way of life

How to Sharpen Your Focus

March 30, 2015

The fullness of your life depends not only on what you do but on how attentively you do it. In order to create richly, to work effectively, to savor experiences fully, you need to be present.  The proliferation of electronic gadgets encourages people to ‘multitask’ constantly. These devices and habits allow you to connect more and more broadly, and to pull in larger and larger amounts of information. You gain breadth, and this is valuable. But if you don’t make a conscious effort to focus you may lose depth, and that is a real loss. 

Relationships require depth in order to flourish. It’s easy to get directions or double-check a grocery list over the phone while doing something else. It’s harder to have a conversation about anything complex or emotionally challenging without giving it your full attention.  Significant pauses, important statements dropped into the midst of a flow of trivia, shades of meaning, can easily be missed when your attention is divided.

Work also suffers from constant interruption. A 2013 study by Carnegie Mellon University’s Human-Computer Interaction lab showed a 20% decrease in reading comprehension when subjects were interrupted. Other studies have shown that human brains do not switch between tasks nearly as quickly as electronic devices do; when you try to keep up with the pace they set you’re likely to end up stressed, confused and ineffective.

Step Back from Screen Time

Create some intentional spaces in which you don’t respond to new alerts from your digital devices.  Carve out screen-free time to be with family or friends.   Author William Powers describes his family’s practice of “Internet Sabbaths”.  During the weekends they don’t check email or surf the Web. This opens time up for them to share meals and conversations with each other, talk on the phone with friends and relatives with undivided attention, and work in-depth on personal projects. Some people observe Screen-Free Week, seven days each year in which they stop spending their free time looking at screens–any screens–and take more time to connect with themselves, their neighbors and the natural world. Once Screen-Free Week ends they resume screen use, but they often have a clearer sense of the screen-free activities they value and the need to make time for them. The point of these exercises is not to devalue the right uses of technology but to clear a space in which you can experience depth and think more clearly about how you balance depth and breadth in the rest of your time. As Powers writes, “The point isn’t that the screen is bad…The point is lack of proportion, the abandonment of all else, and the strange absent-present state of mind this compulsion produces.”

Setting aside uninterrupted time can help with individual projects as well.  Some office managers and employers have begun to carve out focus time for their employees when they aren’t expected to check email or attend meetings, when they can give their undivided attention to their own work.  If you’re trying to write a book or troubleshoot an invention in your spare time, try setting aside some time in which you don’t let yourself be distracted or interrupted–even to research a new idea on the Internet or text a friend and ask for feedback.  Notice any discomfort this restraint causes you. Notice, also, what happens to the work you’re doing.

Opt Out of Being Busy

“I’m so busy” has become a standard greeting, simultaneously an excuse for failings and a boast of importance. But constant busyness doesn’t help us to work with passion and vision and doesn’t allow us to rest and be glad.  Practice not being busy.  When you have a few minutes between tasks, don’t rush to fill them. Let yourself be where you are, at rest. You’ll probably feel less harried, and when you do return to work you’ll have better energy and clearer focus.

Further Resources

William Powers’ book Hamlet’s BlackBerry explores technological changes, the tradeoff between breadth and depth and the possibility of keeping both in balance.

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