I’m losing my ability to focus, and I’m not alone.
In an article published by The Atlantic, Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, shares his struggle to immerse himself in a book or a lengthy article. By page three, his finds that his hands begin to fidget and his mind begins to wander. He laments over the slow deterioration of his ability to concentrate and practice deep thought. “Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory.” Bruce Friedman, a writer and pathologist at the University of Michigan Medical School, echoes Carr’s observation, admitting “I can’t read War and Peace anymore.” Long-form text appears overwhelming and like many, he resorts to skimming. What is happening to us?
The Internet enables us to consume content in an unprecedented way. Though we may be reading more today than in the 70’s or 80’s, Carr points out that the way we’re reading has changed. Consider the article you last finished. Graphics, links, and short abstracts likely littered the page. Given the firehose of information published, our current style of reading values efficiency and speed. This style of consumption isn't limited to the digital world. The pressure is on for traditional media to adapt, which is why if you turn to page three of the New York Times, you’ll find short excerpts of full-length articles to help readers get a "preview" of the news. If this is how we consume content day after day, year after year, it’s no shock that our ability to read carefully and to think deeply is chipping away. Many of our favorite companies and their tools are incentivized to distract us. It's only recently that there’s been any real consideration for how the Internet's tools may be affecting our cognition.
The fact that Bruce Friedman can’t get through War and Peace should terrify the very companies that are vying for our attention because the effects spillover to the way we work. Linda Stone, a consultant who previously advised both Apple and Microsoft, coined the term “continuous partial attention” as a desire to constantly be in the loop. People exhibit an always-on behavior and live in a constant state of artificial crisis trying to avoid missing out on the latest news or opportunity. This explains our growing feeling of overwhelm and the fragmentation of our attention at work caused by flooded email inboxes, meetings, and never-ending Slack notifications. A 2005 study by Dr. Glenn Wilson found that more than half of 1,100 participants admitted to always responding to emails as soon as possible, with 21% of them saying they’d interrupt a meeting to do so. A study by Microsoft showed that a typical knowledge worker nowadays switches windows on average 373 times a day or roughly every 40 seconds and is only able to spend three minutes on a single task uninterrupted. Given that it takes on average 15 minutes to recover from an interruption, it means we’re never concentrating well. We’re never doing deep work.
Cal Newport, popular author on the subject and associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University, defines deep work as focusing on a cognitively demanding task with zero distractions or context-switching. He makes a point of differentiating busyness with real productivity. Those who conflate the two tend to prioritize “shallow work” which are logistical-style tasks that aren’t cognitively demanding. Shallow work rarely creates any new value and is easy to replicate. Unfortunately, it’s often shallow work that fills up our days and Newport warns, “The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy.”
Newport shares four rules for deep work:
- Don’t wait to be in the mood to focus on a brilliant new idea. Rather than relying on serendipity, incorporate deep work in your schedule and fight to protect it.
- Avoid cheap stimuli like scrolling through your Instagram feed when bored. Instead, expose yourself to higher quality stimuli like books, conversations, or exercise.
- Be more intentional about your social media use and where you spend your attention.
- Drain unnecessary shallow work and become highly efficient in doing what remains.
Here’s an article with a thorough framework for implementing deep work into your work life.
We’ve gotten good at managing our time, but we need to start managing our attention. Luckily, our ability to focus can be strengthened over time through training, just like a muscle. Despite there being no long-term neurological or psychological study to show the effects of the Internet on our brain, I know I’m losing my ability to focus, and I’m not alone. It’s time to evolve from busyness and an always-on lifestyle to being more thoughtful about how we direct our attention. If you read this article from beginning to end, congratulation. You’re one step closer to rewiring your brain.