Millo's Musings

The Lost Art of Concentration

18 July 2017

The first step is admitting it: my name is George, and I’m a distraction-holic.

(Hi George)

It started when I was just a kid. I was only experimenting with the minor stuff: 56k dial-up, my Game Boy Color, music videos on Kerrang! and MTV. I never thought it would become a problem. I thought I could stop whenever I wanted. If only I’d known.

Luckily for me the hard stuff wasn’t available back then. But when it did become available, I gave right in to peer pressure. Bebo was the gateway drug; next came MySpace, then StumbleUpon. Eventually I built up too much of a tolerance, so I moved on to Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit, and before I knew it, I was a full-blown addict.

Recovery hasn’t been easy. There were times in the past where I could barely go five minutes without checking some kind of online news feed or other. That’s embarrassing to admit, but then you’re probably not much better. Everyone is addicted to distraction these days, though few will admit it.

You probably came to this article via a link on social media. What were you doing on Facebook or Twitter in the first place? Had you made a clear, conscious decision to visit those sites? Or did it happen on autopilot - your mind wandered for a second, and before you knew it, your fingers had hit ctrl+t, f, enter, and autocomplete filled in the gaps? Believe me, I’ve been there.

Yeah, you have bad habits just like me, but it’s not entirely your fault. Billions of dollars are spent every year to make you this way. If you own any kind of digital device, you’re at war with a highly-trained army of professional distractioneers who are continually inventing new ways to sap your attention, break your concentration, and split your focus. Anything to make you look at more adverts. They’re good at what they do, and their tactics are getting more and more advanced.

In the 20th century, marketers realised that they could make far more money selling unhealthy, processed junk food than selling the types of foods that humans are actually supposed to eat. Profits exploded along with waistlines.

In the 21st century, marketers are doing to your mind what they’ve already done to your body. Most online content is the mental equivalent of sugar - small, tasty, easily digested, and of no nutritional value. The sight of the glowing ‘unread notifications’ icon gives you a brief hit of dopamine, but as soon as it fades you’re hungry for more.

You don’t have to be a neuroscientist to see how this deluge of distraction is rewiring our minds for the worse. “Internet addiction disorder (IAD) is currently becoming a serious mental health issue around the globe,” said the authors of a 2012 study. According to their paper, subjects with so-called IAD show similar patterns of neural activity to people with addictions to scarier substances like cocaine and heroin.

You probably don’t even realise how addicted you’ve become - one U.K. study found that the average participant checked their smartphone 85 times a day, but guessed that they only checked it 37 times. A more recent study commissioned by Nokia put the number of smartphone-checks-per-day at 150 - on average, once every six minutes.

(I wonder how different 9/11 would have been if it had happened in the age of the selfie stick? Think of all the extra people who would have died because they stopped on the way out to take Instagram photos. I can’t say I’d miss them.)

I like to think I’m not as addicted to my smartphone as some people I know. But I can’t pretend to be perfect. I feel it more and more: my brain just isn’t what it used to be, and it alarms me.

At 13 years old I could happily watch an entire extended-edition Lord of the Rings movie with no breaks, or remain buried in a book for so long that I’d forget I needed to eat. These days I can barely sit through a 10-minute YouTube video unless I turn the speed up to 2x. When I read on my Kindle, I sometimes flip between four or five books in the same sitting, reading a chapter here, a section there, a few pages there. I’ll pick up my iPhone just to check the time, then the next thing I know I’ve wasted ten minutes reading random Wikipedia articles, unable to remember how I got there.

I hate people who get their phones out at the dinner table, which only makes it more annoying when I catch myself doing it. That’s just one of many unsavoury smartphone-related behaviours that I try to avoid, but I’m not always successful.

Mark Manson put it perfectly: Smartphones are the New Cigarettes. Like second-hand smoke, our inability to focus has a spill-over effect on those around us, what Manson calls “attention pollution”. It’s everywhere, and it’s getting harder to escape.

I’m no Luddite. I love the Internet, I love living in this day and age and, for all the drawbacks of modern technology, I’d still rather live with it than without it. But maintaining a healthy relationship with technology takes work. Sit back and let yourself passively fall into the patterns that come naturally with each new gadget, and you’re playing right into the hands of people who do not have your best interests at heart. And all of the important things that you want to do will not get done.

Study the great men and women of history and you’ll see that they almost invariably had a few things in common. They worked hard, they took risks, they surrounded themselves with the right people, they read voraciously, they never stopped learning, and they stayed strong through all kinds of failures and setbacks.

The people who shape the 21st century will do all of those things too - but they’ll also stand out for what they didn’t do. They’ll be the rare exceptions who kept their phones on silent mode, blocked notifications, unsubscribed from mailing lists, didn’t sign up to Snapchat, remained blissfully ignorant of the latest Reddit drama, read books instead of Buzzfeed, published manifestos instead of Tweets, joined movements instead of Facebook groups, and measured their results in real-world change instead of likes and upvotes. And along the way they might occasionally annoy you by taking too long to reply to your email. But who the fuck cares?

In my next post I’ll share some specific tricks and strategies I use for minimising the distractions in my life. In the meantime, feel free to share this article on social media, but know that you’re not doing yourself any favours.


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