I started a writing project ten months ago. When I started having to produce an article every day, I realized I was having trouble focusing. We tend to believe that focus is like a light switch, we just turn it either on or off when the necessity or the mood strikes us. But the truth is that research is finding that’s not what happens. When we develop brain patterns that impede our ability to focus, when we don't train that ability, when we want to flip that switch on, nothing happens. We live in a world that attacks our ability to focus at every turn. Cal Newport’s book Deep Work says this, “there’s increasing evidence that this shift toward the shallow, is not a choice that can easily be reversed. Spend enough time in a state of frenetic shallowness and you permanently reduce your capacity to do deep work.”
The work that pays my bills right now is by nature full of distraction and driven by interruptions. It completely fits Newport’s definition of shallow work. I need to be highly accurate in a distracted environment, so in that respect, focus is important for me, but it doesn’t require sustaining that attention for more than a few minutes nor does it require any type of deep thought. So, I’ve found that I’m out of practice at thinking. How can that be? We think all the time, right? Our minds run and run and run. We react, we plan, we socialize, we talk, but how much of that is really thinking?
“Consumerism” has several (and often contradictory) definitions. One of those explanations is the selfish and frivolous collecting of products, or in other words, economic materialism. Generally, in our culture, we engage in consumerism without much thought. We’re culturally biased to consume and consume. Most of us, even those critical of economic materialism, readily engage in the psychological and mental equivalent. We allow a constant barrage of input into our minds. We consume and consume. We lunge after any new tidbit of information without thinking about it. We actually go further than just allowing it, we invite, encourage and enable it.
One study from the University of California-San Diego indicates that people are inundated with the equivalent of 34 Gb (gigabytes) of information every day, which if you were a laptop, would overload you within a week. Good thing we’re not laptops, right?
According to Tech 21 Century, the main effect of information overload is that the human attention to focus is continually hampered and interrupted. We talked about that last week. American psychiatrist Edward Hallowell says we’re so busy processing the mostly superficial information we’re receiving from all directions that we lose the ability to think and feel. If you think that’s an exaggeration, studies that indicate that the way we are currently training our brains to think, the constantly disrupted mental state we’ve come to accept as normal, is hampering our ability to feel empathy for others in addition to other deeply felt emotions. Brain plasticity doesn’t only result in positive changes. It results in negative ones as well.
A constant barrage of stimuli has become the norm. While we might intellectually understand and agree that it has a downside when we see a news headline, read a blog post, or listen to a podcast like this one, we’re remarkably apathetic in applying that information.
I learned some things about myself when I started my writing project last summer. I mentioned that I learned that I’m out of practice at thinking. That’s true. I also learned I’m good and bad at different types of thinking. As much as I loved my college freshman small group philosophy course, I’m no philosopher. I’m not good at teasing out the ramifications of complicated problems. And, I’m not the research scientist that can spend twenty years digging deep into a very specific question. But, what I am good at is taking information that’s out there and applying it in practical ways. That’s the essence of this podcast, me applying available information to improve my life, and maybe yours if you apply it too.
We have so much information available to us. We’re overloaded and overwhelmed with information. But we aren’t strategic about what we’re paying attention to and we aren’t applying it for our own benefit. Recently, I heard it put this way in the context of business development. People don’t need information, we have more than enough information. People need transformation.
According to Maura Thomas, attention management is the most important skill to have in the 21st century. She believes that people should stop worrying about time management and focus on attention management. The ability to control distractions and stay focused is essential.
As I’ve been thinking and reading about attention, I’ve noticed mine more and more. Just that act of noticing has begun to change the way I move through life. It’s changing the decisions I’m making and my awareness and control over my own experience. We’ll talk more about the transformation of our thought patterns next week, but this week, I want to encourage you to do three things. I want you to pay attention to three things.
First, pay attention to the information coming at you.
Where is it coming from? How are you responding to it? This might be external information like that coming from friends and family, media sources, or your environment, but it’s also internal information. It’s about eight in the evening as I’m working on this podcast and all the sudden I became uncomfortable in the skirt I was wearing. Before I knew it I’d set my laptop aside and had stood up to change into pajama pants. Right in the middle of a thought. I became uncomfortable and before I knew it, not even a second later, I was on my feet. What I should have done was notice that I was uncomfortable and finish my thought or finish a section of work and then get up to change. That’s internal information. Information comes from all around and inside of us. Begin to notice it as it comes and how you respond to it.
Pay attention to your ability to focus.
How long are you staying on task? When you set yourself to a task, any task, it could be cooking dinner, reading a book, or talking to your spouse. How long before your mind looks for a distraction? How long before you find yourself thinking about a conversation with your boss as your spouse tells you about his or her day? How long before your mind wanders off to the weekend when you’re supposed to be writing a work report? How much brainpower are you able to harness and how long can you sustain it?
Pay attention to where your attention is.
Begin to notice what you’re thinking about and when. I ran across a whole new world this week. Mental athletes. They compete in mental competitions all over the world. The competitors might be memorizing random shapes, words, names and faces, the shuffled order of a deck of cards or a string of numbers. They might be performing calculations or solving mental puzzles. Daniel Kilov is a memory athlete able to memorize a shuffled deck of cards in less than two minutes. When he spoke at TEDx Canberra, he said that most failures of memory are failures of attention. Your goal doesn’t have to be memorizing a deck of cards in a few minutes, though that would be a fun party trick. But if you want to improve your thinking, your brain function, your memory, the first thing to pay attention to is whether or not you're paying attention to your own life.
There’s a lot highlighted by the work by Cal Newport, Maura Thomas, Edward Hallowell, and others that bothers me. One of those things is this. If I, as an individual, lose my capacity to do deep work, and deep work as defined by Newport is “the ability to perform in a state of distraction-free concentration that pushes your cognitive capabilities to their limit”. If I lose my ability to focus, concentrate and work intensely over a period of time. I’m negatively impacting my own life and potentially my ability to care for my family.
But if, as a culture, we lose the ability to do deep work, we lose a critical skill for our species. We lose the ability to solve tough problems. We lose the ability to create deeply meaningful works of art. We lose the ability to expand our knowledge. We as a people, lose so much potential. Potential to create. Potential to learn. Potential to solve problems. That's a disturbing loss. We aren't solving the problems plaguing us now very well. I'm certain we'll continually have more.
Darren Hardy says, “The first step toward change is awareness. If you want to get from where you are to where you want to be, you have to start by becoming aware of the choices that lead you away from your desired destination.”
My goal today is to make you aware and encourage you to pay attention to your own habits and choices. Let’s talk next week about how to respond to that awareness.