What affect is technology having on our ability to focus as a society?

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A few years ago, I read Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport, and it greatly impacted my life. Being in my late 20’s, I can still remember a world without constant email/texting/ social media/smartphones. My high school days and first years of college were the pre-iPhone days. My stress levels were lower than today, I’d be passed out in less than 5 minutes of hitting the pillow at night, I’d sleep straight through the night, and I could focus for hours. I didn’t have that small voice inside my head saying, “maybe there is an important email you need to read…” or “maybe someone has sent you a text and needs your response…” Those were my “glory days.”

Now it seems I am constantly distracted and have this weird bittersweet relationship with distraction where I hate how it makes me feel, yet I crave it. When I have 15 minutes on my own, rather than sit in silence, it scares me, and I pull out my phone or open my computer to read news articles. It feels exactly like what people describe addiction. I know it’s terrible for me and hurts me, but I need it. It’s the problem and solution at the same time. It feels as like what people describe as an addiction because it is an addiction. The Dopamine hits we get from technology and distractions are addicting.

In Deep Week, Newport argues that dithering on our phones and inboxes destroys our ability to focus. In a knowledge-based economy, our ability to focus may be one of our greatest assets, yet it is used least right now. The “supernatural” power of focus is in its ability to put us in a flow state. In a state of flow, we are fully immersed in the project, we are energized, and our sub-conscious brain begins working for us, and our creative juices are at their highest.

The catch is, it takes 22-25 minutes for us to get in that state and a single email, notification, or text message resets that clock. On average a person checks their email every 37 minutes. Our phones are worse, with us checking them every 12 minutes. Between those two, we nearly destroy all hope of experiencing a state of flow. Never getting into a state of flow not only means we lose out on sub-conscious problem solving and creativity but also a sense of joy and less anxiety. Those who experience more states of flow have significantly lower levels of stress and higher levels of pleasure.

In Deep Work, he recommends different techniques for reducing distraction:

1. Choose your Deep Work Strategy – He offers four concrete strategies depending on your career field to improve your deep work. I will leave it to you to check out the book to learn about these.

2. Use downtime to enhance Deep Work efforts – We can be focused on the deepest of work only 4 hours a day, thus use your rest wisely

3. Remove Distractions – Distractions destroys our ability to focus. Create set emails times or keep your phone away from you at work during set periods (maybe use airplane mode).

4. Make Deep Work a habit – block certain times of the day off for Deep Work. The morning can be an excellent time for this. Block off two, 1.5 hour periods of deep work a day.

5. Notice your Shallow Work to avoid it better – Checking email, filling in a spreadsheet, responding to a general request in Slack, tweaking the monthly slide update — these are all examples of shallow work. These tasks feel nice but are shallow.

As I have implemented these strategies, I find myself experiencing some of the “glory days” again. I would highly recommend the book and the practices suggested by it!

What has your relationship with technology been like?

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