“The power for creating a better future is contained in the present moment: You create a good future by creating a good present.” – Eckart Tolle
Yes, I know I’m crazy, which hopefully means I’m not as crazy as I think I am because I’m admitting I’m crazy. One area that drives me particularly crazy is our increasing individual and societal levels of distraction, which is reducing our focus, productivity, and thinking effectiveness. Distraction is the bad sheep in the family, where the good sheep is intention.
The Acute Symptoms
Video consumed on TV and computer/mobile screens now takes up five hours and 31 minutes per day on average (source). On the Interweb we spend an average of 1.72 hours per day on social platforms, which is only 28% of the total average time we spend online, i.e., 6.14 hours (source). And 3,154 people were killed in car crashes in 2013 due to distracted driving (source).
Not be a doggie downer, but what saddens me personally is what I witness firsthand when I’m out in public. Whether I’m in my car, walking down the street, or in stores, I see legions of people who are plugged into their devices and not connected in the present moment to the world around them. I fully recognize the power and unique opportunity we have to purposefully “see,” observe and record the world around us with our devices when we are out and about by exploring, photographing, making videos and writing about the present moment with our smartphone in hand. About a year and a half ago I had an opportunity to speak with Altimeter Group analyst Brian Solis about this phenomenon he has written about. But that’s not what I’m talking about here.
The Chronic Results
As Nicholas Carr wrote in a WIRED article five years ago that still scares the crap out of me every time I read it, we are becoming a nation of shallow thinkers. “When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning. Even as the Internet grants us easy access to vast amounts of information, it is turning us into shallower thinkers, literally changing the structure of our brain.” Read that last sentence again. Scary.
One study of questionable credibility due to a small sample size, sponsored by Microsoft, concludes that our attention span has decreased from 12 seconds in 2000 to eight seconds in 2013. The incredible part is that goldfish allegedly have an average attention span of nine seconds. Seriously, how the hell does one assess the attention span of a goldfish? What’s more disturbing is the alleged reduction in our attention span by 1/3 in just 13 years.
6 Easy Things We Can Do
What can we do to increase our attention span, up our game, and kick that goldfish’s ass to the curb in a humane and civil way of course?
1.Set up a routinized process for reviewing and responding to email within set blocks of time. Ideally this block of time will not include the first hour of the day. And hopefully you will spend no more than two hours per day on email in total. When you make this practice consistent, others will adapt to you. I’ve even seen email signatures in which middle managers state the early morning and mid afternoon 60 minute blocks in which they will respond to email messages. Yes, they’re still gainfully employed and on a path to getting promoted.
2. Make your online time as purposeful as possible. Purposeless “browsing” is what kills your game. Clicking away on endless hyperlink juice links except for mine of course, per Nicholas Carr’s article, is what kills your game. Bouncing from one YouTube video to another is what kills your game. Now let’s be clear: If your manager has asked you to write a 10,000 word demand generation white paper on the changing nature of YouTube cat videos, then you should ignore this part of my advice. But seriously, if you know why you’re browsing and what specifically you’re trying to accomplish, you will play your game at a higher level. And if you still want to engage in purposeless browsing, have at it. But set a time limit for yourself. In other words, make it intentional. Ummm….no, I’m not providing any links to YouTube cat videos in this article.
3. Stop living in the land of stimulus/response with your smartphone. Turn off all tones that indicate incoming email messages. Choose when to turn off text message tones. Reduce the amount of time you spend sending and responding to texts. Keep your phone in another room for awhile, or shove it in the back seat — or for men, in your pocket — for at least part of the time while driving. Sidewalks are for walking and elevators are for elevating. Try putting your phone down when in these public situations. Maybe you can make some eye contact and say ‘Hi’ to somebody. The same goes for human exchanges with cashiers in any retail establishment, unless you’re using Apple Pay for a fraction of a second. Recognize that emails and texts generally align with other people’s agendas. What is YOUR agenda?
4. Minimize TV watching. How about one hour per day, max? How about no TV news or yelling heads shows on your favorite partisan cable news network. How about just high quality educational or entertainment programming? Instead of binge watching, how about drip watching…one hour per day? You get bonus points for killing your cable/satellite as you can still get way too drunk on TV with an Apple TV and an Amazon Fire Stick – but at least with these devices you cut out so much potential noise in the form of TV ads. Speaking of noise…
5. Start enjoying silence. This takes practice. But hey, if I with my 500 watt amp and 12 inch subwoofer can keep my car stereo turned off for at least 1/3 of the time I’m driving, you can spend more time basking in silence. In particular, consider a daily meditation practice with an intention of increasing your focused attention muscles and taking a thinking break. It doesn’t have to be spiritual in nature, not that there’s anything wrong with that. Herbert Benson wrote the book on meditation for medical purposes decades ago. If you really don’t want to meditate, read longer articles and books, and take a nice nap.
6. Go into occasional seclusion time blocks to “git r done” if you work in a loud cubicle environment. Every company has some block of crappy conference rooms in some ‘about to be abandoned’ building or floor that nobody goes to, or a room that smells like toe cheese or rotted food or sounds like an air conditioning compressor is right overhead, that everybody avoids. Book that room for an hour or two, don’t tell anyone you’re going there, tip toe away from your cube, face away from the window once you’re in the room, fire up your laptop, and focus on one activity. I used to work with a guy named Jake who was masterful at this. He now runs a high performance coaching and training program for elite runners, but back in the day he’d kick most everybody’s ass for getting more done in less time by pulling a Houdini and then re-appearing a few hours later.
Not to get too spiritual on you, but my a-ha moment with distractions is they rob me of my present moment. While I’ve got a long way to go in improving, please expect that as an example I’ll either be highly delayed or may never respond to your text. It’s not personal. I’m just focusing on the now. Thanks Eckart, and TTYL!
1. Read this relatable and great article from Paul Langone on how avoiding silent and alone moments, and those accompanying awkward thoughts and feelings, can habitually drive us to distraction. And yes, the Louis C.K. video at the bottom of the article in which he spouts off on his hatred of cell phones is worth viewing. While I realize I’m encouraging you to distract yourself, both the article and video nail it in expressing the human awkwardness I believe we all experience when we don’t distract ourselves, until we condition ourselves to simply ‘be.’
2. For an uplifting TED video on how you can increase memory, reduce the level of mental decline associated with aging, and improve your mood, watch what neuroscientist Sandrine Thuret has to say. It’s worth the 11 minute investment. Thanks for the pointer on this, JP!