear in every moment across every medium.
At the same time, our capacity for absorbed focus is our most critical tool for working efficiently, for accessing the deepest, most reflective parts of ourselves, for connecting with others, and for simply staying calm and clear.
“Frequent interruptions scatter our thoughts, weaken our memory, and make us tense and anxious,” explains Nicholas Carr in The Shallows: What The Internet is Doing to Our Brains. “The more complex the train of thought we’re involved in, the greater the impairment the distractions cause.”
You have likely noticed this in yourself if you’ve tried lately to read a long article online, or a complex book – or perhaps any book at all. Rationalising that we must forever be available, we our keep our phones or laptops right next to us, day and often night. The result is that we literally train ourselves to get distracted.
Attention researcher Linda Stone refers to this as “continuous partial attention.” In this state, she writes, “we keep the top-level item in focus and scan the periphery in case something more important emerges…It contributes to a stressful lifestyle, to operating in crisis management mode, and to a compromised ability to reflect, to make decisions, and to think creatively.”
So how can we build back our capacity for absorbed focus in a world that’s doing everything possible to obliterate it?
Setting clear parameters is absolutely critical, as we teach our clients. The more we expose ourselves directly to temptation, the faster our will to resist it breaks down. To write this article, I set aside 90 minutes during which I told my colleagues I would be unavailable, I turned off my phone, and I shut down my email program.
Even with these boundaries, I could feel that my mind wasn’t yet prepared to fully absorb itself in writing. While most of the time I am able to shut out distractions when I need to work, I find writing particularly difficult. For me, it requires the highest level of absorbed focus, and therefore the clearest disconnection from everything else in my life. Even without online distractions, I could feel my mind wandering to all the other projects I could be working on, to the every-day worries that usually only arise for me at 4am, to the grocery shopping I had forgotten to do the day before.
I needed to also relax my body and quiet the endless flow of thoughts invading my mind. I closed my eyes and took a minute to just breathe, deeply and slowly, and to count each exhale.
Turning off external distractions, calming my body and my mind, and knowing that I only had to focus for 90 minutes before I could take a break all allowed me to temporarily let go and focus in on my writing. When 90 minutes were up, I had a clear outline of what I wanted to write, as well as a draft of the first few paragraphs.
It may seem extreme, or overly rigid, to follow these steps. However, we’re stuck in a relentless battle against the very technology we need to do our jobs. We need to employ drastic measures.
In trying to work at the highest possible level of performance, we can learn a lot from high-performing athletes, who use this method to train. Interval training – which involves pushing the body to its limits for short periods of time and then recovering – is a means by which they systematically push past their current comfort zone, and expand their capacity.
The same principle is key to our work lives: focusing single-mindedly on challenging tasks for a specified period of time – with a clear start and stop time – and then taking time to recover.
In effect, we stop living in the gray zone, in the haze of continuous partial attention. When we’re working, we’re engaging fully, so that we’re most productive and efficient. When we’re not working, we truly allow ourselves to fully disengage and relax.
The magic of absorbed attention, for finite periods of time, is that we get more done, in less time, at a higher level of depth and quality.