Our Dying Attention is a Big Problem

Have we lost the last decade of our lives to endless scrolling?

Late last year, around October, I realized that one of the biggest personal blockers on my book-writing process was my lack of deep, quality, focused time. So, for a little more than a year I’ve been running personal experiments focused on adding meditation, quality, and depth to my life in a meaningful way.

Here’s what that has looked like: trying to meditate consistently. Reading complete books, from start to finish, slowly. Reading fewer books so that I can remember them and discuss them. Writing notes on the books I’ve read and keeping track of what I’m reading.

Practicing the long-lost art of copywork (a study that has you copy, long-hand, the work of others to commit it to your mind and body.) Putting parental controls on my computer and internet time in order to pursue better work and limit the amount of time I spend on addictive applications. Writing longhand again, in a composite notebook, first thing (or as close to first thing) in the morning.

I haven’t done each of these things all the time, but I have done them each for several weeks to several months to learn how it affects me and how I’ve changed as a result.

Why am I doing this?

Here are some of the articles I’ve been reading that help to explain why I’m doing this, and what our decade is suffering for with the (very cool, amazing) technologies that surround us.

For you, pay attention, perhaps. How much do you read of this article? How often do you get distracted? What are the reward systems set up in your own online consumption, and do they help you get what you want?

Here’s my list of articles, with short excerpts:

Why we need to keep quitting the internet.

“Whenever you check for a new post on Instagram or whenever you go on The New York Times to see if there’s a new thing, it’s not even about the content. It’s just about seeing a new thing. You get addicted to that feeling. You’re not going to be able to control yourself. So the only way to fight that is to take yourself out of the equation and remove all these things. What happens is, eventually you forget about it. You don’t care anymore. ”

— Aziz Ansari on quitting the internet (GQ)

“As a general rule, your brain tweaks you to want more, more, more – indeed, more than those around you – both of “stuff” and of stimulation and novelty – because that helped you survive in the distant past of brain evolution. But at its extreme, this leads to addiction – to substances, gambling, internet games, even shopping.”

Our brains love new stuff, and it’s killing the planet (HBR)

“If you live in America in the 21st century you’ve probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are. It’s become the default response when you ask anyone how they’re doing: “Busy!” “So busy.” “Crazy busy.” It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint. And the stock response is a kind of congratulation: “That’s a good problem to have,” or “Better than the opposite.” It’s not as if any of us wants to live like this; it’s something we collectively force one another to do.”

“Notice it isn’t generally people pulling back-to-back shifts in the I.C.U. or commuting by bus to three minimum-wage jobs  who tell you how busy they are; what those people are is not busy but tired. Exhausted. Dead on their feet. It’s almost always people whose lamented busyness is purely self-imposed: work and obligations they’ve taken on voluntarily, classes and activities they’ve “encouraged” their kids to participate in. They’re busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.”

— The busy trap (NYTimes)

The reason you can’t stand the news anymore (or social, for that matter):

“Most outlets chasing reach leverage social media (mostly Facebook) to get content read by as many people as possible. This changes the reward from “quality” and “originality” to getting content to spread virally. This decreases trust. In fact, it’s better to have more content than less, so lots of disposable stuff is written quickly, with little regard to what it adds to discourse. This decreases trust. Virality requires a visceral emotional reaction by the reader, regardless of nuance or truth. This decreases trust. Bonus points if you can shame an “other side” that your audience is galvanized around, and alienate those not included in your chosen tribe (hold that thought). This decreases trust. Then, enterprising people create content with the sole focus of taking advantage of this machine which floods the zone (like our friends with the Dwayne Johnson story) and, yes, decreases trust.”

The reason you can’t stand the news anymore (Sean Blanda)

“What best distinguishes our species is an ability that scientists are just beginning to appreciate: We contemplate the future. Our singular foresight created civilization and sustains society. It usually lifts our spirits, but it’s also the source of most depression and anxiety, whether we’re evaluating our own lives or worrying about the nation. Other animals have springtime rituals for educating the young, but only we subject them to “commencement” speeches grandly informing them that today is the first day of the rest of their lives.”

We aren’t built to live in the moment (NYT)

What we lose when we don’t read:

“Books help define who I am. […] But I am reading many fewer books these days, and even fewer of the kinds of books that require hard work.”

“When we learn something quick and new, we get a dopamine rush; functional-MRI brain scans show the brain’s pleasure centers lighting up. In a famous experiment, rats keep pressing a lever to get that dopamine rush, choosing it over food or sex. In humans, emails also satisfy that pleasure center, as do Twitter and Instagram and Snapchat.”

The death of reading is threatening the soul (Washington Post)

How meditation makes you a better human:

When asked how meditation helped him, Yuval Harari, author of Sapiens, responded:

“Two things, mainly. First of all, it’s the ability to focus. When you train the mind to focus on something like the breath, it also gives you the discipline to focus on much bigger things and to really tell the difference between what’s important and everything else. This is a discipline that I have brought to my scientific career as well. It’s so difficult, especially when you deal with long-term history, to get bogged down in the small details or to be distracted by a million different tiny stories and concerns. It’s so difficult to keep reminding yourself what is really the most important thing that has happened in history or what is the most important thing that is happening now in the world. The discipline to have this focus I really got from the meditation.”

“The other major contribution, I think, is that the entire exercise of Vipassana meditation is to learn the difference between fiction and reality, what is real and what is just stories that we invent and construct in our own minds. Almost 99 percent you realize is just stories in our minds. This is also true of history. Most people, they just get overwhelmed by the religious stories, by the nationalist stories, by the economic stories of the day, and they take these stories to be the reality.”

Yuval Harari, author of Sapiens, on how meditation made him a better historian (Vox)

 

Why we can’t keep giving up sleep, rest, and recharge time.

“We often take a militaristic, “tough” approach to resilience and grit. We imagine a Marine slogging through the mud, a boxer going one more round, or a football player picking himself up off the turf for one more play. We believe that the longer we tough it out, the tougher we are, and therefore the more successful we will be. However, this entire conception is scientifically inaccurate. The very lack of a recovery period is dramatically holding back our collective ability to be resilient and successful. Research has found that there is a direct correlation between lack of recovery and increased incidence of health and safety problems. And lack of recovery — whether by disrupting sleep with thoughts of work or having continuous cognitive arousal by watching our phones — is costing our companies $62 billion a year (that’s billion, not million) in lost productivity.”

— Resilience is about how you recharge, not how you endure (HBR)

“Sleep is NOT doing nothing. Sleep is mental work. Sleep is creative work. Your brain is churning over memories, it’s clearing out the mental cobwebs — it’s generating ideas. Sleep is itself work. So if a person’s trying to solve a problem, and they take a nap to sleep on it, that’s not NOT working on the problem, that IS working on the problem.”

Sleep is work (David Kadavy)

“[The CEO of Evernote] cleared the fog by offering to pay each employee $1,000 to get away, disconnect from work and “come back with a stretched-out mind,” he says. Employees have to go away for at least one week to get the cash.”

“In 2012, FullContact upped the ante and began offering each of its employees $7,500 a year to help finance a nonworking vacation. Use of vacation time rose sharply. Employees usually take a week to nine days. Some have taken two weeks and a few have taken three, Mr. Lorang says. The median is about 10 days.”

“People who had trouble delegating quickly learn to do so when they start taking vacations, Mr. Lorang says. Once, a system run by one employee broke down while he was vacationing in Europe, causing problems for his co-workers. “It’s a tough lesson the first time,” Mr. Lorang says. After that, though, “it changes their work habits.””

How some companies are dealing with people who refuse to take vacations (WSJ)

“Every now and then during the workweek—usually around three in the afternoon—a familiar ache begins to saturate my forehead and pool in my temples. The glare of my computer screen appears to suddenly intensify. My eyes trace the contour of the same sentence two or three times, yet I fail to extract its meaning. Even if I began the day undaunted, getting through my ever growing list of stories to write and edit, e-mails to send and respond to, and documents to read now seems as futile as scaling a mountain that continuously thrusts new stone skyward. There is so much more to do—so much work I genuinely enjoy—but my brain is telling me to stop. It’s full. It needs some downtime.”

Why your brain needs more downtime (Scientific American)

Mental and emotional disorders are directly related to exercise, over connection (to the internet), and under connection (to each other, in 3D):

“She told me she’d spent most of the summer hanging out alone in her room with her phone. That’s just the way her generation is, she said. ‘We didn’t have a choice to know any life without iPads or iPhones. I think we like our phones more than we like actual people.'”

Have smartphones destroyed a generation? (The Atlantic)

“History shows that many famous inventors have come up with novel ideas while letting their minds wander.” So we must wonder—what are we losing by never having mental space to breathe?

— Happiness research shows the biggest obstacle to creativity is being too busy (Quartz)

“For many people with depression, serious exercise may be the best, cheapest and safest treatment.”

Why exercise might be the best fix for depression (Scientific American)

It’s slow and it’s boring, but it works: consistency.

“If there’s one piece of advice that I could offer any aspiring creative, it’s this. Develop a habit of consistently doing something. It doesn’t matter what it is, how small or how big it is. The power of consistency is profound and underrated. It can help you overcome a lack of natural talent, and allow you to focus on the process instead of the prize.”

The profound power of consistency (Srini Rao)

For me: why this is such an important personal change.

I can’t keep skimming articles and surfing the web and hoping that hours of Facebook time will add up to meaningful, deep work. As a result, I’m paying more attention to my habits and thinking more critically about what I choose to do. A lot of my recent experiments are designed with this in mind. How can I engage in self-practice that results in better work, richer with meaning?

Thanks for joining me on this journey and asking questions alongside me.

Got a great article you think I should add to this list? Feel free to post it in the comments.


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