Harder Than It Seems
Finding my focus. I’ve been conscious for a while that it’s harder to focus and keep focused. I erroneously was putting this down to me being busy and playing around with ageing stereotypes and laying it off on my documented mental health challenges. Yet none of that sits well with me, and I don’t buy it. I want to know more.
Three years ago, I read a book by Jarod Lanier titled “Ten Reasons For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now”, and I did. Delete my social media accounts. It’s an odd feeling because all of a sudden, you feel disconnected from the world. You aren’t, but you feel as though you are. The deliberately addictive design of social media gave me a hard withdrawal bump, and I also had a feeling of FOMO. But overall, concerns about privacy and time wasted on scrolling made me do it. It was hard and then felt good. But I couldn’t shake the feeling somehow I was missing out.
Eventually, I reinstated my LinkedIn and Instagram accounts. I didn’t return to Twitter or Facebook, and I made false arguments for doing so. It’s doubtful you will be reading this blog because you won’t know it exists. My primary way to get reach for my posts is via social media, especially LinkedIn. Some of the posts written about mental health received a lot of traction on the latter platform, and I could see from traffic that people arrived here on my website.
For Instagram, I reasoned that the business I am in uses influencers as part of its marketing strategy. The same for all other companies in our sector. Therefore I need to be active to understand the landscape more.
Both are great arguments, other for the fact they are bullshit. Yes, both serve a purpose, but only if you control them. The issue facing me and all of society are that they are designed to control you. The brilliant Netflix film Social Dilemma illustrated how the platforms are designed to interrupt you. Again and again and again, that’s at the heart of their business model.
Finding Focus Is A Losing Battle
We are interrupted every eight minutes during the day, according to a 2002 report. That’s sixty times in an eight-hour working day. We will check our phones thirty times a day at work and pretty much the same number of times outside of work. A survey of 11,000 phone users by RescueTime showed an average of three hours and fifteen minutes a day spent interacting with their phones. 20% of these people spent four and a half hours a day. Remember that’s just the phone. Before you even take a look at your computer.
The issue is how long it takes to regain your focus again. This paper – The Cost of Interrupted Work: More Speed and Stress – shows that it takes over twenty-three minutes to regain your focus after an interruption. Do the mathematics on that; we rarely have the chance to focus.
Glenn Wilson, a psychologist from King’s College, London University, has carried out clinical trials which show that our IQ drops by ten points when we are interrupted by a message or email. The drop is double that found in cannabis users. Wilson points to email being particularly troublesome in this respect, with a strong compulsion to reply immediately, regardless of the work or social situation.
No wonder finding focus is a losing battle for all of us. We are besieged by email, texts, messages and social media notifications non-stop.
My Own Challenge
I’m no different. We all get a minor hit of the happy hormone dopamine when we see a ‘like’ or a notification. The problem is that constant barrage can rewire the brain; we want that shallow reward. Brain scans of heavy social media users have similarities with those of drug or gambling addicts.
This excellent summary shows a strong correlation between depression and social media use; one study goes further and makes a case for causation. Heavy social media usage and bad news ‘doomscrolling’ affects mental health. Given my challenges with depression and anxiety, I can relate to this.
I have noted that finding my focus and keeping it is more of a challenge. The ping of the phone or the ding of an email so easily breaks that brief concentration on reading or writing. I feel I’m efficient by immediately responding, but the opposite is true. It will now take me more than twenty minutes to fully re-engage with my work. I work hard to listen carefully to people. As a deep introvert, I am not a natural active listener. I find it isn’t easy to maintain focus when my phone vibrates on my desk when I’m trying to listen to someone. The quid pro quo is that infuriating moment when the person you are talking to reads a message or takes a call while you are in conversation.
I feel that over time, we end up attention surfing. We can’t intensely focus, so we skim over the top, speed reading things and half-listening the mind a whirl of competing messages and priorities. We like to call it multitasking, as we think that makes us sound competent. Superior, even. I would challenge myself and say that multitasking is a myth; it’s a way of convincing ourselves all is good as we drown in overstimulation.
It’s damaged my love of reading books. I find it hard to read a novel because there’s always a digital distraction somewhere. It makes it hard to sit and just be. How often do I put on a vinyl LP and play it through? – not enough. Two examples, but the general theme is it’s tough finding my focus in the digital world.
Let’s Go Round Again
What to do? I have tried the total digital detox before, as mentioned in the opening paragraph. I want more quiet time. I’m an introvert, and my thinking and processing happen when undisturbed. It’s a significant driver for me using cycling for fitness. After an hour, my mind clears, and creativity starts, or genuine self-discovery. The reason is there is no beep or ding or banner notification. Generally, I’m an all or nothing person, but that didn’t work out for me on the digital front. It was easier for me to stop drinking alcohol three and a half years ago than to give up digital interruption.
I took a week’s holiday this month. I didn’t look at the email, and I deleted the app from my phone. When I got back to the office, I opened my email, quickly scanned the inbox and deleted all but five of the emails. I thought if it were urgent, the sender would call me. I did notice I spent too much time on Instagram. Delete one social media fix, and another fills the gap.
I’m serious about finding my focus. But also realistic. I haven’t deleted my social media accounts, but I have resolved to look at them only once every five or seven days. Let’s see. I deleted all but the essential apps from my phone; the only discretionary ones left are my bank account, anything related to fitness monitoring, plus music and audiobooks. Every notification has been turned off on all my (many) Apple devices. Then I went one further and bought a voice and text phone only, which is now my daily driver.
This week, I will limit the amount of time my email and videoconferencing is available by using the focus app on my Apple devices to block out some time and curtail the working day at a reasonable hour.
The vital discipline will be using this new time valuably, and I question whether the previous activity was of value in any case. Using email as an example again, I have halved the number I have sent to around 300 per month over recent months. In that period, the number of emails I received has more than halved to just over 5,000 per month. Has the world stopped spinning? – or course not. More focus more balance remains the key goal.
False Dawn Or New Discipline?
Let’s see where finding my focus goes. Experience tells me trying to go dark isn’t practical, and that’s a reality and not an excuse. But I have also seen how reality leads to drifting back into old habits, given our human response to the well-designed digital stimulus. The prize is significant, though. I don’t believe I learn more about myself in a constantly distracted state. The academic work on the link between digital distraction and depression and anxiety makes a lot of sense. My business acumen and leadership style won’t suffer through fewer email and iPhone notifications.
But in a world increasingly tailored to rob us of our focus to be manipulated to serve the business model of tech giants, I know this isn’t an easy task. I’m a determined and often stubborn person, but I know this is a challenging new discipline. I will report back. If you want to discuss this blog, call me. On the phone. For a conversation.