All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.Blaise Pascal, likely before compulsively checking Twitter
For knowledge workers — designers, programmers, writers, analysts, and desk jockeys of all kinds — our minds are our greatest asset. We get paid for our ability to turn our brains towards a problem, ruminate on an answer, and produce a solution. It’s how we create value.
Our attention is our most valuable resource, yet it’s the one we treat most casually.
I can’t speak for anyone else, but tell me if this sounds familiar:
I think long and hard before spending money. I hate to waste food or drink. I cringe at the thought of leaving a light on unused. And yet I’ll sink an hour into browsing TechCrunch or Hacker News and barely realize it.
Media Diets & Mental Junk Food
When it comes to our bodies, we understand intuitively that diet is important. “You are what you eat,” after all. Fruits and veggies in, your body gets stronger. Twizzlers and Twinkies, not so much.
We’re less attuned to the way our media diet affects our minds. We may know on some level that an hour of browsing Reddit isn’t the same as an hour spent reading a good book, but that doesn’t stop us from making the easier choice. The short bursts of Twitter are more enticing than the slow burn of literature; the driving beat and nursery-rhyme melodies of Katy Perry are more fun than the impenetrable riches of anything classical. Pull-to-refresh provides a stronger dopamine hit than ponder-and-fathom.
It’s irrational, isn’t it? If our livelihood is based on our ability to focus our attention, then we should flee from anything that weakens our attention span and flock towards anything that strengthens it. As the “knowledge economy” grows, we should see a whole army of voracious readers and dedicated meditators. Instead, we have a world of quick cuts and hot takes. It takes an addiction to make us act so irrationally against our own self-interest.
Junk food short-circuits our genetic predisposition towards sugar and fat to make us crave it more than any fruits or vegetables. Similarly, the mental foods that are bad for us short-circuit our cravings for information. We may know that John McPhee is better for us than The Bachelor, but that doesn’t mean we won’t pick The Bachelor every time.
(Maybe it isn’t The Bachelor for you; maybe it’s something else. Or maybe you have better self-control than I do and this isn’t a problem for you at all. Anyway, isn’t Demi the worst this season?)
Saving Our Attention
The mind is a clearinghouse for information. Information goes in, is processed by a set of particular filters and biases and mental models, and comes out as knowledge.
That’s what we should be preserving at all costs — our minds’ ability to focus well.
It seems like everyone in tech circles is talking about this. Daily meditation, tech sabbaths, internet detox retreats, focus-boosting apps… they’re everywhere. They feel a little like putting a Band-Aid on a broken bone. But, in the absence of a better solution (or the willpower to ditch Twitter and Reddit), they’ll have to do.
I’m admittedly terrible at following my own advice, but here are some resources I’ve found that have helped boost my attention, or at least mitigate my distractedness:
- 📙 Make Time: How to Focus on What Matters Every Day. A book by the guys who wrote Sprint about techniques they’ve found to focus better and remember more of their days.
- 📘 The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. It’s a few years old, but this book by Nicholas Carr explores how our brains rewire around the media we spend time with. The more time we spend with quick, shallow information (like Twitter and Reddit), the less capable we are of consuming deep information (like books). Scary.
- 📙 Amusing Ourselves to Death. This classic by Neil Postman was written before the era of the internet, but its discussion of the effects of television on our brains feels as timely as ever.
- ⏰ Focus. A macOS app that disables distracting websites and apps for as long as you specify, with no take-backs.
- 🔗 Liberate for iOS. Same idea as Focus, but for iOS. It blocks websites only (no apps), and unfortunately can be disabled, but still helpful.
I like the idea of meditation, in the sense of sitting quietly and thinking deeply for a stretch of time. If we hold that deliberate practice is the single most effective way to get great at anything, than it makes sense that the best way to increase your focus and attention is to practice being focused and attentive.
I don’t like the pseudo-spirituality of apps like Headspace and Calm (yes, even the apps that claim not to have a spiritual bent seem to have a spiritual bent, whether they themselves realize it or not). I like the idea of having a meditation timer with soothing sounds and a bell to tell me when my time is up, but I’d rather have an app dedicated to that purpose than use a timer buried in a more fully-featured meditation app.
Since I haven’t been able to find anything like that yet, I’m building my own. It’s called Interlude, it’s an unguided meditation timer, and it’s my first solo iOS app. I’ve had a chance to do some work in Swift while working on Dwell, and this seems like a good way to flex my engineering muscles and create something of my own.
Interested in updates? You can sign up for the mailing list here.