Push: Embracing Attention
In Push: Part 1 – Mastering Distraction I shared some ways I’m trying to reclaim attention in this hyper-connected world. The title was a bit optimistic; I haven’t mastered anything yet! But pruning notifications and ditching Facebook’s newsfeed have improved the quality of my digital life. For Part 2, I’ll introduce you to some good habits I’m trying to build—habits that support focus and nurture deeper thought.
As usual, I’ll also be candid about how I’m failing to live up to most of my high-minded philosophizing.
No Phone Before ___.
Nothing makes me feel less alive than rolling over to my bedside table and scrolling through notifications and social feeds in a sleepy haze, but I do it anyway. Without fail, I end up digging into a comment thread somewhere that makes me mad, sad, or numb and I'm not even out of bed yet! I’m not suggesting anyone avoid the news of difficult public conversations, just wait until after breakfast—even the lol-worthy memes can wait.
I got this idea during Lent while I was feebly attempting to fast from bad habits and invest in some new ones. One of those habits was “No phone before Scripture” from The Common Rule (one day I’ll write up my thoughts on this).
It’s simple. Don’t check your phone until you’ve done something else first; something worthwhile. In my case, this was reading the Bible. Some people do [Morning Pages], some exercise—I often go for a run and listen to audio of the Book of Common Prayer—or you could just do your morning routine. The key is to displace morning scrolling with something more valuable, like meditating on a psalm or making oatmeal.
None of these alternatives are “boring” and all of them build boundaries for our limited attention spans. Although denying myself smartphone stimulation first thing in the morning hasn’t utterly changed my life, I’ve found the discipline of exercising conscious control over thoughtless scrolling makes way for more thoughtful habits of attention.
Start a Bullet Journal
Bullet Journals are all the rage but wow are they intimidating. Search for #bujo on Instagram and you’ll see beautiful planners/journals that are essentially works of art. The good news is you don’t have to make a beautiful bullet journal to make use of the concept. I’ve recently upped my investment by preparing my week every Sunday and mapping out monthly overviews, but for a long time I just kept a daily log. If this means nothing to you, bulletjournal.com will get you up to speed.
I’ve tried lots of digital organizers and to-do apps but none of them help memory or recall; they allow me to offload things from my brain and then throw them back in my face with a notification, but that’s all very reactive (and a circle of notification hell). Writing on paper (and re-writing, as bullet journaling often requires) actually helps engrain information into your brain.
I also use my bullet journal to track habits I’m trying to build and as a catch-all for notes, brainstorming, and first drafts of writing projects. It’s true, keeping a bullet journal requires more time than digital alternatives, but preparing a layout is strangely meditative and I think it’s a great way to avoid spending the whole day in front of a screen.
Ok, that heading is too FastCompany for my taste but dammit I’m almost 30 and introverted so I’ll do whatever it takes. My aim is to meet a friend for coffee/food/beer and conversation once a week with emphasis on the conversation. Group hangouts and unstructured meet ups are great, but I’ve found that they rarely result in the kind of earnest talk many of us don’t get enough of.
I want to know how people are doing. I want to discuss crazy ideas and weigh important decisions. I want to share burdens in a way that reminds us neither of us is alone, and all these things happen more easily face-to-face and one-on-one.
It’s pretty simple: Keep phones in coats/bags/etc. and on silent for a solid hour and don’t shy away from feelings, fears, and failures. Carving out time for these conversations forms the kind of deep connections that actually make social media useful.
More specifically, read a book. A magazine will do but make sure it’s got more text than pictures. I’m not trying to be a jerk; reading is hard and it’s getting harder. I can rarely sit down and read a whole chapter of a book nowadays, even with fiction. It’s likely the internet has started to transform our reading habits, even those of us who had web-free childhoods.
An op-ed in the Washington Post I read last year contained an interest tidbit:
“[…] it actually takes less energy to focus intently than to zip from task to task. After an hour of contemplation, or deep reading, a person ends up less tired and less neurochemically depleted, thus more able to tackle mental challenges.”
This probably explains why spending hours spelunking the web never feels as good as crushing a few chapters of a book; it is so much easier to do the former, though.
I was reminded recently of how enjoyable it is to dig into a subject and follow one author’s argument or story through a whole book. I got Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death from the library and read the whole thing over two weeks. It was a timely, well-structured and interesting read. It was also a welcome change from jumping between links online, with all the attendant distractions.
Reading offline means you must stick to the path before you. If a question comes up, you have to write it down and follow-up later. The limited options of book-reading forces focus and it trains us to follow other people’s reasoning. There’s a lot of great writing on the internet, but we’re primed to scan it and to be drawn away from it by the medium itself; this isn’t the case with books.
Get thee to the library! And then have a conversation with a friend or journal about your reading. While you’re at it, you may as well leave your phone in a drawer somewhere—the world will still be here when you’re finished with your chapter.
What do you think?
Do you feel like you have less attention, or more anxiety, or both? Are you happy with the new normal or hyper-connectivity or do you take intentional steps to disconnect? Let me know in in the comments.
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Don't Give Up Chocolate, Give into Communal Habits - The rationale behind building outward-facing habits of attention.
How this 30-year-old book predicted today’s politics - A helpful interview about the legacy and relevance of Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death. It's a good reminder of why unplugging, reading, and focusing on the person in front of you is worthwhile.