It is not new knowledge that we are in a distracted world. As I have discussed in my previous posts, we are addicted to constant communication and screen time, so much so that it is difficult for many people to actually sit down and read something.
In Clive Thompson’s article Social Media is Keeping Us Stuck in the Moment, he contributes this addiction to distraction in part to the “reverse chronological design” that almost all news and social media sites utilize. In this design, the most recent posts and articles are at the top and you must scroll down to go back in time, which he says that this is damaging to how we consume information.
Thompson references Harold Innis’ On the Bias of Communication which was published way back in 1951 to show how this argument is not new. Innis attributed our “obsession with the immediate” to daily news, which was more disposable and discarded quicker than past forms of media.
To put it simply, constant news (whether it be in the form of tweets or news articles) is addictive. Thompson points out that it is not only making us more distracted, but more prone to believing in the “shiny new headlines” than actually researching a topic and understanding it.
What scares me the most about our addiction to technology is how it is hooking our children in from the get-go. In the article The Art of Staying Focused in a Distracting World, James Fallows interviews ex-Apple and Microsoft worker Linda Stone who now shares the dangers of distraction and being in a state of “continuous partial attention.”
Stone points out that in different situations we need to utilize different attention strategies. For example, a vital strategy is used when playing alone as a child and “you developed a capacity for attention and for a type of curiosity and experimentation that can happen when you play. You were in the moment, and the moment was unfolding in a natural way.” She argues, however, that the huge role that technology plays in many children’s lives does not allow for a child to develop these attention strategies.
From a young age, children learn through imitation. Kids are not inherently fascinated with phones and technology, they are fascinated with what mom and dad are fascinated with. Stone says that children learn empathy through eye contact, so what happens when their parent’s eyes are constantly on their phone? According to Stone, “What we’re doing now is modeling a primary relationship with screens, and a lack of eye contact with people.”
Stone believes that things are slowly getting better and the generations raised on screens are becoming more aware of the downsides of their attachment to a screen, but that we must create a capacity for a “relaxed presence” by doing activities that promote “mind and body in the same place at the same time.”
In Cal Newport’s second rule of Deep Work, he argues that these activities can not only aid in personal well being, but in your ability to focus on a task and work deeply. The chapter entitled “Embrace Boredom” outlines four ways you can train yourself to quell the urge to give into distraction.
Manage Your Breaks from Focus
Newport’s first guideline on embracing boredom is to take breaks from focus rather than taking breaks from distraction. He argues that if you schedule the exact times you can use the internet and keep all other time internet-free, you will train your resistance to distraction since the option will simply not be there.
Do Nothing But Work for a Set Time
Newport’s next guideline is to allocate the time in your day to focused work. He models this guideline on Teddy Roosevelt’s method of focus during his time in school: he would spend every minute of spare time between 8 am- 4 pm on getting work done so he could have time to relax and participate in school organizations. Newport suggests that you can set a personal deadline for a project to force more intensity during you work time.
Practice Productive Meditation
The final guideline Newport gives that I will be exploring is to “meditate productively.” This involves taking any time you are physically occupied (walking, jogging, swimming, showering, or driving) to focus on a single well-defined problem. Newport gives three steps to productive meditation: review the variables of the problem, define the “next step” question, then consolidate your solution in a clear statement. Not only does this act allow you to use otherwise unoccupied mental time, but it train yourself to resist distraction and remain focused.
I was particularly drawn in by this idea of “productive meditation”. I have jobs all over the state which means that every week I spend upwards of seven hours in a car. I wanted to see how other productive people used their time on the road, so I read the Forbes article Make The Most Of Your Commute With These Eight Productive Tasks by eight young entrepreneurs. Their suggestions were insightful and actually connected to quite a few of Newport’s ideas.
“Record Your Thoughts.” Shawn Porat uses his time in the car to let his mind wander and record any interesting thoughts using a voice assistant. While this is not as intense as productive meditation, in my previous post I shared the benefits of boredom and how taking a break from stimulation can let you have good and interesting thoughts. I know for a fact that I have had some thoughts while sitting in traffic that I wish I had not let dissipate – from now on I will keep a journal in the notes app on my phone.
“Listen to Audio Books.” Robert De Los Santos suggests you listen to audio books on your commute so that you can prepare your mind for critical thinking you will have to do at work. For the past six months this has been my default driving activity – I have been able to listen to twenty books since May, which is incredible considering I had not opened a book for leisure since middle school. If you think this option isn’t for you due to the price (Audible is actually quite expensive) I suggest seeing what resources are available to you from you public library. I was able to listen to all twenty books for free using the app Libby – all I had to do was connect my library card and put the books on hold.
“Do High-level Strategy Work.” Fred Lam suggests you spend the time to plan out your day’s goals for yourself and you company since “without strategy, there will never be execution”. This is more in line with Newport’s productive meditation, but on a daily level. I would do this method, but lately I have gotten in the habit of doing this before my commute with my morning coffee and breakfast.
“Catch Up On the Little Things.” Stephanie Vermaas gives a tip to those who take the train or bus – use this spare time to catch up on emails, phone calls, or to get up to date on projects you are working on. This could be a good time for communication so that when you get to work you can turn it off and not have to worry about checking your email until later in the day.
“Conduct a Daily Review.” Shu Saito utilizes his morning commute by planning out his day, making sure that the most important tasks are at the top of your to-do list. He then spends the rest of his time letting his mind wander, using the silence to perhaps “wander onto a brilliant idea that could recharge your day or business.” This is when your voice assistant would come in handy.
“Listen to Music.” Jared Atchison does what is perhaps on of the most popular options – simply turning up the volume on some tunes that will let you have time to relax or set the mood for your day. I would go a bit further an create some playlists depending on the tasks that you are on your way to conquer to get you ready to face the day.
“Immerse Yourself in Industry-Related Materials.” Derek Robinson strays a bit from boredom by using his commute to get up-to-date on what is going on in your industry through podcasts, webinars, or audio books. While this is not quite what Newport had in mind for “embracing boredom,” it is useful for people like me who have very little time to explore these topics otherwise. Some of the audio books I have listened to were not necessarily industry-related, but work on some of the long-term goals and habits I have in mind for myself. Marie Kondo’s The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up and Dave Ramsey’s The Total Money Makeover have already made an impact on my daily habits – something I argue you should focus on in another post.
Pause and Self-Reflect. Kevin Yamazaki gives the final tip for utilizing your commute that is the opposite of the last tip – avoid burnout by cutting off your work and using the time to reflect on your well-being and current conflicts that could be resolved in your life. He says, after all, “you are the driver for every project you push forward,” so you must take time to think of and take care of YOU.
It is okay to step away from work every once and a while – it is in fact quite beneficial. Train yourself to be used to boredom again so that you can use it to improve your quality of work and life. There is truly no good reason for you to be connected at all times; instead, take some time to connect back to yourself.